In Oaxaca, an Unlikely Union Between Hackers and Indigenous Peoples
The Oaxaca region in southern Mexico is home to about a third of the Mexican indigenous population, with speakers of at least 16 languages and dozens of dialects. The region contains about half of the entire nation’s species of flora and fauna, including gila monsters, jaguars, and, at 40 feet in diameter, the world’s widest tree. It’s here, in one of the most biologically and culturally diverse places in the Americas, that technology is being reimagined.
It’s easy to assume that technological innovation is restricted to the design laboratories of Silicon Valley, the tech companies of China, or the elite universities of the world. But according to Peter Bloom, the co-founder of Telecomunicaciones Indígenas Comunitarias (TIC) and its sister global organization, Rhizomática, there are “people sitting in Silicon Valley thinking up problems, and then thinking up solutions to those problems. But they’re not grounded in anyone’s reality.”
Established in 2012 by a group of hackers, activists, and indigenous community leaders in the region, TIC emerged from centuries of grassroots political movements and philosophies that have extolled the importance of autonomy, communality, and collectivity. From its base in of the city of Oaxaca de Juárez, TIC has implemented independent, community-owned cell phone networks in at least 63 indigenous communities of Zapotec, Mixtec, and Mije origins — making it the largest community-owned cell phone network in the world. The effort has provided daily service to more than 3,500 people despite some of the harshest conditions for building communications networks in Mexico — elevation, rain, dense forests, and the absence of other reliable infrastructure like electricity.
Whereas commercial mobile service competitors such as TelCel and Movistar charge for service at rates its users can’t control or negotiate, TIC offers cheap service owned by its community of users. Rather than use “access” to technology to extract as much money as possible from an already economically poor population, TIC has aimed to build upon the values of self-determination that run deep in indigenous Mexican cultures, and to blaze a trail toward the democratization of technology.
A Bird’s-Eye View
The communities that use TIC span the Sierra Juárez, Mixe-Alto, Mixteca, and the Sierra Sur regions surrounding the Oaxaca valley. In 2012 the town of Villa Talea de Castro (Sierra Juárez) became the first to join the collective, which today includes fourteen participating towns. Throughout these regions, TIC has enabled the construction of mobile phone towers and a functional, affordable cell phone system while transforming its users into active creators and owners of their own networks.
Because of the rural, sparsely populated habitats and lower income levels of many indigenous peoples in Oaxaca, the TIC-member communities have been left underserved when it comes to internet and mobile phone connectivity. This is not just true in Mexico, but indeed around the world: Networks tend to be formed and users tend to be “served” where people have the money.
Given this pattern, services developed to connect the underserved often characterize indigenous and rural communities as the “last mile.” Communities like those who are part of TIC are typically an afterthought, if they aren’t excluded altogether. When service providers view user communities through the lens of the “last mile,” they tend to treat them as needy and willing to sign onto digital network infrastructure projects no matter what, regardless of who develops (and profits from) them.
It doesn’t need to be this way. What if, instead of thinking about user communities as customers, we were to elevate and humanize them as creative agents, innovators, owners, entrepreneurs, and designers of their own communication networks and technologies? What if the communities themselves represented the “first mile” in the policy, economic, design, and cultural choices involved in bringing mobile telephony into their lives?
Most TIC-connected communities currently operate and maintain autonomous networks. Each community owns GSM (cell phone towers), which are then connected to the internet via partnerships with ISPs; tethering traditional phone service to the internet allows members to make longer-distance calls via Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology. Individual users pay a maintenance fee for the TIC connection, which then allows them to call one another locally and across regions for a fraction of the normal, commercial price.
TIC has designed technology directly for its user communities. Yet it is important to note that long-distance calls, even within Mexico, are often routed through U.S.-based data servers. Still, TIC users can call relatives in Los Angeles and the United States for pennies on the dollar, a far cheaper rate than the costs for those who live in large Mexican cities.
Although TIC is a small nonprofit organization with just six paid employees in Oaxaca and two in Mexico City, it vies with corporate powerhouses and supports the potential for communities to provide access to their members in a way that the corporate businesses can’t. Being owned and co-developed by community asambleas (assemblies), it supports cooperation of an economic and cultural value.
Whereas traditional telecom businesses ask users to pay for access without decentralizing ownership, TIC puts user communities in control. Subscribers to TIC services pay 42 Mexican pesos per month (about US$2), and for the most part those fees re-circulate within the community to pay for ISP access, electricity, and labor.
Communication rights are often framed in universal, public, or national contexts. But when it comes to indigenous communities and their unique languages, traditions, and a history of persecution, TIC shows us how groups that have been the most persecuted can be innovators in the digital age.
Welcome to the Rhizome
Rhizomática, the nonprofit that helped establish TIC, draws its name from the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, who used the term “rhizome” to reject the common perspective that knowledge is centrally produced and then passed on to the margins. The rhizome presents knowledge as decentralized, as a network that consists of multiple, laterally connected entry and exit points. The word comes from the plant sciences, where it refers to the underground, horizontal stem of a plant from which upward roots and stems form.
Unlike the trunk, the foundation of the plant in a root-tree system, the rhizome is not organized in a centralized, discrete, or fixed pattern. The rhizome, dynamic rather than fixed, grows outward in multiple directions at once, providing a model for organic thinking in a nonlinear, multiplicitous way.
The rhizome’s structure is similar to what scientists have found in the world of mushrooms. Research shows that the rhizome of a plant does not exist in isolation, but is actually connected to other plants and fungi through mycelial networks. Indeed, some scientists argue that the largest living biomass on our planet is not the giant Redwood or Sequoia trees, but the intricate, complex, and massive network of mycorrhiza mycelia. Plant rhizomes and these mycelia are in partnership — they exchange carbohydrates and nutrients with one another, forming a symbiotic relationship that allows plants to remain healthy and develop intricate systems of communication that aid their survival. Paul Stamets, an expert on fungus, has referred to these networks as “Earth’s natural Internet.”
How might these insights into the natural world influence our thinking about the digital networks human beings have created for our own communities and societies? Can the rhizome help us imagine alternative technologies that balance power, warn our neighbors about hostile threats, respect the sovereignty of diverse communities, and allow us to learn from one another? These are questions that motivate Rhizomática’s efforts.
The Communal Union of Hackers and Indigenous Peoples
TIC is all about supporting community. But we should ask what is community, and what would it actually mean for technology to support it? The answer is not obvious but lies in every community’s own self-definition, values, and priorities.
Community in southern Mexico (as well as what it would mean to “support it”) means something different than it does in San Francisco, Beijing, or Nairobi. It’s also different than community on Facebook, given that a tech company’s version of community can never fully capture the deeper meaning of the term from our lived experiences. The Oaxacan people connected to TIC are mostly indigenous farmers whose plots of land lie on the terraced sides of steep, high-altitude cloud forests — precious land for which the local population has regularly risked life and limb. Indeed, the Oaxacan vision of community, indigenous rights, and autonomy from which TIC has emerged can be tied to a far more familiar story, that of the Zapatista indigenous rebellion.
In 1994, the Zapatista indigenous movement led and won an uprising to fight for autonomy over rural and forested lands in the neighboring Mexican state of Chiapas. It was a movement that contested the government’s push to privatize land and natural resources. They then established regional centers dubbed caracoles (snails or conch shells in Spanish), with names like “Resistance toward a New Dawn” and “Mother of the Sea Snails of our Dreams.” The snail metaphor, in fact, pervades Zapatista iconography and consciousness.
This cultural touchstone inherited from Mayan ancestors poetically captures indigenous ways of being and knowing — slow, circular, reflective, concentric — central to the lifeways and histories in the region. The caracoles serve as sites of resistance to (and protection from) the Mexican government, yes, but also as openings to the world, spiraling paths by which inside and outside are negotiated. This way of life is often narrated by the Zapatistas as “another world” in stark contrast to the hyper-stimulated global engines of free market capitalism. For indigenous communities the land on which the caracoles sit, settled by Mayans over a thousand years ago, is not inanimate; it cannot be defined in the sterilizing terms of objectified value, as a piece of property or a quantifiable resource. Instead it is an active force, a protagonist in the lives of the people living on it, and utterly central to their economic livelihoods.
Telecom corporations in Latin America, however, have historically seen the people and land in Chiapas or Oaxaca differently, as discrete, quantifiable, even as a commodity to extract. “Too few bodies, not enough money” captures the logic used to justify the lack of capital and infrastructure investment in these communities. Corporate providers see the remote high-altitude locations, characterized by lush rainforest, as too precarious for infrastructure and the people too few in number (and not wealthy enough) to be worthy of investment. Even if a large carrier like Movistar or TelCel offered mobile access to indigenous communities, it would likely charge exorbitant rates several times higher than those for urban counterparts.
To build the TIC cell phone network, teams of activists, hackers, and community members had to fight multiple legal battles, waged at national and international levels, just to gain access to the radio-frequency spectrum (the “airwaves” on which mobile networks run) that are currently dominated by large corporate providers. Building the network has also involved the design and the development of decentralized telecommunications infrastructures, an innovation that depends on community involvement and leadership. TIC leaders have argued that just like water and air, the mobile spectrum should be a public utility to which all should have equal access.
A little-recognized but powerful mode of innovation called “broken-world thinking” can often flourish from within environments of constraint, inaccessibility, and systematic exclusion. Loreto Bravo, a community radio activist based in Oaxaca, describes the TIC effort as “a techno-seed that inhabits a communal ecosystem; an ethical-political bridge between the hacker community of the free-software movement and the communities of indigenous peoples in Oaxaca, in the South-East of Mexico.” Here she points out that the project brings technology activists concerned with checking the power of telecom companies and surveillance systems together with indigenous peoples interested in greater sovereignty over their lives.
Indigenous philosophers from Oaxaca, including Jaime Martinez Luna and Floriberto Díaz Gómez, have coined the term comunalidad to describe the sense that community and interdependence — not the individual, his sense of self, or illusion of freedom — are at the heart of life. In his book “The Wealth of the Commons,” Gustavo Esteva explains that this philosophy is “about displacing the economy from the center of social life, reclaiming a communal way of being, encouraging radical pluralism, and advancing towards real democracy.”
Comunalidad is not an abstract political philosophy but is near and dear to the languages and practices of most of Oaxaca’s rural indigenous communities. One way it is practiced is through the asamblea, gatherings of as many as hundreds of community members who discuss and eventually vote on matters of shared concern. TIC likewise organizes itself through collective assemblies that are attended by each partner community. Comunalidad is in all things social and cultural, Esteva explains, in contrast to the atomizing approach taken by telecom corporations that establish contracts between an individual and corporation, one at a time.
While visiting TIC communities, I witnessed the power of comunalidad in action, as a means to connect each community member to the greater collective. For some of us so much “togetherness” may sound claustrophobic. But the indigenous lens doesn’t see limitation in entanglement, it sees reward: As a member of the community with an unquestionable place at the table and a valuable role to play, an individual becomes someone with whom the rewards of communal life will be shared — not just as a person to whom a “piece of the pie” is owed, but as a beloved neighbor in whose company dessert tastes all the more sweet.
Ramesh Srinivasan is Professor of Information Studies and Design Media Arts at UCLA and the author of “Beyond the Valley,” from which this article is adapted. He has written for, among other outlets, the Washington Post, Quartz, Huffington Post, and CNN.