New Technologies as a Tool of Empowerment and Reparation for Indigenous Peoples

Indigenous man
Indigenous man
Photo: Rodrigo F./Pixabay

Indigenous peoples carry millennia of tradition and wisdom, and even in the face of so many threats and persecutions over the past centuries, descendants of natives remain united with their tribes and connected with their sacred lands around the world. But that does not mean that they should be closed to tools and innovations that humanity has built throughout history. This essay will present some cases around the world in which Indigenous peoples have adopted new technologies to raise their voices and denounce their threats — but also to promote their culture and communicate with their peers.

From Brazil to Peru, Panama, and Australia, there are also examples of inclusion of Indigenous peoples in the development of these technologies, in a process in which their ancestral wisdom is relevant and combined with technical knowledge for the holistic creation of tools for the present and the future — like artificial intelligence.

The internet: a global village

It is estimated that the native peoples of the Americas — the Amerindians — appeared on the continent between 13.000 and 17.000 years ago, coming from Asia (Pielou, 2008). Their first contact with European civilization took place in the late 15th century. In the case of Brazil, the ‘discovery’ of the Indigenous by the Portugueses was precisely in the year 1500. More than half a millennium later, with a population reduced to less than 900.000 inhabitants (IBGE, 2010) — in a country with 208 million — , Indigenous still struggle with exploitations similar to those that devastated their peoples over so many centuries. In recent years, in fact, this has worsened and the persecution is increasingly relentless, while the Indigenous are less and less supported by the public authorities (Demetrio et al, 2019).

Even though they were subjected to so much domination and influence of Western culture, Indigenous tribes still maintain their customs, traditions, and their deep relationship with their sacred lands. As 12,2% of the Brazilian territory is currently demarcated as Indigenous lands (Funai, 2019), it is obvious that these spaces remain a great source of greed for farmers, loggers and others interested in the exploitation of natural resources. In addition to the undeniable need for historical reparation of their losses, the Indigenous need an active voice to deal with current complaints about violence against their peoples (which includes a series of recent killings) and recurrent attempts to invade and dominate their lands.

Over the past few centuries, humanity has gone through several processes of changes, evolutions, and revolutions — industrial, cultural, technological. It is clear that the Indigenous people followed and were influenced, at a certain level, by all these changes. Still, we can see that many of their values and traditions have remained intact.

A very current debate ponders whether or not Indigenous people should have access to new technologies. Of course, this discussion and evaluation are entirely appropriate within the tribes themselves, but what we usually see are white men judging issues that do not belong to them — and this is symptomatic in the trajectory of native peoples: throughout history, the Indigenous has rarely had an active voice. In general, they were treated as passive objects of rights, on which the third parties advocating often do not understand their issues deeply.

But despite the question (inherent to the Indigenous themselves) about the risks of their peoples’ adherence to new technologies, the fact is that this phenomenon already occurs.

Founded in 2011, the NGO Thydêwá, in the Northeast region of Brazil, seeks to “re-invigorate and re-empower Indigenous communities, encouraging them to assert their rights by means of digital technologies” (Ryan, 2018). Their first project, named ‘’ (“Indigenous people through their own eyes”), is a book series made up of digital photos Indigenous people had taken of each other, and writings about their communities.

Another project, the website ‘’, released in 2006 and working till today gives the chance to the Indigenous to create their own content, with their unique point of view and spread it through the internet. It is an intercultural dialogue network, formed by the peoples from the tribes of Kiriri, Tupinambá, Pataxó-Humhãhãe, Tumbalalá, Xucuru-Kariri, Kariri-Xocó, and Pankararu (Bueno, 2013), all of them in the Northeast region of Brazil. The last article highlighted in the website home page (accessed on 30 Mar. 2020) is a text signed by the Indigenous Casé Angatu, in which he makes a complaint under the title ‘Attacks on Indigenous peoples and nature are increasing and our resistance also — we need to join our forces! We are (re)existing as the sacred nature!’. In his long piece of content, Angatu opens the text denouncing the murder of eight Indigenous people in Brazil in 2019, “the highest number in 11 years”. He cries out to all the Indigenous for the union of “our forces against the attacks that we suffer for being sons of the Sacred Nature”. In the sequence, in between the paragraphs, he adds verses of a traditional Indigenous ritual song before listing the names of the victims.

The text continues with a collection of news from other Brazilian media outlets about attacks on Indigenous people and, then, Angatu introduces a last Indigenous poem and finalizes with Tupinambá’s words of strength: “Aiêntên! Awêre!”

Photo: Deb Dowd/Unsplash

It is a very unique narrative, which only an Indigenous person would be able to create.

For the director of the NGO Thydêwá, Sebastián Gerlic, “the internet is a weapon with which they can fight for their rights, gather information and have their say. Nowadays, Indigenous people take photos and use them to defend themselves or prove the illegal actions of others. They take photographs of the theft of mineral deposits form within their territories; of pollution and the abuse of power of the police and military when they attack them” (Ryan, 2018).

Gerlic highlights the fact that these Indigenous also use technology to make art, to record the beauty of the natural world, tell stories, give their opinions, and interact with people all over the world, “in the hope that together we will be able to transform society to benefit all equally” (Ryan, 2018).

In the 2016 presidential elections in Brazil, Sônia Guajajara, an Indigenous women part of the Guajajara/Tentehar ethnicity (, 2018), ran as a candidate for vice president for the left-wing party PSOL (), along with Guilherme Boulos, leader of the homeless movement (MST), as a candidate for president. Longtime political activist, Guajajara is an extremely engaged figure on social media. On Instagram, she has more than 230.000 followers and publishes daily videos, photos, and promotes live streams related to Indigenous causes. In January 2020 she was invited to the Oscar ceremony and went to Los Angeles with her traditional Indigenous costumes. At the entrance to the theater, she protested for the environment together with the actress Jane Fonda, and during the ceremony took pictures with stars like Brad Pitt and Leonardo diCaprio (, 2020). Everything was published on her social media network and, at the end of the day, she herself generated worldwide awareness of the Indigenous and environmental causes using the technology combined with her personal relevance and the reach power of algorithms.

Descendants of native peoples, such as Angatu and Guajajara, without letting the arrow and the harpoon aside (metaphorically speaking), adopted new technologies as weapons in their daily struggle to defend their values, traditions, and their people. This is an undeniable positive aspect of it.

Of course, the arrival of cell phones and social networks in tribes also puts Indigenous people in conflict with their values, in a certain level, since using new technologies, such as smartphones, also means accepting materialism and business forms that involve environmental damage and extraction of mineral resources — which, paradoxically, victimizes Indigenous peoples and their lands. In anyways, it is up to them (and only them) to assess how much that risk is worth taking.

Anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro wrote in 1995 about Indigenous people within Brazilian territory:

At that time (1995), there was no accessible internet still and the Indigenous could not use these platforms to make themselves heard. The emergence of these new technologies and the democratization of its access is an opportunity for them in this regard.

In fact, as noted by Borrero (2013), Indigenous peoples themselves recognized the importance of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in their 2003 Geneva Declaration of the Global Forum of Indigenous Peoples and the Information Society, stating that:

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted by the UN General Assembly in September 2007, corroborates it in Article 16, stating that “Indigenous peoples have the right to establish their own media in their own languages and to have access to all forms of non‐Indigenous media without discrimination.” Which should be read in the light of Article 3 of the same declaration, which covers the right to self-determination: “By virtue of that right, they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”

Photo: Stéfano Girardelli/Unsplash

Artificial intelligence meets Indigenous intelligence

Although a portion of the native peoples has migrated to urban centers, many of them still remain in the backlands of countries, directly connected with their sacred lands — which in many cases overlap with forests and areas of environmental preservation. Protecting the Indigenous people and their lands means also protecting the environment and the planet’s biodiversity. In view of this, several projects emerge around the world, coming from different sources — private initiatives, NGOs, governments, and other institutions — that applies technology to create a protection network for forests, using a combination of information coming from satellites, drones and smartphones — these last ones controlled directly from the hands of the native peoples, in the core of the forests.

An initiative led by Global Forest Watch, for instance, works together with 36 Indigenous communities in the Peruvian Amazon to use satellite and monitoring technologies for combating deforestation. The community of Vista Hermosa, an ethnic Kichwa community of roughly 40 families situated in the middle of the Napo River basin in Peru, is one of the pioneers on the project: the community-elected monitors patrol their forest using smartphones programmed with GLAD (Global Land Analysis & Discovery) deforestation alerts, which are based in satellites surveillance system (‌Bewick, 2019).

In recent years, forests in the region have been increasingly threatened mainly by illegal logging and coca production. In 2018 more than 4.000 deforestation alerts have been verified and over 2.000 patrols have been conducted by the locals (‌Bewick, 2019).

In Panama, a similar initiative launched in 2010 by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), in combination with the United Nations Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (UN-REDD), aims to “develop a community-based forestry monitoring in Indigenous territories and strengthen the capacity of Indigenous technical groups for satellite monitoring and forest and carbon inventories” (FAO, n.d.). In this project, Indigenous technicians of 10 territories have been trained in satellite monitoring and five working stations for data collection have been established, according to the FAO.

Similar projects of monitoring Indigenous lands and forests can also be found in Australia, Canada, and Brazil.

But the engagement of Indigenous people with new technologies does not need to be restricted to their simply adoption of theses tools or participation in projects in which they are ‘taught’ or ‘trained’ to deal with it. Indigenous peoples have an ancient and unique knowledge about the functioning of the planet, nature, and the human behavior that is carried long before the so-called Western civilization. Some research groups argue that integrating Indigenous wisdom into the process of developing artificial intelligence, for instance, is important not only in a matter to make the future more inclusive to these minorities, but also to add knowledge that Western culture would not be able to produce.

Photo: Stefan Cosma/Unsplash

Dick Bourgeois-Doyle (2019), in a reflection paper prepared for the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, approaches the concept ‘Two-Eyed Seeing’ regarding ethical implications development and application of artificial intelligence technologies. ‘Two-Eyed Seeing’ refers to “learning to see from one eye with the strengths of Indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing and from the other eye with the strengths of Western knowledge and ways of knowing” (Bourgeois-Doyle, 2019). According to him, the intertwining of technology and human concern was front and center at the Canadian Commission for UNESCO Annual General Meeting (AGM) held in Ottawa in 2018, and promoted a “reconciliation between Canada’s Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples”.

Although this sounds still very embryonic and shows few results in practice, it is interesting to note that similar discussions take place in parallel in other parts of the world. In Australia, the national agency Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) deployed a project in November of 2019 to develop an “AI-driven software with traditional knowledge to solve complex environmental management problems and care for significant species and habitats in the Kakadu National Park” (CSIRO, 2019). According to the organization website, the project uses a combination of Indigenous knowledge, AI, data visualization, and scientific research to label and interpret drone footage, gathered from across this World Heritage-listed national park, “providing Indigenous rangers with immediate management insights” (CSIRO, 2019). The project is backed by Microsoft: the system created by the company is fed with drone footages (controlled by the Indigenous) and the Indigenous themselves access the dashboard to classified these materials according to their knowledge.

Of course, none of these initiatives constitute, in their entirety, a whole process of historical reparation for Indigenous people. As Lenzerini (2007) observes, an “adequate” reparation process must pass “through the use of all appropriate measures to this end, including, inter alia, recognition of the tort, restitution, compensation, rehabilitation, and satisfaction”. We can affirm, however, that new technologies can offer practical and efficient tools to achieve part of these reparations through broader initiatives.

Conclusion

New technologies present many opportunities and challenges for Indigenous peoples. In the field of opportunities, it can be seen as a tool that empowers them to amplify their voices, to promote their traditions and culture, and to denounce their threats. In this sense, the internet, social networks, artificial intelligence, big data, and machine learning can even be considered as tools to assist the promotion of historical reparations: the projects presented in this essay have as a key element the participation of the Indigenous in several of their stages (sometimes in all of them). At different levels, these projects promote the conservation of their lands — as in the case of surveillance by drones and satellites — and education about their history — as in the case of the production of digital content and the use of social networks. But it is important to highlight that these are just tools that do not cover the entire reparation process, which is much broader and more complex. It is also important to keep in mind that all the innovations and advances presented in this essay are also available to those who threaten Indigenous — and this is just one of the challenges that new technologies bring to them. The adoption of new technologies challenges the Indigenous people to maintain their values ​​and traditions, but this is a judgment that only they themselves can make.

References

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Demetrio, A. et al. (2019). A (In)Justiça de Transição para os Povos Indígenas no Brasil. , 10(1), 129–169. https://doi.org/10.1590/2179-8966/2017/28186

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‌UOL. “Sonia Guajajara, Vice de Boulos, Usa Nome Indígena Com Amparo Da Lei.” , 16 Aug. 2018, noticias.uol.com.br/comprova/ultimas-noticias/2018/08/16/sonia-guajajara-vice-de-boulos-nao-mente-ao-usar-sobrenome-indigena.htm. Accessed 31 Mar. 2020.

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‌Bewick, Tom. “Smartphones and Satellite Imagery: The Indigenous Monitors of Vista Hermosa Take Action.” , 2 Jan. 2019, blog.globalforestwatch.org/people/smart-phones-and-satellite-imagery-the-Indigenous-monitors-of-vista-hermosa-take-action. Accessed 31 Mar. 2020.

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Leonam Toloto Bernardo

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Academic Researcher • Artificial Intelligence, Human Rights and Democratization

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Leonam Toloto Bernardo

Written by

Academic Researcher • Artificial Intelligence, Human Rights and Democratization

The Startup

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