A Participatory Action Research Project: Weaving Technology and Autonomy with Indigenous Communities in Mexico

Published on February 21st, 2020

Written by María Alvarez Malvido

Redes por la Diversidad, Equidad y Sustentabilidad A.C

Indigenous Peoples across the world have proven that technology can be a tool for autonomy when it is owned by the community and managed through the community’s decision-making processes. In Mexico, where 68 Indigenous languages resist a long story of colonization, one can find the autonomy in the sound of Indigenous community radios traveling over the airwaves with the diversity of voices and stories that are not found in public or in commercial media. Also in the experience of Telecomunicaciones Indígenas Comunitarias, a cooperative of 18 communities in Oaxaca and Guerrero that provide themselves with mobile telephone service through their own economical, technical and legal model since 2016. 

Technology is therefore present in the constant dialogues between communities, Indigenous filmmakers, community radio and video producers, hackers, and allied organizations who work together to strengthen Indigenous communication processes via autonomy and self-determination. These dialogues involve questions that grow from a close relationship with Land. They hold the possibility of re-imagining the networks and infrastructures that provide access to telecommunication, not as a service or a commodity provided by the State or the corporations but as a right and a good that is as communally owned as the water and the Land. 

In 2017, we–Redes por la Diversidad, Equidad y Sustentabilidad A.C–started an Action Research process with four Indigenous communities from Chiapas, Oaxaca and Nayarit, Mexico. We wanted to imagine together how technology could be a tool to share and access Indigenous, plural and local digital content under the community’s own terms and conditions, and explore together the possibilities of “connectivity” as a collective process. 

Understanding the experience of Colectivo Ik´ ta K’op (“word of the wind” or “word blown by the wind”) was one of the first steps in rethinking networks and sharing these questions. They were operating and building a network in Abasolo, their Tseltal community in Chiapas, where no previous access to Internet or mobile service had been provided before. The wireless network deployed on the rooftops of some families has provided the community with low-cost access to Internet since 2016, all thanks to linking a land-line connection many kilometers away to a series of relay towers on local mountain and hilltops.There is also free access to a local platform Yaj´noptik, where users can access Wikipedia, Encarta, tutorials, pedagogical content, documentaries, open source content and downloadable books, as well as content created in Tseltal. All of this content is accessed through the same network infrastructure through a platform that is not connected to the Internet but to a local server. The platform is called a “community Intranet” by Ik’ta K’op. 

Besides connectivity and communication needs, the collective explains the network as a process of technological ownership grounded in autonomy, their worldview, and community life. In the words of Mariano Molox, the network is like mankomun,  man meaning “to buy” and komun “among everyone”: “from community practices, like dia de muertos, the community will buy a cow or wakax, someone will skin it, and others will butcher it and divide it up. Some of the meat is eaten that day and the other is divided among the people. We do that for two reasons: one is economic, because everyone can get more meat that way in a cheaper cost than if they had to buy it at a butcher shop. The other reason is for the sake of convivencia (“living together”): while you’re preparing the cow, you’re also talking and there’s a relationship, communication between us, a more spiritual part of coexistence, something that goes beyond simply doing the tasks.”

Instead of the cow, Mariano explains, in a community network, “we create our own infrastructure and divide it up among the users. Just like someone skins and butchers the cow, someone takes charge of climbing the radio tower, someone else creates the network connections, and someone else takes care of the electrical power. We all do this together, and so this type of project has succeeded in surviving for a long time.”1

As with other community networks, this process involves questions about the management and sustainability of the infrastructure, and additionally opens new questions and opportunities to decide on the curation and access to local content. How can we create the conditions to preserve, exchange and access the diversity of audiovisual content that is being produced through Indigenous communication processes? What happens when this content is watched, listened to and accessed by the community? How can wireless networks be woven into community media paths that communities have already been building for years across their different territories?  What technological tools can we use and manage to do so? 

This experience resonated with other communities and we worked with them to identify how each “Intranet” could look in each specific context. We found that the community networks took different shapes that were not necessarily local mesh networks like the one in Abasolo.   For example, one of the collectives from the communities is now live broadcasting local community events through Facebook Live in order to reach the community audience that today extends through national and international borders. In another community, the process towards the production of local content for their network became the beginning of a new community radio after a series of workshops and local reflection.  Finally, another community wanted to build a local digital library to respond to the lack of connectivity in the region which led to the development of a new local and autonomous university. This process opened new methodological and technical questions and ongoing challenges regarding interfaces and community curation processes of the content that respects cultural ontologies and traditional knowledge systems.

These imagined networks have taken different shapes through the Action Research cycle which brought us back to those questions that are closer to the Land. We all got together along with different organizations and the communities involved in the process to share and discuss them collectively: How are we imagining this communication model? What are the needs that we are trying to solve and how do they strengthen our identity and autonomy? How can we work together towards that dream? 

After two days of collective dialogue and reflection framed through these questions, members from different communities, Elders, organizations and Indigenous media projects, together identified a common dream: a cyclic Indigenous communication model with four basic elements that follow the cycle of the harvest. These were the land, where we seed our inquiries and questions; the water, where we harvest our responses as audiovisual content; the fire where we produce and store it; and finally the air, how and where we disseminate or broadcast the content to blow new seeds and questions back to the land to continue the cycle. 

This cycle represents a fulfilling, continuous and reflexive circle of Indigenous and community communication. It is also a framework that allows us to identify our strengths, weakness and the opportunities to collaborate along this shared path. Through these first steps, we are now working together to create the system where we collaboratively build our own autonomous path of connectivity, to share and access the content that grows as diverse as our territories. 


María Alvarez Malvido is a graduate student in the MA Communications and Technology program of the University of Alberta.


1 Álvarez Malvido, María  “Internet en la selva” Revista Nexos, México, 18 septiembre 2017. http://cultura.nexos.com.mx/?p=13494