Community Networks: Word in the Wind in Chiapas

What would technology look like if it reflected our world’s cultural diversity? What would it look like if it was designed and deployed to address our needs?

Luis Gómez in the community radio booth, in Abasolo, Chiapas (photo: Jacobo Castellanos | Some Rights Reserved)

The community of San Martín de Abasolo, in Ocosingo, bears little or no relevance to all but the few thousands of people that live there and in their immediate surroundings. There might have been a fleeting sense of national consequence last year when one of their own, Mariano Gómez, was recognised by the Internet Society as one of the “25 under 25 who are taking action and using the Internet as a force for good”. Perhaps even a little more so, when shortly after, the United States denied him the visa application that would have allowed him to travel to Los Angeles where he would have received his prize, causing widespread outrage that was echoed by national and international media outlets. In an open letter published online, Mariano pondered over his experience:

“It’s a reflection of a society with stereotypes that being of an indigenous people you are considered inferior, in which not having a bank account and large economic resources is synonymous with worthlessness.”

Mariano is a teacher from a remote community located in the central highlands of Chiapas, in the south of Mexico, near the gates of the Lacandon jungle. Modest cement and adobe houses dot the lush, mountainous landscape that covers the area. Atop one of the surrounding hills lies the church of San Martin, towering eccentrically over the village. From there, the town square may be observed. It covers a small area, with only the basic elements of infrastructure and design: a concrete basketball court covers one of its sides, while the remaining space is left for a small kiosk and a series of walkways that run along patches of grass. The town square serves many purposes, but its main day-to-day function, from what I was able to see, is to gather friends for some after-school leisure time.

Immediately facing the square lies the , or the ministration, which is the seat of local authorities. This two-story building also houses the authorities, as well as two prison cells, and a radio room, from which they may communicate with the police in Ocosingo, less than 30 kilometres away. The authorities governing Abasolo are chosen on a yearly basis, during a general assembly where everyone –men, women and children– are eligible to vote. Usually, older and highly respected men are elected to serve. In the times I visited the community, my first duty was to present myself and to explain my intentions to the authorities. I was taken aback by the solemn attitude they exude and the enormous respect they command.

Aerial view of Abasolo

The fact is that Abasolo is an indigenous community that is governed by its own traditions and customs. It is not just their system of governance that varies, however; as a Tzeltal community, their culture and their practices are pervasive in most aspects of their personal and social lives. Spanish may be heard, here and there, for example, but it is the Mayan dialect that prevails through its streets. It is also notorious to see that many women still go about their days wearing their traditional , or that community needs are not met by public expenditure, but rather voluntary community work. Their religious beliefs and expressions are a syncretism between Catholicism and their ancestral heritage, although different forms of Protestantism have also begun to take hold.

Abasolo is not a particularly distant and inaccessible community, but it does definitely exist and operate outside the margins of traditional spheres of political and economic interest and influence. Its primary form of connection between its residents and the rest of the world is still the Pan-American Highway, which lies a few dozen meters away from the church of San Martín. Like other marginalised communities in the country, basic services are insufficiently provided, if at all. They do have electricity, but their maintenance is not institutionally guaranteed, so if ever there is a problem, it is up to the community to fix it. There is water too, but it is also provided and kept by its residents. Through a political program, the government even installed an internet connection in Abasolo’s schools, but, like many things, it’s on the verge of usability. There are a few companies that may provide satellite internet connection, but at lofty prices that are always beyond the residents’ economic reach.

Last year, recognising the importance of improving information and communication infrastructure and processes, the community chose a number of representatives to head towards Merida, Yucatán, in order to negotiate with Telmex the possibility of setting up phone and internet coverage in Abasolo. This was their second attempt, and just like the first, their petition was denied. By the commercial standards that guide the corporate giant, Abasolo is not worthy of the required investment. This, in and of itself, is profoundly revealing. What does it say about the values and the objectives that guide our society, for example? What are its implications? In this case, it may also be worth wondering what would have happened if Telmex had actually accepted offering their services. Although it is never this simple, we could ask what good could have come of it? What bad? Other questions may ensue, but what interested me is how a group of young people from this community decided to take control of the matter, offering alternative solutions to the community and, perhaps inadvertently, partaking in the construction of an interconnected world that reflects and fosters our enormous cultural diversity.

Based on the interviews that I carried out, the story of Ik’ ta K’op began with a young, restless student by the name of Mariano who became interested in information systems while still in school. According to his IT teacher, Luis Ramón Alvarado Pascacio, Mariano was enthralled by everything related to computers, and he was particularly interested in Linux, its different operating systems and their collaboration-based development models. When he graduated from high school, he asked his father, Don Mariano Gómez, to help him pay for a program to earn a certificate in computer systems. After that, Mariano decided to undertake a commercial venture: to establish a satellite internet connection and create Abasolo’s first . With a 30,000 Mx pesos loan taken up by his father, and with the knowledge Mariano had acquired, they bought the necessary equipment and had it set up and ready for business.

However, what began as a commercial venture for Mariano and his family, very quickly turned into a community networks project. Besides realising that high maintenance costs and poor internet connection were a deadly combination for business, they also began to recognise the opportunities that access to the Internet could provide, not just for them, but for the entire community. For someone with a Tzeltal cultural background as Mariano, it didn’t take too long to take the step from a purely commercial initiative to a community project. As he mentioned in an interview, “We bring a little bit of us to everything we do.” Working with and for the community was not just culturally consistent, nor was it merely altruistic, it was a necessary measure to harness collective power and overcome the limitations that they faced.

By this time, Mariano began inviting friends to participate in the project. He also paired up with his now-former IT teacher, Luis Ramón Alvarado Pascacio, to work on an educational platform that would operate within their own Intranet, the IntraBACH Yaj Noptik. Additionally, they began working on the first community radio of Abasolo, Radio Jitontik. These three projects combined became the building blocks with which they hoped to promote a harmonious relationship between the people of Abasolo, their worldview and new media technologies. Their next step was to try to explain to the rest of the community what it was that they were trying to do. For an indigenous community that had stayed at the margins of the digital revolution, the idea of information being shared through satellite connection, optical fibre cables and radio waves was foreign. As a way to illustrate their intentions, they came up with the notion of , or Ik’ ta K’op.

Economía, tecnología y sociedad @deamericasoy