Awaiting Internet Access, Remote Brazilian Tribes Debate Its Promise, Peril

Romulo Tsereruo, 37, a teacher, has been working to obtain a computer and satellite Internet access for his village. (Photos By Fred Alves For The Washington Post)
By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 6, 2007

SANGRADOURO INDIAN RESERVE, Brazil -- When the sun sinks behind the palm and mango trees, candlelight flickers throughout a tiny village of thatched huts where about 100 Xavante Indians live.

The villagers here lack electricity but not technical ambition. Just beyond the semicircle of huts sits a new one-room school building, and a place inside has already been reserved for an eagerly anticipated local milestone: the village's first computer.

In the past several months, an information technology boom has started to spread through the Indian villages that dot Brazil's countryside, from the Amazon rain forest to the Pantanal wetlands.

The federal government this year announced a new program to provide satellite Internet access to 150 remote communities, in hopes that they will be better equipped to protect themselves against illegal logging and other threats to their culture. Industry giants such as Google and Intel also have recently launched projects to provide high-tech assistance in the area.

The race to wire remote communities is resulting in a new category of discussion at tribal meetings.

"All of the Xavante villages in this reserve are in the middle of a debate right now to decide whether they think Internet access will be a good thing or a bad thing," said Romulo Tsereruo, 37, who teaches in the school building here. "In this village, we've already decided: We want it."

First, electricity is on the way, part of another federal program called Light for All. In the largest village inside this reserve, new electrical cables already lie coiled on the ground, and most of the villages scattered nearby expect to have electricity within months. Tsereruo said he has had discussions with state officials to secure a computer and with representatives of Brazil's Communications Ministry to get a satellite Internet connection shortly thereafter.

To some here, the plan sounds like an example of misplaced priorities. The village doesn't even have running water.

Alexandre Tsereptse, 74, is one of the skeptics. Tsereptse, the tribal leader of a village of about 800 people on the reserve, was a teenager when his village elders first made contact with Catholic missionaries. They eventually provided the tribe's first access to computers and other modern technology, just a short car ride away in the small towns of eastern Mato Grosso state.

Even though there are computers at a nearby mission, Tsereptse said bringing them into the village would only accelerate the erosion of Xavante tradition.

"I don't think it's a good thing, because it's a threat to our culture," said Tsereptse, who carries a bow and arrow with him at all times as a symbol of his position.

Some of the tribe's younger members have been trying to convince Tsereptse that computers will have the exact opposite effect -- that they can be tools to record and preserve Xavante folklore and traditions, and to disseminate them all over the world.

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