A seed sprouts when it is sown in fertile soil
This is the story of the autonomous and community cell phone network of the native peoples of Oaxaca, 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. It is a dialogue between the concept of technological sovereignty and the concepts of autonomy and self-determination, where the commons and decolonisation meet; a version of the history of the autonomous and community cell phone project driven by the Rhizomatica collective and managed today by the organisation Telecomunicaciones Indígenas Comunitarias A.C. (Indigenous Community Telecommunications).
It all started with a dream that was named and shared and became a reality.
I recall that only five years ago, when we talked about creating an autonomous and community cell phone network, our circle of friends who lived in the city looked at us in disbelief. However, when this idea was voiced in the mountains of the Sierra Juárez, in Oaxaca, at the heart of a community radio project, it took on a new meaning.
Every story is a voyage in time and space, and the start of this story is a huge welcome sign that reads:
In this community private property does not exist. The buying and selling of communal lands is PROHIBITED. Signed the Comisariat of Common Goods of Ixtlan de Juárez
Historical background to Oaxaca 1, the indigenous peoples and “communality”
Oaxaca is the fifth-largest state in the country, with a population of 3 million 800 thousand inhabitants, of which more than half live in rural villages of less than 2,500 people. Of the 2,445 municipalities in Mexico, 570 are in Oaxacan territory, and 418 are governed by the system of usage and traditions 2. That means that 58% of the total surface area of Oaxaca is social property or commons. In these areas, the authorities are under the community assembly, which represents the exercise of direct and participatory democracy, and a form of self-government recognised by the Mexican political constitution. Sixteen indigenous peoples live side-by-side in this region, which is also the state with the greatest ethnic and linguistic diversity in the country.
Oaxaca is also the state with the most biodiversity, due to the geological complexity of the region, where three long and deep mountain ranges, the Western Sierra Madre, the Sierra Sur and the Sierra Norte, better known as the Sierra Juárez, cross. Because of this accident of geography, the European conquerors never completely managed to subject these peoples who were able to conserve their forms of self-government, which have been adapted and reconfigured over time to fit the current context.
In the mid-1970s and early-1980s, a social movment emerged among the indigenous peoples of Oaxaca and the South East of Mexico in response to the development policies promoted by the government, and the need to defend themselves against the pludering of lands, sacking of resources and forced displacements. This movement demanded respect for their ways of life, languages and spirituality. In this way they built and defended autonomy and built the concept of “Comunality” as a way of explaining life in these areas and villages. In those years they built their first communal companies for forestry resources, spring water bottling, eco-tourism projects and the commercialisation and export of consumable goods, as well as a myriad of community radios. Today this social movement continues to struggle to defend the territory against mining and extraction companies that want to come into the region.
These struggles give life to what the anthropologist Elena Nava has called “grassroots native analytical theories”, where indigenous thinkers such as Jaime Martinez Luna (Zapoteco) and Floriberto Díaz Gómez (Mixe) sought to understand life in community beyond western academic definitions. These thinkers asked themselves: “What is a community for us, the indigenous peoples?”. It is a space of common property, common oral history, common language, its own form of organisation and a communal system for seeking justice. They called this “Communality” as a way of being, living and feeling, considering the mother earth and practising consensus in assemblies as the highest decision-making body, creating a system of positions and responsibilities based on free service, developing collective work as an act of solidarity and reciprocity and the festival, the rites and the ceremonies as expressions of the commons.
Community radios as communal communication companies
In 2006, Oaxaca experienced an uprising detonated by government repression of the education workers movement. This movement gave life to the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca 4 and one of its principal characteristics was the creation of various community radio stations and the taking over of state communications media 5. Some of these later became Communal Communications Companies 6 with the aim of reinforcing the autonomy of the localities and contributing to achieving the indigenous people's objectives and visions of life, in the form of self determination.
In 2012, more than 30 municipal authorities and indigenous communities delivered a formal petition to the Communications and Transport Secretary (SCT by its Spanish initials) to reclaim access to GSM band frequencies 3. However, that petition was refused. The current legal framework does not oblige large telecommunications companies to provide communications services in rural areas with populations of less than 5,000 people, although the state regulatory body is obliged to guarantee universal service in rural areas.
The creation of an autonomous cell phone network is an idea that has been cooking for several years within the hacker community and the free software movement, and there have been a number of prior attempts to make it a reality. For example, in 2008 the idea emerged to use cell phones to defend human and environmental rights and to document the abuses faced by indigenous peoples in the South of Nigeria. The challenge posed by the question of what to do with the resulting documentation produced using cell phones, without using the services offered by the telephone companies, led to experiments with a software called Serval Mesh, which allowed communication between cellphones without passing through any company's network. The technology proved inadequate for the context. Nevertheless, these concerns led Peter Bloom, founder of the organization Rhizomatica, to want to try a cell phone system when he came to collaborate with the Palabra Radio organisation in Oaxaca 7.
At the beginning of 2011, Kino, a hacker with experience in technologies for indigenous communities in resistance began to research the technological requirements to be able to create these networks. At the same time, the Mexican artist, Minerva Cuevas 8, decided to buy a small kit for $3,000 dollars to create a political-concepual installation in Finland, with the help of Kino, and later donate the equipment for making the initial tests. Later, the lawyer Erick Huerta, specialist in telecommunications and indigenous peoples, met Rhizomatica at a gathering of indigenous communicators, and he began to research the legal implications. At that point, Palabra Radio was providing technical support to community radios, and thus the idea reached Keyla and Israel from radio Dizha Kieru (Our Word), located in the village of Talea de Castro, where, in 2013, the first community cell phone network was finally born.
Before launching the network, Erick Huerta began a dialogue with the state regulatory body to review the spectrum allocation and found a range of GSM frequencies that were not in use and had never been tendered nor granted to the large companies. This enabled the creation of a legal framework in which the communities could operate their own telecommunications networks. In 2014, a 2-year experimental license was granted and in 2016 the organisation of all the communities with telephone networks formed an association called Telecomunicaciones Indígenas Comunitarias (TIC A.C.), which was granted a social concession of 15 years to be the telecommunications operator in 5 states in Mexico 9. The TIC A.C. association is structured as an assembly of communities. This created important precedents at a national and international level to defy the hegemonic commercial model of doing telecommunications, as it considers citizens not as client-consumers, but as subjects with fundamental rights, which include the right to communication.
These telephone networks therefore do not commercially exploit the services they offer and they create a quota based on recovering costs to make the network sustainable. This quota is currently $40 Mexican pesos (around $2 dollars) to cover unlimited calls and text messages within the locality and the interconnected micro-regions. Of this quota, $25 pesos remain with the local economy to cover the community's investment costs and pay the internet provider, and the other $15 go to TIC A.C. to cover maintainance of the networks and legal processes.
How do community cell phones work?
A community cell phone network is a hybrid network made up of an infrastructure (software and hardware) and a service over internet that enables the community to become a communications service provider. The hardware consists of a GSM signal transceiver and a controller or computer operating with free software connected to a local internet service provider with a contract for a Voice over IP (VOIP) service. Thanks to the work of the free software and hacker community, Ciaby and Tele, two Italian hackers, created the software (RCCN + RAI) that makes this network work and give it a simple administration interface.
A community interested in creating its own telephone network needs to have undergone a process of collective decision making within the community assembly. The authorisation of the project is minuted and a committee is named for operating and administering the network. TIC A.C. provides training and support in importing, installing, operating and managing their networks, as well as accompaniment in legal matters. The community should provide the location for the installation and invest around $7,500 dollars in equipment and training. Some communities used municipal funds, others fund raised among the people in the village or asked for a loan.
Benefits and challenges
There are currently 15 networks 10, covering around 50 villages, with between 2,500 and 3,000 users. There are an average of 1300 calls per day, of which 60% are within the village or the Sierra Juárez region. The principal benefits of these networks are related to the facilitation of local communication between residents and at a micro-regional level. It also reduces the costs of communication at a national and international level, thanks to a contract with a Voice over IP service provider, which reduces costs by 60% compared to what companies charge. Due to regulations, there is no public telephone number assigned to each device. Instead, a single number receives all the calls from outside. Then the extension number of the network user is dialled through a voice menu, which in some cases is in the local language.
From the point of view of individuals and families, there is greater interpersonal communication, facilitating the organisation of community life and shared work, calling assemblies and ensuring the system of charges and responsibilities works. It also facilitates issues of security and surveillance within the territory. It is useful in medical emergencies or as an emergency response system in case of natural disasters such as plagues and storms. Finally, it also facilitates commercial relations and plays a role in the processes of production, as it increases access to information and communication with others.
In terms of challenges, we find new and existing gender violences that can be reproduced through these technologies and which have led to the creation of a new mechanism for attending to these violences. That is where ethical-technical problems arise that include the storing and handing over of information. Decision-making regarding these problems should be taken to be debated within the community assembly and be accompanied by a participatory process of reflection that takes into account technical, political and ethical perspectives, so that these new means of communication can continue to exist without prejudicing the communities. These concerns gave rise to the creation of the “Community Diploma for Persons Promoting Radio and Telecommunications” and the creation of a Manual 11 and a wiki 12 to document the production of knowledge.
Technological Sovereignty and Autonomy
Now that we have introduced the autonomous and community cell phone project, I would like to go deeper into the ethical and political discussion that marks the rhythm of the dialogue between the free software hacker community and the indigenous peoples of Oaxaca. I would like to reflect on the significance of the concept of technological sovereignty as a political focus for the analysis of this kind of initiative. There is no doubt that the community telephone project is the result of the bridge built between these two communities on shared foundations: the commons and decolonisation. Nevertheless, the encounter and the dialogue between the two is not easy. For the hacker community, the starting point is the defence and decolonisation of knowledge as a common good, while for the indigenous communities in Oaxaca, the common good is the communally owned territory that also needs to be decolonised.
Decolonising communal territories implies understanding them as an inseparable whole that includes the electromagnetic spectrum, that common good in the public domain, socially constructed to allow the communities to strengthen their autonomy. To decolonise the electromagnetic spectrum requires technologies and knowledge. This is where the bridge is built between the two communities. Once the dialogue began, we realised that the language also needs to be decolonised.
As we build this dialogue we have observed that the hacker vision seeks common goods from the point of view of the individual, while the vision of the communities do it through the communal. This is the breaking point, which makes it complex for some hackers who have arrived in the Oaxcan territories to understand the lack of individual freedoms that exist in communal life, where the people are not beings divorced from their relationship with the whole. We have also learnt that the same words can have different meanings. It is in this sense that I would like to explain what occurs with the concept of technological sovereignty, which is what drew us to participate in this book.
In order for this techno-seed to sprout it had to fall on fertile terrain, with history, memory and a communal ecosystem such as that which exists in South Eastern Mexico, a territory that has spend centuries fighting for its autonomy and self-determination. For the indigenous peoples of Oaxaca, the concept of sovereignty is related to the construction of the Nation State which, through its political constitution (1917), sought to absorb the indigenous community's authority figures into the state structure, and as such, repeat the colonial experience.
Until 1992, the Mexican state did not recognise the rights of indigenous people to regulate themselves according to “uses and practices”. The neo-Zapatista movement went public in 1994, subverting the Marxist idea of the national revolution and turning it into a revolution for autonomy, demands for self-government by the indigenous peoples of South East Mexico were recognised. The creative use of communications technologies played a significant role in the process. In order to better understand the idea of autonomy, we return to the beginnings of this story, to our welcome sign:
In this community private property does not exist. The buying and selling of communal lands is PROHIBITED. Signed the Comisariat of Common Goods of Ixtlan de Juárez.
This is not a declaration of sovereignty, but of autonomy. Here the construction of power is not based on the sovereignty of the people. Power emanatesf from the territory, that common good, where there is no place for private property and where technologies play a role in strengthening that autonomy, which is the only mandate that the community assembly should respect and defend.
Thus far it is clear that we are referring to the classical concept of sovereignty and the meaning it has in this corner of the globe. We are far from the concept of technological sovereignty that postulates the development of self-powered initiatives, defined by community life, as a process of empowerment for social transformation. To a large extent, this distance feeds off the mistaken idea of wishing to strenthen the communities with current commercial technologies in order to achieve social change. We need to continue weaving knowledge among hackers and peoples in order to decolonise the idea of technological sovereignty and exercise it from a position of autonomy.
It is for that reason that, when the free software hacker community proposes understanding these initiatives from a focus of technological sovereignty we don't find the echo we expected, because the meaning is different. It appears to be a conflict, although in reality it is common ground: we need to decolonise the language and, as Alex Hache says: “Then, if the idea can be told, it also means that it can filter into the social imagination, producing a radical and transformative effect”. 13
We are in a good moment to open a dialogue between technological sovereignty and autonomy, understood as it is lived in this corner of the world, among the indigenous peoples of South East Mexico.
5. Un poquito de tanta verdad: http://www.corrugate.org/un-poquito-de-tanta-verdad.html ↩
6. Loreto Bravo. “Empresas Comunales de Comunicación: Un camino hacia la sostenibilidad”. Media Development: 4/2015 WACC. http://www.waccglobal.org/articles/empresas-comunales-de-comunicacion-un-camino-hacia-la-sostenibilidad ↩
9. Puebla, Guerrero, Tlaxcala, Veracruz and Oaxaca. ↩
10. List of villages that have telephone networks: Villa Talea de Castro (Sierra Juárez) • Santa María Yaviche (Sierra Juárez) • San Juan Yaee (Sierra Juárez) • San Idelfonso Villa Alta (Sierra Juárez) • San Juan Tabaa (Sierra Juárez) • Secteur Cajonos: Santo Domingo Xagacia, San Pablo Yaganiza, San Pedro Cajonos, San Francisco Cajonos, San Miguel Cajonos, San Mateo Cajonos (Sierra Juárez) • San Bernardo Mixtepec (Valles Centrales) • Santa María Tlahuitoltepec (Mixe-Alto) • Santa María Alotepec (Mixe-Alto) • San Jerónimo Progreso (Mixteca) • Santiago Ayuquililla (Mixteca) • San Miguel Huautla (Mixteca) • Santa Inés de Zaragosa (Mixteca) • Santos Reyes Tepejillo (Mixteca). ↩