An interview by Joana Varon, executive directress of Coding Rights, originally published in the Branch magazine.
So says Alana Manchineri, communications manager at the Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB). I had the opportunity to meet her in July 2022, in Costa Rica. She was with her kin, Marciely Ayap Tupari, at the tech and human rights event, RightsCon. It was early in the morning, and Alana sat next to me in the audience. Attentive, holding her smartphone, she was searching for the best angle to capture her colleague. Marciely’s speech was so powerful that soon I too had my smartphone at hand, recording and posting. Her inspiring intervention ended with the entire audience joining her for a photo protest against the Marco Temporal in Brazil 1.
Alana lives in Manaus, in north Brazil, which has a population density of around 181 inhabitants per square kilometer. The city is surrounded by the Amazon rainforest, on the banks of the Negro River, which joins the Solimões River in the east of the city, in a watery encounter that flows into the Amazon River, the largest in the world. I live by the sea, in the south-east region of the country, in the city of Rio de Janeiro, where we have 5,174.77 inhabitants per square kilometer, densely compressed between the ocean and the Mata Atlântica. After attending the same meetings in Costa Rica, and being inspired by her strength and the reach of COIAB to constantly hack colonial violences and protect Indigenous contemporary and ancestral ways of life, I had the pleasure to interview her. To that conversation, I bring my trajectory as a geek and queer researcher and activist who tries to contribute with a feminist and decolonial vision to the debate on human rights and technologies. Our lived experiences and territorialities are present in the dialogue that follows. By sharing Alana’s views and the collective work of COIAB, we wish to inspire the understanding that debates on climate change and technology can only lead us to sustainable and desirable futures if they entangle radical consideration about Indigenous rights and territories.
Joana: Alana, could you tell us about COIAB’s mission, and more specifically what your work there is, situating the Brazilian political context for the people from overseas?
Alana: COIAB was founded on April 19, 1989, after the Constituent Assembly2. It plays a very important role in the Indigenous territories in terms of political action for the protection of the Amazon. Did you know that the two countries with the highest rates of violence against Indigenous peoples, deforestation and degradation of the forest and biomes are Brazil and Peru? In this context, COIAB operates in the nine states of the Brazilian Amazon, which means the entire Legal Amazon3. We have divided it into 64 base regions, which indicates the diversity of territories and Indigenous peoples within the regional territory of the Amazon.
This is also mirrored in our executive coordination, elected last year. It is composed of the general coordinator Toya Manchineri, from the state of Acre; the vice-coordinator Alcebias Sapará, from Roraima; the treasurer coordinator, Avanilson Karajá, from Tocantins; and the secretary-coordinator, Marciely Tupari, from Rondônia, who attended the event with me. And we also have the deputy secretary-coordinator, Sergio Galibi-Marworno, who is from Amapá, and the deputy treasurer-coordinator, Dineva Kayabi from Mato Grosso. So, we have a large part of the entire Brazilian Amazon represented in our executive coordination.
Today, we have a structure that covers large-scale projects. During the Covid-19 pandemic, we had a budget higher than that of many municipalities in Brazil. We have an extremely relevant role in the Brazilian Amazon. We even founded the Podáali fund, an Indigenous fund for raising and redistributing resources to peoples, organizations, and communities in the region. We are also part of UMIAB, the Union of Indigenous Women of the Brazilian Amazon. So, we operate in a very diversified way. We have six main areas of activity: isolated and recently contacted communities; gender, youth, and Indigenous childhood in the Amazon; political and technical training; institutional strengthening of our local organizations, among others.
With this structure, today COIAB is a reference in the Brazilian Amazon. We are also recognised in terms of our communication strategies, because we are the only regional organization that has a network of communicators from all nine states of the Brazilian Amazon. We ensure that this communication is democratic and includes all our regions.
Joana: Tell us a little bit about your work, about what you do as the communication manager of this regionally spread network.
Alana: I manage a team of seven people, plus nine communicators, one from each state in the Amazon, who are nominated by the local organizations that compose COIAB. In 2022, we started a planning process here in Manaus with the leadership of these organizations, so that they could identify the goals they wanted COIAB to have. We now have this communication plan to implement COIAB’s strategic planning, besides the unplanned daily demands that arise for reporting rights violations. So part of my work is to manage this content production and all the institutional communication. Today, we have at least 30 institutional projects, and we cover the communication of all these projects too. We also handle national and international press relations, and provide communication guidance for the organizational leadership. For example, when a leadership attends a national or international event, we guide them according to COIAB’s collective positions. That’s why I went with Marciely to Costa Rica.
Joana: It is truly amazing how connected COIAB is with the entire expanse of the Legal Amazon, especially where distances are so long, communication is complex and linguistic variety is abundant. It is also impressive to see how you keep collective processes at the heart of everything and have set up such a structured organization. Now that we have understood a bit about your work and COIAB, I want to dive more into the topic of technology. I would like you to talk about your vision regarding the operations in the Amazon territory of some of the so-called Big Tech companies, such as Starlink and Google, and how this affects the struggle of Indigenous peoples in the region.
Alana: These companies use knowledge extracted from our territories, from traditional communities. For instance, optical fibers, which are used for connectivity, can be compared with the networks formed by roots and how these roots connect with each other in a network, right? They bring a little bit of this way of connecting one tree to another: they are like an ecosystem, like biomes. We, Indigenous people, have observed, understood and been knowledgeable of such communication structures for a long time, but this knowledge is not recognized. It is as if, racistly, they consider our knowledge outdated, but the truth is that it is valuable knowledge. Why is it that the same thing, when presented by a non-indigenous person, by a company, by a rich family, by a billionaire family, is seen as valuable? When it is by us, it is not like that. For us, this is exploitation – whether of knowledge or raw materials. It is exploitation indeed, even of our own bodies.
But to go beyond: we tend to talk about communication as a right. We understand that violations of our rights, both in the territories and in the cities, only cease or diminish if we are able to communicate widely and if we can denounce. Therefore, we have been trying to strengthen the right to communication and connectivity in the communities, either by telephone or by the Internet. But we are aware that these big companies have been debating this for a long time, occupying strategic spaces in a way that we sometimes don’t even realize. An example is that whereas we are discussing access to these technologies, the land grabbers, farmers and miners have had connectivity for a long time4. They use these technologies to spread their narrative on social networks, with an approach to the idea of development that actually generates more destruction and invasion. COIAB’s collective vision is that we need to have power over these technologies, else we will continue to be held hostage by violence and colonialism, both technological and physical.
Another aspect is that it is important for us to have access to these technologies according to our consultation protocols, our understandings, and our perspectives of life within the territory. It is also important that we succeed in setting the agenda for the state and these large companies on the origin of the mineral resources used in these technologies. What is the social role of these technologies and these large companies? They seek profit. But we, Indigenous peoples, when accessing these technologies, are pursuing survival, the maintenance of our traditional ways of life, the maintenance of our territory, of the forests. We are aware of the technological racism that persists in the access or lack of access to these companies’ technologies. We see that as long as there is this inequality of access, we will always be on the weaker side, which is the side of the people affected, who do not use monitoring for violence, but rather for the protection of territories.
Joana: At the meetings in Costa Rica, you also mentioned another form of colonialism by large foreign tech companies: Google’s mapping of information about trees in our territories. Could you tell us what you have noticed about this?
Alana: Yeah, Marciely reported that in some places Google is mapping trees, and it seems that tech companies are using these maps to estimate the potential carbon the trees store in order to have carbon credit, carbon credit contracts. These are some of the complaints we’ve been receiving from some of the local organizations that compose COIAB and which we are trying to understand. As an organization that operates across the entire Legal Amazon region, we can generate a collective understanding by exchanging information with our local organizations and their leadership so that all this information is effectively displayed and everyone can have access to it.
Joana: Alana, there might be a few people who, by operating under the logic of the monetization of nature, of carbon credits and the green economy, will think that this is not a problem or that it would be good to do this kind of mapping. So it would be good to clarify: how do you see it? Because these companies sell themselves as saviors by peddling the narrative that they are employing technologies to save the planet from climate change. They map the trees the territories have, to find out how much they can profit from carbon credits. It is important to hear your position against this narrative of the commercialization of nature.
Alana: Indeed, our understanding is critical. These companies have been handling the climate change situation like treating a big, deep cut with a Band-Aid. In fact, they are the ones causing these imbalances. As I mentioned, where are the minerals used by these big companies coming from? Where is the wood coming from? Where is the water coming from? In this meeting we attended, it was mentioned that ChatGPT uses a lot of water. Where are these resources coming from if not from the forest territories? We have noticed, for example, how these large companies have realized that financial contributions to members of the legislature who are against environmental agendas and Indigenous peoples pays off for them. Without a state with strong legislation and oversight powers, these companies encroach on territories and are not held accountable. How long has the Mariana case5 remained unsolved? How many other companies are exploiting federal lands or Indigenous territories and are not being held accountable for their actions? These companies are always looking to capitalize on something. At one moment, it is capitalizing on the territory. At another moment, it is the air, the airspace, or what our people are producing – millenary and ancestral knowledge within the territories. It means capitalizing on everything you see in front of you and out of sight. I think companies are now simply trying to put out a fire that they themselves are fanning.
Joana: According to COIAB positionings, ‘Indigenous peoples are the great authorities on climate’. Indeed, it’s been centuries of accomplishments and battles in the struggle to protect territories, traditional culture, biodiversity, and lives; centuries of struggle against the genocide of kin, against exploitation caused by mining, by illegal deforestation, and by the plundering of traditional knowledge. These expressions of violence today are also being enabled by the use of technologies conceived under the logic of surveillance capitalism and digital colonialism. Given the historical context of these struggles and the imminent breakdown of the climate crisis, how do you think organizations and movements working in the intersection between technology and human rights can collaborate respectfully with the struggles of Indigenous peoples.
Alana: I understand that organizations that are debating technology and human rights need to help democratize access to information. I know there is a lot of information about this issue circulating in the cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, in the south-east of the country. Perhaps because they are business centers where these tech companies have offices, so there is more access to this kind of information. On the other hand, we, who are right here in the Amazon, right where violations are happening, don’t have access to it. We are forced to choose between focus points. Either we report and denounce the violence that is happening to the Yanomami people, or we read about the technological issues, about technology governance. For example, I am participating in this interview with you, which is very important for us, but also today a Yanomami person was murdered in the territory of Roraima. Then, COIAB’s whole communication team need to focus on this, on this urgent issue. We used to say that during the Bolsonaro government there was always an emergency, an Indigenous emergency. But even though he is not the president anymore, fascism remains a threat, right? The strategy of mass manipulation continues. Because while we are trying to protect our territories (in the popular saying, ‘put out the fire’), they are ‘running the cattle herd,’ right? Ricardo Salles6 himself said this last year: ‘Let’s take advantage of the fact that they are distracted, and let’s “pass the cattle.”’ That’s what we’ve been dealing with. The Federal Chamber of Deputies approved the Marco Temporal, which is to be debated in the Senate – its constitutionality is being debated right now in the Federal Supreme Court. And before that, the CPI of the MST was happening7. Then comes the Provisional Measure 11548, then the CPI on NGOs9. So, it is a very elaborate strategy of keeping us busy, so we cannot access and ensure our perspectives feature in these other spaces as well. Although we are living under a leftist government, we still face a huge challenge related to fascism: the one of capital above all else, above life, above human lives10.
I think what converges between us is the perspective on rights, the right to universal access. And we understand that it is necessary to support each other: one organization helps the other. We are permanently involved in these urgent agendas, while other organizations focus much more on monitoring technologies. What we have done, as an Indigenous organization, is to ally ourselves with organizations that do this type of action. We have several partnerships, and they are covering for us. And, when the time comes for us to come together, we do so, seeking to support each other.
Joana: Indeed, information exchange and alliances sound essential for the attempt to change the status quo by collaborating to open up space for Indigenous movements to occupy power and decision-making in technology debates. Powerful. Any final comments you would like to share?
Alana: We need to keep strengthening these Indigenous, quilombola and riverine organizations. When Brazilian democracy was threatened, social movements needed to be extremely strong to have any impact against fascism. I often say that the Indigenous movement was one of the only movements that managed to make a great impact at the time when Bolsonaro was attempting to advance his fascist agenda and erode protections of the Amazon forest. Despite not having a representative in the federal legislative houses, not having much money, and under a far right government, the Indigenous movement succeeded in having an impact. And I think that even with Lula’s administration, we cannot rest. Yes, I know this is a time everyone thought would be peaceful, when we would enjoy life a little bit because we went through a crazy pandemic. But maybe this is the time we need to be the most vigilant because three years go by very quickly. With Bolsonaro, it felt like it lasted longer because he really is a genocidal fascist. But three years will go by very quickly considering a social movement that needs to strengthen itself for a long, long time. And I always say that communication technologies also need to be used to boost actions for a greater Indigenous presence in the legislature. Having representatives in the legislature who are in favor of our agendas is extremely relevant.
In fact, on this front, we still face a severe situation. Even after recently electing important representatives who support our causes, we risk having several of these deputies impeached because, if the opposition wants, they have enough votes to approve anything they want11. If we don’t have a government that compromises with these parties, they could easily ask for impeachment, couldn’t they? For much less, Dilma was impeached. We understand the seriousness of what we are experiencing and how important an approach to technologies may be for the election of people who really represent us. I have been following elections for a long time. How much money do big farmers spend on technology to boost their representatives’ re-election campaigns with the best slogan, the best visual identity? People are being paid to disseminate these messages widely. So, maybe we also have to approach the agenda of political training and campaign financing because, today, it is already designed for those who are bad. We need to think of strategies so that the people who really represent the population can access this information, can access these technologies to help in the election.
Joana: I find it especially interesting that gender-based political violence and communication strategies in digital media have appeared in your suggestions on the intersections between movement agendas. Faced with the growth of the far right in the world, it is a key point indeed. Thank you, Alana. Thank you very much for the trust and sharing. This was very inspiring!
Alana Manchineri is Communications Manager at the Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB).
Joana Varon is the Coding Rights Executive Director and an affiliate researcher at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School.
- The Marco Temporal is a legal and political thesis that limits Indigenous peoples’ right to land. Under the Marco Temporal, Indigenous people can only claim a right to land if they occupied it in 1988, when the Constitution was promulgated. This is a violation of an original Right. Its constitutionality will be assessed by a vote in the Supreme Court on 30th August 2023.
- The Constituent Assembly refers to the National Constituent Congress, established in 1987 after 21 years of military dictatorship, to draft a democratic constitution for the country. The text, which is still in force today, was promulgated in 1988 and was strongly supported by Indigenous leaders who ensured, albeit on paper, the original right of Indigenous peoples to the lands they traditionally occupy.
- The Legal Amazon or Amazônia Legal covers an area of more than 5 million square kilometers, more than 59% of Brazil’s territory, encompassing nine federal states: Amazonas, Acre, Pará, Amapá, Roraima, Rondônia, Mato Grosso, Tocantins and part of Maranhão.
- In June 2023, the Brazilian Environmental Institute (Ibama) seized 11 Starlink kits in illegal mining areas in the Yanomami Indigenous land, along with weapons and chainsaws. During the same period, the Amazonas government complained about Musk’s investments in the Legal Amazon and stated: ‘The Internet that he started to put in the Amazon was never connected to public policies. The result: drug dealers, land grabbers, and criminals have Elon Musk’s antenna, but the communities have no access.’ Ibama has been studying, together with other agencies, how to block Starlink’s signal in illegal mining areas.
- Mariana is a district of Minas Gerais in the southeast of Brazil, where in 2015 the Fundão tailings dam collapsed, used by the mining company Samarco to deposit iron ore tailings. The toxic sludge traveled more than 600km through the Rio Doce to reach the Atlantic Ocean, affecting 41 cities in the region and Indigenous territories. It is regarded as one of Brazil’s gravest environmental crimes. In 2019, Vale’s Córrego do Feijão mining dam in Brumadinho, also in Minas Gerais, broke, killing more people and criminally destroying the environment. Both Vale and Samarco export minerals to countries in Europe and China, where electronics used around the world are manufactured.
- Ricardo Salles was Minister of the Environment under the Bolsonaro government and was known for, among other atrocities, saying at a government meeting in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic that it was time to ‘run the cattle herd,’ referring to his desire to quickly change environmental protection rules while the media’s attention was focused on the pandemic.
- Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry (CPI) against the Landless Workers’ Movement, which occupies lands that have been unproductive and with no social function in several regions of the country. It was set up in April 2023 by members of the federal legislature, mostly from the ruralista caucus. Ricardo Salles chairs it.
- Provisional Measures that restructured ministries, including the creation of the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples.
- The Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry (CPI) was established by opposition senators to investigate NGOs involved in the Amazon region under the misguided narrative that such organizations operate only to defame the image of Brazil and the Amazon. The CPI has been seen as a way of diverting attention from issues such as the weakening of structures for monitoring and combating deforestation and invasions of Indigenous lands by criminalizing NGOs and attacking those who work to defend the Amazon and the peoples who occupy its territory.
- The electoral slogan ‘Brazil above everything, God above all,’ under which Bolsonaro was elected in 2018 was inspired by the Nazi saying ‘Deutschland über alles’ and was used during his administration. The former president has since been barred from running for office until 2030.
- In June 2023, six women parliamentarians from left wing parties, Célia Xakriabá, Sâmia Bomfim, Talíria Petrone, Érika Kokay, Fernanda Melchionna, and Juliana Cardoso, faced proceedings at the Ethics Council of the Chamber of Deputies for protesting against other parliamentarians who supported the Marco Temporal for the demarcation of Indigenous lands. The lawsuit was filed by a representative of a far right party, and targeted only women, although other parliamentarians also protested.