Notes on capacity building, communication, and community networks in Latin America
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Notes on capacity building, communication, and community networks in Latin America

Carlos F. Baca-Feldman

Data on connectivity to telecommunications services in the world show very significant growth in the last five years. According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) report Measuring digital development. Facts and Figures (2023),1 the number of internet users increased to 5.3 billion, or 66% of the population. This amount shows an increase over the 2020-2021 figures of 5.1%, and as noted in the report the percentage of the population with connection possibilities continues to grow. But the same report shows the wide disparities that exist between urban and rural areas, more and less developed countries, and women or men, to name a few examples.

Likewise, for Latin America, the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSMA, 2023)2 report shows that in the region only 7% of the population live in areas without 3G and 4G network coverage, but only 62% are connected, as the rest do not have access due to user gaps, although there is coverage in their territory.

With these data we can see that the problem of access to telecommunications services is not solved by expanding coverage alone, but rather by paying attention to the other existing barriers that prevent people from having full access to these services. These barriers become more complex when we add economic, political and social factors that generate inequality between countries in the region. This is also reflected within countries, for example, when we look at the gap between access in rural and urban areas.

Therefore, when we talk about connecting the unconnected, we have to think, in addition to the lack of coverage in their territories, about other barriers that are key in the increase or decrease of the digital divide: affordability of services, relevance of content and applications, capacities of use and appropriation, and gender inequalities.3

For different social groups, including indigenous and rural communities, all these barriers are more difficult to break down due to the historical conditions of backwardness they have experienced, generated to a large extent by the systematic and historical violence that has been exercised against them, which is expressed, among other things, in the lack of basic services and social security.

The digital divide faced by this type of social groups and communities has been addressed by governments as a market failure. On the one hand, governments have generated a series of public policies that seek to increase coverage or generate social connectivity programs for the most vulnerable population or those living in rural areas, such as telecenters. However, most of these public policy strategies fail because they are not anchored in the way communities live, work and communicate.

On the other hand, these projects are usually developed through agreements with large operating companies who, after installing the networks, do not provide maintenance and stop working after a few months. This happens mainly because they will not obtain economic benefits as they would in urban contexts and the maintenance and operation costs are higher in remote areas.

Due to these problems and despite the large number of failed public policies, many indigenous and rural communities around the world have decided to address the conditions of access to telecommunications services through projects developed by themselves and with characteristics and objectives that respond to their way of life and the territories where they live. These types of initiatives have been called: community networks.

Taking control and responsibility

In this sense, the technological solutions that, from this perspective, have been implemented by some indigenous and rural communities are in line with their way of life and understanding of the commons and the territory. In this way, they do not become projects designed externally and without knowledge of the way of life of the communities, but the decisions involving the processes are taken by the people who will be users of the service or those who take control of the creation, operation, administration, etc. of each of the communication networks that are generated.

The technologies used and types of networks generated by these processes are very diverse. To give some examples, in Latin America we find Internet access networks such as those promoted by Altermundi4 in Argentina or Colnodo5 in Colombia. But we also find experiences such as the use of HF radio for connectivity in the Amazon region of Ecuador and the Sierra Tarahumara in Mexico, as part of the Hermes project6 promoted by Rhizomatica. Other communities have decided to create their own closed communication networks to meet their needs for access to certain content, such as IntraBach7 in Mexico. And so, we could continue with many types of technological projects where communities decide, appropriate, and transform certain types of technologies to meet their communication and/or information access needs.

These experiences have in common a constant analysis of the technologies, a resignification of their uses, risks and possibilities, which allow their choice and functional structure not to be based on external decisions and with little relevance. By knowing how these tools work, the communities themselves establish mechanisms for risk reduction and enhancing of the possibilities that are woven from them.

Although these processes often appear to us as “new”, it is important to remember that the paths towards connectivity and the use of technologies for the communication of indigenous and rural communities are historical processes that did not emerge with the arrival of the Internet, TV or radio. In other words, community communication in Latin America has a long history that goes beyond its mediation by technologies. Assemblies, festivals, tequio or faena, religiosity, etc. are some of the ways in which these forms of communication take place.

The paths taken by communities to appropriate, re-signify and transform communication technologies are already a long way ahead. And, moreover, they respond not only to the ways of communication mediated by technology, but also to the organizational and resource management forms that have allowed the subsistence of their culture for hundreds of years. In this sense, it is important to think more broadly about the ways in which technologies are woven as part of the ways of communicating specific to each community and linked to its territory and ways of life.

To understand the challenges and possibilities of the so-called community networks or local connectivity solutions, these historical premises on community organization for life and territorial management are key. Hence, among the strategies needed to encourage the creation of this type of community connectivity projects, fundamental is the training and capacity building that allows people in the communities to have the knowledge and skills necessary for the installation, maintenance, and operation of their networks.

However, it is not just any type of training. For these capacity building initiatives in community contexts to be successful, they must not only transfer the necessary technical knowledge, but also consider the ways of life, of sharing knowledge and experiences, of working, etc. of the communities where they will be developed. A process like that shown with the choice of relevant technologies in the successful cases mentioned above.

These initiatives are diverse, because the type of communities in which they are inserted have different ways of life, organization, work, culture, economy, etc. However, although they are generated and implemented in very different territories, these programs tend to share some elements such as learning by doing through the solution of problems in real contexts, or the creation of communities for the exchange of learning and knowledge. In addition, they are training programs that not only transmit technical knowledge, but also address the economic, organizational, cultural, and social issues that make the sustainability of community networks possible over time.

 

A blend of tech and community work

One of these examples has been the Techio Comunitario training program8 and its derived actions in the region. The name of this initiative is a suitable description of its purpose: Techio is the mixture between the abbreviation “Tech” and “Tequio” which is the form of community work developed by the indigenous peoples of the Oaxacan highlands in Mexico. This initiative was created using the stages of the Participatory Action Research (PAR) methodology,9 involving Mexican organizations linked to indigenous communication processes. Thus, after an analysis and reflection, trainers in these topics and indigenous communicators identified the need to provide people working in community and indigenous media with the necessary knowledge for the operation, use, management, and maintenance of technological tools in the areas of radio broadcasting, and community-owned cellular and wireless internet networks.

Between 2016 and 2019, two face-to-face editions were developed in Mexico, consisting of eight modules that addressed technical, sustainability, organizational and legal issues for local media and community networks. Subsequently, within the framework of this program, in 2019 a collaboration was generated with the ITU for the development of the Training Program for Coordinators of ICT Networks in Indigenous and Rural Communities in Latin America. In its four editions, this hybrid program has trained more than 100 indigenous and rural communicators from 15 countries in the region.10 Finally, the PAR methodology implemented in these processes was the key to the development of the National Schools of Community Networks in Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Indonesia, and Brazil.11

A characteristic of these training processes, particularly those in Latin America, is that they take as their pedagogical and methodological references the educational practices that are part of the community vision of teaching, knowledge construction and the socialization of knowledge. They are also nourished by elements of popular education and take up approaches from free knowledge societies.12

Likewise, the link between the people who live in the territories and those who develop technologies to strengthen the communities’ ways of life and autonomy becomes key. This type of relationship allows communities to regain control over their digital inclusion processes and strengthen their organization and cultural values. Therefore, the exchange of experiences, knowledge and know-how among people with different knowledge and specializations is a fundamental part of this process.

The mechanisms and strategies that allow these exchanges to take place, not only within the communities, but also with other community experiences or with specialists in the development of technologies, are a fundamental part of the creation and sustainability of community and indigenous telecommunications projects.

Spaces that strengthen communication and community life

In this sense, returning to the initial data on the digital divide and the lack of significant access to telecommunications services, we need to think not of connectivity but of the ways in which communities communicate and organize as the starting point. What is required is to reflect on the historical processes that have sustained communities for so long, the close links they establish with their territories, and their particular ways of communicating. In this way, community networks do not become merely instrumental processes, but spaces that strengthen communication and community life.

All this without losing sight of what the Zapotec anthropologist Jaime Martínez Luna13 points out, that ICTs, like other types of processes external to the communities, are inserted in them through a process of imposition, resistance, and adaptation between what is their own and what is external. Therefore, the risks that technologies can bring to community life should never be overlooked; at the same time, we need to be aware that they can strengthen identity, access to information or health, to give a few examples.

To conclude this brief reflection, community networks and the capacity building processes that develop around them give us elements to understand that it is possible to rethink our relationship with technologies. This is becoming more urgent in a world that points more and more to hyperconnectivity and where those who do not have significant access to telecommunication services live at an increasing disadvantage with respect to those who are connected. Therefore, to understand the potential and transformational capacity of community networks, it is always necessary to start from their diversity and their relevance to the ways of life and communication needs of the communities in which they develop.

The path that communities have developed to consolidate the panorama of community and indigenous communication to strengthen their technological autonomy is an ongoing process. In this long-term process, with very strong links to community communication, the main thing is not the technology used but the processes in which connectivity projects are generated, contents are produced, or relevant information is accessed. On this path, training and capacity building are crucial elements for the development of projects that continue to show us that it is possible to generate “another type of connectivity” for the construction of “other possible worlds”.

Photo p. 29: Installation of solar panel for wireless network antenna during Bootcamp 2023 in Fusagasugá, Colombia. (Photo courtesy of author.)

Notes

1. ITU (2023) Measuring digital development. Facts and Figures: Focus on Least Developed Countries. Available at: https://www.itu.int/hub/publication/d-ind-ict_mdd-2023/

2. GSMA (2023) Brechas de conectividad en América Latina. Available at: https://www.gsma.com/latinamerica/es/resources/brechas-de-conectividad-en-america-latina/

3. It is possible to see more info about these barriers in the report: Baca-Feldman, C.F.; Belli, L.; et al. (2018) Community Networks in Latin America: Challenges, Regulations and Solutions. Rio de Janeiro: ISOC, APC, FGV Direito Rio and REDES AC. https://bit.ly/2raM625

4. https://altermundi.net/documentation/libre-community-and-decentralized-networks/

5. https://www.apc.org/en/blog/seeding-change-colnodo-supports-operation-community-networks-colombia-while-learning-together

6. https://www.rhizomatica.org/hermes/

7. http://intrabach.org/

8. https://techiocomunitario.org/en/

9. The methodology used in these experiences is systematized in the guide: Technological autonomy as a constellation of experiences. Guide for the collective implementation of training programs for community technical promoters Baca-Feldman, Bello, Carrillo, Parra & Soto, 2021). Available at: https://goo.su/FchavY

10. More info about the program is available at this short video https://youtu.be/qevgxfq56Gg?si=Xf2Yo33xC-_E1ryv

11. A more detailed description of these National Schools can be found at: https://cnlearning.apc.org/national-school-of-community-networks/.

12. It is possible to go more in deep about this argument in the article: Baca-Feldman, C.F. & Huerta, E. (2021) Capacity development for Indigenous communities of the Americas region. Digital Skills Insights 2021. Ginebra, Suiza: Unión Internacional de Telecomunicaciones. Available at: https://cnlearning.apc.org/resources/capacity-development-for-indigenous-communities-for-the-americas-region/

13. Martínez Luna, J. (2013). Textos sobre el camino andado (Vol. I). Oaxaca: CSEIIO.

Carlos Baca holds a PhD and Master’s degree in Sociology from the Institute of Social Sciences and Humanities “Alfonso Vélez Pliego” of the BUAP and a Bachelor’s degree in Communication Sciences from the UDLAP. For more than 10 years he has been coordinating actions related to research, training and capacity building in the NGOs REDES AC and Rhizomatica, particularly through the Techio Comunitario training programme. As part of these functions, since 2019, he manages the “Training Programme on ICT Networks Management in Indigenous and Rural Communities in Latin America” as an ITU expert consultant; and, since 2020, he coordinates the National Schools of Community Networks in Asia, Latin America and Africa, as part of the LocNet initiative. He has been an advisor for capacity building projects on technological and communication issues in community contexts and consultant for the development of connectivity strategies and access to telecommunications in rural and indigenous areas. In his link with academia and research, between 2019 and 2022 he was founder and general coordinator of CITSAC.

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