One of the major changes that I have seen in the Amazonian communities in which I work in the past several years is community members’ embrace of smartphones and internet. This began some four or five years aɡo with people buying phones to use when they left their communities and were in range of cellphone towers, which sometimes only involved an hour of travel, and sometimes more like half a day, depending on the community. While the very earliest adopters were, as stereotype might suggest, younger people eager to use social media, stream music, and the like, older generations (I have in mind people up to their late 60s in age) quickly followed suite, motivated especially by the desire to keep in touch with kin and work colleagues living in areas with regular cell service.
The Máíjùnà community of Nueva Vida, for example, in which I work, gained an internet connection last year via a Peruvian Ministry of Education program that supplies internet to schools in rural areas via satellite dish, and when school is not in session, the remainder of the community can use the internet, with WhatsApp being especially popular. Or at least in theory: when I was the community in September and November of 2022, solar power issues and other technical issues meant that it was inoperative more than it was operative, but there was at least an intermittent connection.
I am writing and posting the current blog post from the Iquito community of San Antonio de Pintuyacu, located on the Pintuyacu River, a tributary of the Nanay River, which is itself joins the Amazon River at the northern edge of the city of Iquitos. Although I have worked in San Antonio on Iquito language documentation and description with speakers of Iquito on and off since 2002, there was no internet until just a month or two ago, thanks to a Peruvian government program that installs “Tambos” (note the capital letter), in regions far from major urban centers.
Tambos are intended to provide a range of government services ranging from disbursement of pensions, provision of national ID cards, and banking via a local branch of Banco de la Nación (the national bank) to otherwise poorly-served areas. And, crucially, they are equipped with internet to facilitate these various services.
In a curious twist of fate, in San Antonio, the Tambo was built right behind our little Iquito language research center, as can be seen in the photo (the Tambo is the red-roofed building in the background, the building with blue paint in the foreground is the Iquito research center).
When the community gave us the space for the research center back in 2002 it was at the far edge of the built-up part of the community, responding to our request for as quiet a location as possible for our linguistic work. Since then the community has been slowly building out towards our location, and in recent years community leaders have had their eye on the nice flat expanse behind the Iquito research center, which had for a long time been community members’ yuca plots, as a place for a number of possible major government construction projects, including an educational complex promised by the regional government. Whereas the educational complex has yet to materialize, the Tambo was offered to the community and built in its entirety in only six months, a truly impressive pace for such a substantial construction project so far from Iquitos.
The architect and construction team worked wonders, finishing up in October, but the subsequent installation of services has not advanced as quickly: thus far, the only thing to have been done is the installation of internet in December. But that has been a huge boon for community members, who can now communicate with the outside world without leaving the community. Internet is supposed to be available for two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening every day, although the actual availability of internet is less predictable than this. Since we’ve been here on this visit, there have been days at a time where community members have not had internet access.
The range of the Tambo’s wifi signal is quite short, so to make calls, people need to come up to the Tambo. Especially in the evening, when we often sit out on our patio after a day of work enjoying the cool evening and the stars, we exchange a steady stream of “Buenas noches” with folks going to and from the Tambo to use their phones. Unexpectedly, at our research center, we are within range of the Tambo’s wifi, making us, and our immediate neighbor, Iquito speaker Jaime Pacaya Inuma, the only people in the community who can use the internet without leaving our homes. Anyway, this blog post is brought to you by the San Antonio’s Tambo internet connection!
In a future post I will address what I believe to be a very important implication that the expansion of internet access to Indigenous communities has for documentary linguists.