In Vale do Ribeira, in an agroecological territory led by women in São Paulo, Brazil, quilombola1 women have been the key actors in articulating and sustaining a community network that started in the second semester of 2019 and has now existed for longer during the COVID-19 pandemic than in “normal” times. The network came to address a lack of connectivity that imposes more barriers than the already historical ones faced by Rede Agroecológica de Mulheres Agricultoras (Agroecologial Network of Agriculture Women, or RAMA). RAMA is a group of women farmers living in seven different quilombos in a mountainous area with scarce and expensive connectivity. Some women previously had to go to the highway to "fish for a 3G signal" to get messages to their phones and be able to prepare their agroecological products in order to sell them to city customers and provide a living for their families. With a partnership from the feminist organisation Sempreviva Organização Feminista (SOF – Sempervivum Feminist Organisation), independent activists, quilombo residents and the Feminist Internet Research Network (FIRN), a three-node Wi-Fi community network was designed and implemented by residents of the quilombos. It provides internet connectivity to 15 families in one of these quilombos, Ribeirão Grande/Terra Seca.
The name Terra Seca means “dry dirt” in Portuguese, but this land is quite the opposite. It is surrounded by small rivers and cascades and has fertile soil for fruits and vegetables all year round. The network is one of the achievements of an action research from the FIRN project, and it was all dreamed of, designed and implemented while regarding intersectional feminist and popular education2 principles.
How it started
Our action research on the Feminist Autonomous Network project3 started in the middle of 2019, through a fruitful partnership with the feminist organisation SOF, previously initiated by Carla Jancz. She had already held some initial workshops with RAMA women in order to present the idea of a community network and its possibilities. Through her articulation we came to SOF with the will and the financial support from FIRN to make the network a reality.
Between September 2019 and March 2020, we traveled to quilombo Ribeirão Grande/Terra Seca five times, where we engaged in workshops and practical activities and set up the community network with the local community and the help of residents of other quilombos. The first encounter (in September 2019) was to get to know each other and talk about the multiple means and artifacts of communications and the role of technology in the community. It was a one-day workshop open to all the community members where we presented our project and the intention to co-create a community network with them.
Between September 2019 and March 2020, we traveled to quilombo Ribeirão Grande/Terra Seca five times, where we engaged in workshops and practical activities and set up the community network with the local community and the help of residents of other quilombos.
With the approval of the community, we then gathered a team of about 20 people, of mixed gender and age, and held an intensive technopolitical workshop (in November 2019) where we presented the core concepts, social and technical procedures and equipment we were going to use to implement the community network. Our third encounter was a less structured meeting but a really fruitful planning session, where we walked around and drew a map of the community, pointing out where to put the antennas and where external poles were needed, inspired by AlterMundi’s experiences of planning through community-made maps4 and by an activity of the Detroit Community Technology Project from their (Re)building Technology Zine.5 After the planning, we carried out a more technically driven visit, where we installed LibreMesh6 firmware in the antennas and routers and, with the help of the community, set up two poles. One wooden pole was made entirely by the community in advance, and the other one made together with the community and with the help of an external consultant who facilitated bamboo-treating workshops in February and March of 2020.
I am oversimplifying the process here, but these five workshops and meetings were really intense and much more complex and rich than described above, but to describe them in detail and to be fair to them would take more than a few paragraphs. Perhaps we will do this on another occasion.
By our fifth visit to the quilombo, in 2020, the first COVID-19 cases were starting to appear in São Paulo state and during that visit we expressed our concerns about the future and the unpredictability of when we would be able to come back. By then, the network existed in three functioning nodes of a Wi-Fi mesh network, running an intranet using a Raspberry Pi as a local server and incentivising the use of chatting apps such as Briar and Meshenger, that run in Wi-Fi only, without the need of the internet.
They were concerned for us in the cities
After a couple months of global chaos and general anxiety, we started to slowly regain contact with SOF and RAMA. For some months RAMA had not sold their agroecological products due to the lack of municipally subsidised transportation of their products to São Paulo, where they are sold. SOF had been helping them with the final commercialisation process for a long time and kept reflecting with them on whether or not the commercialisation of their agroecological business was possible and exploring new ways of doing this, since the start of the pandemic. They decided to collectively make efforts to send the food to the city (which included renting private transportation and using their own vehicles), thinking that it would be less of a risk for consumers to buy from them than to go to the supermarkets and that way RAMA women would still have their income guaranteed. SOF has also started a campaign of donations of food to help women that were struggling due to the pandemic, at the same time the campaign helped women to guarantee food security in the cities and income for the RAMA agricultures.
Natália Lobo, a SOF member and one of our main articulators of the project with Ribeirão Grande/Terra Seca quilombo, stated that in their conversations about the pandemic with RAMA members they expressed more concern for people in the big cities than for themselves. They stated that their close contact with nature made them well and that they felt they were in better shape than city dwellers because they did not have to go out for groceries, for instance, because their backyard was filled with healthy food – vegetables, fruits and grains – so they did not need to go out much to shop and could practise social distancing on their land; bushes and farms and did not needed to be locked in a house or apartment, like people in the city.
They stated that their close contact with nature made them well and that they felt they were in better shape than city dwellers because they did not have to go out for groceries, for instance, because their backyard was filled with healthy food.
Those narratives reminded me of a phrase attributed to the indigenous philosopher and leader Ailton Krenak,7 “We are indigenous, we have resisted for 500 years. I'm worried about whether the whites will resist", alluding to the approximately 500 years since Brazilian colonisation had started. Luckily, the Brazilian vaccine campaigns have indigenous and quilombolas as a priority group and these people were able to get the vaccine sooner than most of the rest of the population. Neverthless, in their regions medical assistance is less available and there are a lot of COVID-19 denial campaigns in Brazil, including from President Bolsonaro who still publicly claims that he was not vaccinated.
The pandemic and the arrival of internet to the community networks
Most of the quilombola residents were vaccinated and thus relaxed to some degree the social distancing rules among people from the same quilombo, in order to be able to work jointly on the land (multirões). In contrast, reunions between different quilombos were suspended and RibeirãoGrande/Terra Seca residents could not communicate easily with their peers outside the quilombo.
So, in January 2021, the action-research team decided that we would take the risk and return to the territory once again to help the inhabitants install internet in the community network, since there was an urgent need and the pandemic seemed somewhat stable in that month. A pandemic is a real emergency situation. Although quilombo residents were all vaccinated, none of the team members was and we had to create a severe COVID-19 protocol (the most difficult part was to refuse all the cups of coffee offered to us and not seem disrespectful) in order to get three of the team members there, including myself. Once at the location, it was possible to share the previously purchased internet connection with the Wi-Fi community network. We arranged a commercial internet plan for a year paid by the project, provided by the only internet service provider that serves that area – they were not happy with our project of sharing internet connectivity, but agreed to look the other way. The purchased Satellite internet data plan – and the only option available – has a data cap of 30 GB, after it reaches that limit, the speed drops to 1 MB per second. So, for 15 families it is obvious that 1 MB per second is much less than ideal – since the data plan is fully used on the first two days after the bill is paid – but the stable 1 MB per second allows them to experience some connectivity and do plenty, as we will see later.
First, they have designed or created an interesting gathering system in order to be able to still convene for their organisational meetings of the RAMA board, only that now they happen online on WhatsApp. Since video calls for all participants simultaneously are not yet possible due to the internet restrictions, they set up a day and time for all of them to be online in a WhatsApp group and discuss their agenda using text and audio, being able to plan for their agroecological sales in a much more comfortable and secure way than by having to “fish” for a 3G signal on the railroad.
They have designed or created an interesting gathering system in order to be able to still convene for their organisational meetings of the RAMA board, only that now they happen online on WhatsApp.
Second, occasionally they ask the community not to cluster on the internet and only one person at a time participates in a video call or a live online event so that RAMA board members have been able to participate in regional and national political decision spaces, such as the National Articulation for Agroecology, the National Board of Quilombos and environmental meetings.
Third, although classes have partially restarted offline at venues, some school assignments have been sent through the internet and the connectivity helps the students to download learning materials.
Fourth, the community network and the internet have fostered personal relations and increased daily communications. For instance, Clarisdina, an elderly woman who lives in isolation with her husband – who is also elderly – was happy with the community network and bought a smartphone. She now participates in the RAMA activities more actively and is present for friends and family who live outside the quilombos and has more means of asking for help in case of an emergency. In addition, women do regular online check-ins amongst themselves and have this extra connectivity tool to look out for each other.
We were an all-woman group leading and developing this project, but we believe that that is not what made this a feminist community network project. Most of us had already had plenty of experience with community networks at different levels, whether technical, with the community of developers or in research, so we started with a lot of feminist ideas of what not to do in order to avoid reproducing prejudices and patriarchal approaches to technology and community networks. Some basic ones included shifting the focus from the technical to the human components; respecting the community time and sovereignty; working to have as much gender representation as possible; using learning methodologies that are inclusive and inviting, such as popular education and having all the support needed for women to be able to attend, such as available childcare, meals for them and their dependants, transportation and family talks to explain the project so the parents would allow the girls to participate.
We believe that the most important effort was the insistence on constant reflection and conversations before, during and after the process in order to create awareness and an ambiance of trust, support and respect for differences, a characteristic we believe has also contributed to the resilience of the community network in the time of the pandemic and to our personal growth.
Our team consisted mainly of white women intervening in a traditional black territory, so we made an effort to acknowledge the structural differences among us regarding race privilege and to that end, we engaged in discussions and had study groups sections on whiteness8 – mostly inside our working group. We acknowledge there is still a long road to rightfully address the challenge of how to approach racial, ethnical and social imbalances in the diverse ambient of a community network community, but a dear facilitator of our network project – and GenderIT author, Daiane Araújo – has made us realise that this is a subject that can be no longer postponed or ignored, considering that most community networks take place in territories marked by racial, ethnical and social class disputes and imbalances.
In addition, we had a previous request from the RAMA group for connectivity and an already structured women’s group which claimed that our presence and work for the community was really important! Although RAMA women were not often able to be present in the workshops and implementation of the community network due to their daily agricultural tasks, we kept them regularly informed through meetings and SOF made sure that their feedback always got to us. That trust and close relationship was crucial and gave the RAMA women the status of guardians of the community network – being the ones responsible for giving out passwords, knowing where the infrastructure is installed, doing basic troubleshooting and informing us of bigger problems with accuracy.
That trust and close relationship was crucial and gave the RAMA women the status of guardians of the community network – being the ones responsible for giving out passwords, knowing where the infrastructure is installed, doing basic troubleshooting and informing us of bigger problems with accuracy.
This also made these women more visible to their own community that much appreciated that a women’s project had brought the internet to the community, despite the distrust of some men during the process. It was also the RAMA women that made sure that all the families from the quilombo, and not only the participants of RAMA, received internet access, even if that meant less bandwidth for each person. So, I must say that I do believe they were already operating as a feminist infrastructure by the time we got there, we only helped them to better distribute their means of communication.9
- 1. According to Daiane Araújo, the quilombos emerged as refuges for black people who escaped repression during the entire period of slavery in Brazil, between the 16th and 19th centuries. The inhabitants of these communities are called quilombolas. After the abolition of slavery, most of them preferred to continue living in the villages they had formed. With the 1988 Constitution, they gained the right to own and use the land where they had settled. Today Brazil has more than 15,000 quilombola communities. Araújo, D. (2021, 30 March). GenderIT. https://www.genderit.org/feminist-talk/contribution-bell-hooks-and-paulo...
- 2. Popular Education is a form of education very present in Latin America that values the people's prior knowledge and their cultural realities in the construction of new knowledge. Educator Paulo Freire was a great supporter of this approach, which encourages the development of a critical look at education and the participation of the community as a whole, encouraging dialogue and guided by the perspective of realising all the rights of the people. The teaching-learning process is seen as an act of knowledge and social transformation, recognising the importance of popular and scientific/technological knowledge.
- 3. The project was led by Bruna Zanolli, with research led by Débora Prado, with the participation of Daiane Araújo, Carla Jancz, Natália Lobo and Gláucia Marques.
- 4. https://altermundi.net/documentacion/
- 5. Detroit Community Technology Project. (2015). Re)building Technology Zine. Detroit Community Technology Project https://detroitcommunitytech.org/?q=content/rebuilding-technology-zine
- 6. https://libremesh.org/
- 7. Martins, C. (2018, 22 October). Somos índios, resistimos há 500 anos. Fico preocupado é se os brancos vão resistir. Portal Gelédes. https://www.geledes.org.br/somos-indios-resistimos-ha-500-anos-fico-preo...
- 8. Bruna Zanolli and Débora Prado address this subject in an article to be released by Apria (https://apria.artez.nl/) in 2021.
- 9. We want to give special thanks to the inhabitants of Quilombo Ribeirão Grande/Terra Seca, the women from RAMA and the women involved in our work team.