March 2009


Indigenous communities in Bolivia (photo courtesy of - http://rising.globalvoicesonline.org/blog/2009/03/29/voces-bolivianas-augmenting-digital-literacy-in-bolivia/)

Indigenous communities in Bolivia (photo courtesy of – http://rising.globalvoicesonline.org/blog/2009/03/29/voces-bolivianas-augmenting-digital-literacy-in-bolivia/

Voces Bolivianas (Bolivian Voices) project teaches citizens’ media skills to underrepresented communities in Bolivia.  This raises many questions about how the internet can be used to support development and decrease economic disparities within Bolivia and with the rest of the world.

Bolivian Voices is a participatory citizen’s media project that promotes the use of ICT (Internet and Communication Technologies) to allow Bolivians to share their stories about their communities and thus decide how they are represented. The projects holds workshops to promote the use of participatory media tools such as blogging, digital photography, podcasting and videos in order to create their own content.

They emphasize that the web is for everyone as ordinary Bolivians then become creators of content, rather than only consumers. In this way they are breaking away from western modernist discourse where communities are seen as receivers and communication is very much top down and one way. Everyday Bolivianos now have the opportunity to become part of the ‘global conversation’ and there is a network of national bloggers. Examples of some of these blogs can be found here.

 

This month, the project also helps bolivians living in Argentina to reconnect with their country and become part of an imagined community. Eduardo Avilo is the founder of the Voces Bolivianas project and his blog Barrio Flores discusses a number of issues that Bolivians face.

Bolivian Voices is one of several national projects participating in Rising Voices, which works to bring new voices into global conversations through resources and training. In this way publicity and a voice is given to places and people that other media often ignore. One of their main aims is to empower under-represented communities to make their voices heard online and cultivate a network of citizen media activists.

 

It also brings new languages to the web and counters the traditional American domination of the world wide web. Some have argued that the internet is merely another tool of Western cultural imperialism. However others stipulate that cultural imperialism on the Internet can be overcome to prevent cultural homogenisation in the world. The internet promotes non-English culture to a world-wide audience through cyberspace; anyone can create a website or blog and promote their culture easily and much more cheaply than other media. The Bolivianos have few other ways of promoting their culture as despite what the government says the media is heavily censored in the country. 

This project feeds into a complex theoretical debate surrounding the internet.

This project counters the ethnocentric views of western development discourse. It also encourages active participation of people at grassroots by involving local people in decision making for the future and greater self-reliance in development using local skills and knowledge. Richardson (1998) outlines five ways that the internet can support third world development. Research by Martín-Barbero (2006) on Latin American communication research argues that communication, namely through the ICTs, has been ‘transformed into a highly effective mechanism for the insertion of all cultures – whether ethnic, national or local – into the sphere of the market.’

 

However, academics have long highlighted the problems caused by this increasing digital divide. Castells (1997) argues that there is an increasing digital divide where there is a clear divide between those with access to cyber space and those without. He defines this as the network society where a global network of information and power transcends geographic space and time. He predicts that those without access to cyber space will become a ‘fourth world’ and identifies South America as one of these areas. Voces Bolivianos aims to counter this ‘fourth world’ discuss for participatory methods. However there are a series of problems.

 

Whilst Heeks (1999) outlines the constraints in the use of ICT based information in the developed world. One of the most challenging obstacles, amongst many, to effectively training new communities how to take advantage of citizen media tools like blogs, podcasts, and online video is the lack of documentation in languages other than English.

 

Projects such as these are an attempt to empower under-represented voices and introduce them into the global conversation. See here for an update on the progress of the project. However many of the techniques are still rooted in a modernist and imperialist theoretical framework. People in the third world need to take control of their own ICT infrastructure and resources rather then relying on intermediaries, such as NGOs or development groups, if they are ever to have a truly representative and powerful voice.

Carmen Lara, maker of the controversial 'Silenced Voices Documentary about media repression in Mexico. (Photo courtesy of Perodico Digital)

Carmen Lara, maker of the controversial ‘Silenced Voices’ Documentary about media repression in Mexico. (Photo courtesy of Perodico Digital)

 The Mexican government has filed criminal charges this week against the community radio station Tierra y Libertad (Land and Liberty) of Monterrey in Northern Mexico. It has been charged with operating clandestinely as reported by La Jornada. The charge could lead to a 12-year jail sentence and a $100,000 fine. This has generated widespread criticism from several Mexican and international organizations working for freedom of expression. The editor of the paper El Correo de Oaxaca has argued that “Independent journalism has become impossible” in the southern state. He says Oaxaca follows a “systematic repressive policy” to silence critics and opponents of the state government. This publication was followed by his house being attacked with a Molotov cocktail last week. He escaped unharmed but argues that the government is using intimidation tactics to control what the paper publishes.

 

The Mexican chapter of the World Association of Community Radio (AMARC) are also fighting back against the government and warn that this is “the beginning of a more repressive and persecutorial policy” by authorities against the community stations. They fear that this will deprive marginal and rural communities both the access and right to communication. These stations operate in indigenous and rural areas and one of their salient objectives is to facilitate conflict resolution between between indigenous and non-indigenous communities. The stations are ran by AMARC-Mexico and describe them as ‘agents of peace’.

 

Increasing tensions both between and within local communities, mainly over environmental resources and profound economic disparities, in recent years have led some scholar to argue that Mexico is in social crisis. Community radio is used as a form of dialogue between conflicting groups and acts as a ‘agent of peace’. In terms of the wider theoretical debate, the University for Peace have recently published a book analyzing the issues of the media in relation to conflict and peace. It concludes that the media can exert a decisive influence ‘constructive or polarizing’ in any given situation. In the case of Mexico, many fear that without community radio, and its role as a mediator in conflict, social instability may reach crisis levels.

This all comes after the mid-year meeting in of the Inter American Press Association in Paraguay warned that press freedom has deteriorated rapidly in Latin America in the last six months.  You can see the report and its resolutions in full here.  In addition, state enforced censorship of media is exacerbated by attacks by criminal organizations on journalists. This intimidation has in effect led to self-censorship as well.

This follows the government seizure of equipment from another Mexican radio station, Tu Voz en la Radio (Your Voice on the Radio). This shows that even if participatory communication projects, such as community radio, adopt an autonomous, bottom up and enthnographic approach, the government can always exert their powers to control what is broadcast. Martín-Barbero (2006) argues that communication and cultural industries can be used as a matrix for both the disruption and reorganization of the social experience. In the case of mexico, the government are standing in the way of any kind of social cohesion through the media by its censorship methods. This limits the effectiveness of schemes like this throughout Latin America. Community radio programmes, as well as acting as a means of non-violent conflicit resolution, also disseminate vital information and education about issues surrounding rural development, access to agricultutral markets and improved farming techniques. However, even broadcasts like this are sometimes censoprship if they do not criticise or go against the government’s agricultural policy.

 

This is just one example of the worrying erosion of media freedom in Mexicoand Latin America as a whole. Media imperialism and the modernisation paradigm are still widely operational in Latin America and dis-empower marginalised communities; whilst giving them a glimpse of media freedom they are always kept on a tight leash. Communication strategies in Latin America are dictated by the government’s agenda and re-inforce state objectives. Autonomous and community based communication scheme are repressed by the state and forced into self-censorship; a documentary called “Silenced Voices” by Maria del Carmen Lara  reiterates this erosion of media fredom. The documentary, which screened this week in Mexico City, argues that attacks on reporters and intimidation from the govement have made Mexican journalism cease to be real and truthful. It is hard to see how in this climate of government media censorship any community based communication projects can function without state interference. 

Prince Charles doing the Samba in Rio

Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall are currently on a ten day environmental crusade in South America. So far the Prince has danced the Samba in Rio de Janeiro, visited indigenous trips in the Amazon, been fumigated in Ecuador and celebrated 200 years of Darwinism with a trip to the Galapagos Islands. The aims of the visit are to highlight climate change and promote sustainable development. Charles sees himself as a green crusader and has indeed been campaigning for environmental issues for more than two decades. This latest campaign or ‘holiday’ has been met with some scathing criticism from some parties

 

The Prince confronted some complex environmental issues, namely the worrying plight of the rainforest, whilst in Brazil. Two ongoing projects are worth a mention. In 2007 he set up the Prince’s Rainforest Project which funds projects promoting the sustainable use of the rainforest. Secondly the Forest People’s Alliance campaigns against urban development and logging in the rainforest. One of the project founders Chico Mendes, a leading green activist and voice of the local people, was assassinated more than two decades ago. This week Charles was declared as a ‘Friend of the Forest’ by the Amazonas state as he visited indigenous tribes of Manaus, in the heart of the rainforest, and was thanked for supporting these groups in the fight against de-forestation. This was followed by a so called landmark speech in Rio de Janeiro a few days later warning the world that it has less than 100 months to act to avoid catastrophic climate change. He quoted Chico Mendes in a speech aimed to highlight the serious reality of global warming: “At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees. Then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon Rainforest. Now I realise I am fighting for humanity”.

 

This all comes after The Copenhagen Climate Congress issued a strongly worded communiqué last week warning that the impacts of climate change will far exceed the worst fears expressed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change in 2007. Research presented at the congress ‘sounded the death knell for the Amazon rainforest’ suggesting it will soon disappear completely.

 

It is clear that the Prince is serious in his fight to save the Amazon but to me it seems that there’s a lot of rhetoric and a lack of any serious action. The timescale of 100 months appears to be plucked out of no where and shows a lack of understanding of the complex science behind climate change. One blog, entitled ‘Prince Charles only hears the science he wants to hear’, goes further in its criticism of his motives and is worth a look. There’s no doubt that the Amazon is under threat, indigenous tribes are dying out and logging causes wide scale deforestation everyday. In addition the increasing number of adventure tourists to the region exacerbates this environmental degradation. Charles and Camilla’s trip has even been labelled as an adventure holiday that is detrimental to the environment. The recurrent theme of this trip is that a balance needs to be struck between economic needs and the preservation of the balance of nature. The projects mentioned above are a starting point and this latest royal visit raises the profile of the escalating problems in the Amazon; however until the world decides what is more important, economics or nature, then climate change and the issues surrounding sustainable development will continue to be ignored in the third world and exacerbated by the first world. More action and less rhetoric is required, but at least Charles is enjoying himself and Camilla is getting a good suntan.

The Zapatistas and their iconic balaclavas

The Zapatistas and their iconic balaclavas (photo courtesy of google images)

Recent news coverage from Mexico has been dominated by drugs cartels and gang warfare. Some media reports have even warned that spiralling levels of violence may have the capacity to topple the government and incite civil war.

It is fifteen years on since the last major threat to the Mexican government. This was in the form of the now infamous Zapatista uprising in Chiapas in 1994. The ongoing struggle of this indigenous community is driven by their desire for autonomy and the right to control their own resources and land rights. To mark this fifteenth anniversary there have been a plethora of articles asking the same question – what has become of the Zapatistas?
At the time of the uprising academics and journalists alike hailed this as the first ‘post modern revolution’ and ‘cyber-war’. Fighting ensued for 12 days but since then this has been a war devoid of weapons and one of words and powerful rhetoric. The Zapatistas and their enigmatic leader, Subcommandante Marcos, have repeatedly used the internet as a way of publicising their programmes for economic and social reform and as a resistance towards mainstream media. The internet became a platform for garnering support and presenting an alternative view to that of the government controlled media. This movement is an example of citizen media tools being used to bring marginalised communities to the conversational web (global voices) to advance their needs and facilitate discussion. For many the internet has enormous scope for advancing third world development. Richardson (1998) argues that the internet facilitates community development and allows participatory communication in the form of bottom up flows of information.

There is no denying that the Zapatistas used the internet to spread their message to a global audience and counter cultural imperialism. They are now firmly part of the wider anti-globalisation and social movement. The ‘Zapatista Effect’ as it is now known influences social movements globally leading to net organised conferences, marches, uprisings and the development of the world social forum. They paved the way for the protestors all over the world to connect with one another; even though their struggles are local they become part of a larger fight against globalisation and media imperialism through this imagined online community.

But 15 years on what have they really achieved? Has this cyber war really made a difference to the lives of these indigenous communities? Has the internet facilitated discussion but failed to incite any real action in the long term? Have the revolutionaries fizzled out?

Recent media articles talk of the ‘failed’ revolution and claim that the Zapatistas have sold out and become commodified. Trendy clothing brands are using the ‘balaclava’ image to endorse their products. One article states that their sole achievement has been in “revolutionary tourism”. Instead of a centre for radical politics and revolutionary rhetoric Chiapas is now just another backpacker destination. There is no denying that the region today is full of hippies, backpackers and alternative types wanting a piece of the revolution for themselves. Ironically I was one of these backpackers last year attracted by the image of visiting the revolutionary heartland. San Cristobal de las Casas, the chic provincial capital of Chiapas, seemed an unlikely place for a revolution. As I explored the quaint and peaceful streets I stubbled across the Zapatista shop. A clear example of how the movement has embraced tourism and capitalism to a degree. It was full of revolutionary imagery from Che to Zapata, postcards, books, Zapatista balaclavas and even a replica doll. Admittedly I bought one of these mini Zapatistas and even went on an organised trip to the Chiapas highlands to ‘observe’ the indigenous communities. It all seemed a far cry from the scenes of the revolution.

The Zapatistas have had to change their methods in order to stay visible; their message is still the same but the form of communication has evolved. They use the tour groups and tourists as another means of promoting their cause to the wider global audience. A Comité de Explicación or Explanation Committee – a homespun PR department – has been set up to present the movement’s case to tour groups. Tourist trips now become PR exercises. Perhaps this is their way of reminding the world that they still exist and remaining visible in a country where the media is dominated by drugs cartels. Getting people to listen without weapons has proved difficult. This should not be seen as pure commodification but an example of the rebels’ creativeness. Tourism is just another form of communication for modern times where interest in their cause has waned on the internet.

Also is it not a positive thing that they use these non-violent communication forms to portray their ideas rather than turning to violence and terrorism like so many other radical groups.

One last comment. It is worth remembering that this dispute is about resources and the environment and crucially who owns and controls these resources. The Latin American Press recently published a brilliant article titled ‘Zapatista tourism’ examining this new alternative tourism trend. It argues that although there are many apparent benefits to this ‘revolutionary tourism’, heightened exposure to the movement and creating extra money for these impoverished communities, tensions are once again increasing between the indigenous communities and landowners over natural resources. New development, driven by tourism, puts the environment and the Lacandon jungle at risk. Ancient Mayan sites such as Palenque are being increasingly exploited and conflict has re-emerged over land rights to these sites. It is ironic that the very resources that the Zapatistas have been fighting for are the very same resources that are being put under threat from this new strategy of communication, this new form of tourism.

15 years on there has been little progress. Indigenous autonomy seems a long way off as this increasingly fragile network still requires a settlement with the government to survive. Their war of words continues – the same message but in a different form.

Rio de Janeiro - The Heart of South America

Rio de Janeiro - The Heart of South America

Welcome!

This is my first daliance into the world of blogging. I’m a total novice but thought it was about time I jumped onto the blog wagon.

As a budding broadcast journalist, a one time geographer and a travel junkie this blog acts as a hybrid for all these interests. This is the first of (I hope) many insightful and analytical posts tracking the global media trends surrounding globalisation and development in the third world with specific focus upon environmental security (thats the geographer buried within).

I’ve developed an obsession of late for Latin America and thus many of my subsequent blogs will address this area of the world, which I might add is hugely under-reported by western media. Indigenous communities, social movements, sustainable development, grassroots infowar, eco-feminism…theres alot to get your teeth into!

And so…I hope these posts will act as a tool for opening up discussion of development issues which are often ignored and overlooked by the West, help to deconstruct the ’North’ vs ‘South’ (outdated) discourse and challenge the media imperialist paradigm towards third world development.

An ambitious feat? A rather wide remit of discussion? Yes indeed…but I’ll give it a go…whats the worst that can happen? In the distant future when I’m a famous foreign news reporter (Hmm time will tell)…I’m sure I’ll look on this maiden voyage into the blog-sphere with affection…

So Happy Blogging.