Using high frequency digital radio systems to connect Amazonian communities

Bringing connectivity to people all over the world requires understanding the environment, the resources, and the people who need the connectivity. For our partner Rhizomatica, they use this understanding to bring connectivity to people in a way that facilitates well-being, community organization, and personal and collective autonomy. One such project that we collaborated on with them with was bringing connectivity through high frequency radio systems to remote villages in the Ecuadorian Amazon. To understand how this project started, what connectivity looks like for these people, and how it impacts them, we asked Peter Bloom, Rhizomatica’s General Coordinator and his colleagues some questions. Read below to find out what this project is all about.

How did you first get involved in working in this area of the Amazon?

In 2020, during the heart of the COVID pandemic, the CONFENIAE, which is the umbrella political organization of the 11 amazonian nationalities in Ecuador, reached out to Rhizomatica and Kara Solar and requested help from us to get communication tools into the hands of some very remote Sapara communities who were dealing with COVID in their lands but had no way to communicate. This lack of communication severely hindered their ability to respond. This initial effort turned into a much larger one. Through our efforts and with the help of both 48percent and various other funders, over 50 HF (high frequency) radios have been installed throughout the Ecuadorian amazon until now and dozens of indigenous technicians have been trained on how to install and maintain these systems.

Photo Credit: Rhizomatica

How many communities are involved in this project?

As mentioned above, if we are talking about the HF radio project generally, over 50 communities have been beneficiaries and received radios. More specifically, the first phase of the HERMES project which just concluded, with support from 48percent.org and Nia Tero, involved installing HERMES systems in 6 Achuar communities in Pastaza and Morona Santiago provinces as well as the NAE (Achuar Nation’s umbrella organization) office. There will be a second phase that will include installing a gateway station in the CONFENIAE as well as 7 or 8 other systems in strategic points/communities around the Ecuadorian Amazon.

Photo credit: Rhizomatica

Can you explain what equipment is used to bring connectivity to these areas and why you chose radios over another type of communication?

We have been developing a system called HERMES (The High-frequency Emergency and Rural Multimedia Exchange System) for some years now. HERMES is a digital information platform that operates over HF radio. This is not about providing internet access, but rather a way to send and receive digital information like files, email, chats, etc between two points. The advantage of using HF radio is that we can connect between places that are hundreds of kilometers apart easily. We have decided to take this approach for a few reasons. I will share two of them. The first is cost. There are many small villages in the Amazon (and many other places) that are quite remote and thus very hard and expensive to provide internet service to, generally via satellite. It is both expensive to install the service and also pay for the service, especially for smaller, poorer places. The second reason is safety. The HERMES system allows for encrypted communication and since much of it is not on the Internet, privacy and security become much simpler. This is important for human rights defenders using HERMES to share sensitive information.

What impact does connectivity have on the people living in this area?

As one might imagine, connectivity, even of the kind described above, can have a big impact. The places we install HERMES systems are usually only accessible by river canoe or light aircraft, meaning transportation can be slow and/or quite expensive. Having connectivity allows people and communities to organize their personal and collective lives. It allows health promoters to contact doctors in a city to deal with specific problems. It helps local agro-ecological and handicrafts producers contact their buyers and suppliers. It facilitates inter-village political organization. The list goes on.

Photo Credit: Rhizomatica

Have the people living in these communities responded positively or negatively to the project?

There has been positive response from the Achuar Nation, as representatives of all Achuar people as they requested this project to happen. In terms of response from inside communities, the systems have only been installed for a few days so far and so we don’t have the full picture. Both participants at the workshops (Achuar community members) and people in the villages where HERMES was installed have responded positively and also offered suggestions around how to make the system better and more intuitive. There were a few people who were expecting full Internet access and they were a bit surprised to learn about how HERMES actually works. But other than these few exceptions, the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive and there is lots of excitement about how HERMES will help Achuar people and communities organize and thrive while protecting their land and territory.