Digital Divide in the Indigenous Communities of Salta
Photo: Misión Grande Community Network (lapoderosa.org.ar)
A study of the gaps and inequalities in Internet access in the indigenous communities of northern Argentina has confirmed the existence of a digital abyss compared to the populations that live in urban centers or large cities in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The study was conducted by Emiliano Venier, professor and researcher at the National University of Salta, and selected as one of the beneficiaries of LACNIC‘s Líderes program. The work focused on Internet access in indigenous populations in the far north of the province of Salta, Argentina.
The data collected on site by the researcher and his team shows a strong exclusion of indigenous populations from Internet resources, “which represents a setback in reaching the Internet’s potential as a tool to access human rights.”
According to Venier, “the digital divide reflects and increases these populations’ vulnerability and delays the meeting of their basic needs.” This is even worse in communities that are very far from urban centers, as there is no Internet service coverage.
The lack of connectivity is another factor that excludes these populations, who are unable to access the State’s social programs, something that was particularly relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, even in connected areas, insufficient connectivity policies widen the asymmetries with respect to non-indigenous populations.
Unaffordable costs. The study shows low connection speeds in those areas and that the service is practically inaccessible due to the low-income levels of indigenous households in relation to the costs involved (4% of the family income would be required to pay for a card that would last three days). Another difficulty mentioned by the study is the scarcity of devices (computers, tablets, cell phones) and limitations in terms of the knowledge required to use them.
However, the research also highlights the fact that indigenous peoples have revitalized experiences or initiatives that reveal the political significance of the use of ICTs for their forms of existence, especially in the strengthening of their culture and in the fight for the recognition of their ancestral territories.
According to Venier, those experiences should be enhanced through the coordinated work of government and civil society actors, which implies “the State’s obligation to provide the necessary facilities so that these communities can access this right.”
In addition to connectivity policies and access to devices, the study calls for the implementation of digital literacy processes or the development of digital skills at all levels of the formal education system and in non-formal education initiatives.
Another aspect of the research has to do with the development of Internet community networks in these areas, as commercial operators have no interest in expanding last-mile connectivity because of the costs related to infrastructure deployment and maintenance.
Faced with the lack of State presence and the absence of operators, Internet community networks are a self-managed alternative for achieving connectivity. The study detected two community networks in the Chaco Salteño region (Gran Chaco Nanum Village and Misión Grande) where, with the support of NGOs, local populations develop their own infrastructure and collaborative maintenance models. “These community networks are another expression of the wealth of critical and creative experiences through which indigenous communities bring their tactics into play in their daily struggle to have their forms of existence recognized,” the researcher observed.
Indigenous peoples. According to Venier, bridging the digital divide in indigenous populations requires careful consideration. “The goal of indigenous peoples’ demand for connectivity is not their inclusion in this economic, social, and cultural order. Instead, their goal is for the Internet to be a medium that operates as a catalyst for political and cultural processes, a tool that will help them undertake the struggles of the present and continue their struggles for the recognition of their forms of existence.” In fact, seven different languages are spoken in that region and Internet content is practically inexistent in the original languages. The difficulty is such that a young man from one of these communities developed an application to translate from Spanish to Wichi and from Wichi to Spanish.
Venier noted that community network experiences recapture the collaborative and decentralized spirit of Internet governance. “For the most widespread form of Internet users, community networks stimulate a process through which social ties are strengthened and, above all, new relationships with ICTs are created, allowing the Internet and technology to become resources that can be used to solve the problems of the indigenous communities,” he concluded.