What would you do if a multi-national company was polluting your waters? If the rivers you depended on were degraded by oil spills, the water unsafe to drink or fish from? Would you petition the government to step in and force the company to clean it up? What if, for years, the government didn’t listen and turned a blind eye?
This is exactly the challenge faced by Digital Democracy’s local partners in Peru, indigenous federations living along the Pastaza, Corientes & Tigre river basins, which feed into the larger Amazon River in the northern Peruvian rainforest. For four decades, they have lived alongside oil production which has led to hundreds of spills and sites of contamination. For many years, the government was negligent and absent, and the communities had very little recourse.
All that changed this spring and summer when, in response to years of documentation by local environmental monitors, the Peruvian government declared the Pastaza and Corientes river basins as states of environmental emergencies. These decisions are significant, because it means the government is holding the oil company accountable for cleaning up spills.
What role is Digital Democracy playing? For years we have been working with marginalized groups to leverage technology to help them overcome pressing human rights abuses and violations. In places like Burma/Myanmar, Haiti & Chiapas, Mexico, we’ve seen how technology tools designed for consistent power & internet access don’t meet the needs of our local partners. Quite simply, there are not enough tools designed with and for the populations with whom we work. Last summer, I began working on a proposal to address this with Gregor MacLennan, who has worked for years with indigenous groups in the Amazon to help them map their territories, advocate for their rights and set up the environmental monitoring programs. Thanks to a grant from the Knight News Challenge, Gregor joined the Dd team in February to lead Remote Access, a program designed to create a toolkit for populations in off-grid/remote areas to more easily share information about human rights & environmental abuses. The indigneous federations in Peru represent our pilot community - if we can make tools that allow them to more easily manage & share the information they are gathering on oils spills, we believe we will also, in the process, be designing tools that can be used by thousands of communities around the world who also face environmental & human rights threats in remote and hard-to-reach places.
To read more about the situation in Peru and the work we’re doing to address it, check out my recent guest blog post for the Transparency & Accountability Initiative (TAI) blog, Documenting Oil Spills: Transparency in Hard to Reach Places.
To see firsthand what Gregor and I were up to in Peru this spring, including photos of the oil spills, view our recent slideshow:
Next up, we are focusing on building out prototype devices to make it easier for our local partners to collect and manage information in the field. We aim to reduce the time it takes for them to aggregate information on oil spills. Currently, it takes 6-18 months - we hope to reduce this time to days/weeks.
If you want to get involved, particularly if you have worked with Raspberry Pis or distributed databases, please get in touch. We’re also continuing work in Guyana & Mexico, working on offline mapping tools and remote sensing platforms to support local environmental monitors.
What happens when local communities are empowered with tools that allow them to share information from remote places? Transformative change that not only allows them to overcome threats to their lives and livelihoods, but that helps protect eco-systems the whole planet depends upon.