Monday, April 24, 2006

IITF ARCHIVE: Digital Divides and the New Information Colonialism, Indigenous Peoples at WSIS

Interview with Mohawk journalist Kenneth Deer - August 12, 2003

The information society is being colonized by developed countries and we have a great fear that our intellectual knowledge is being harvested through the information society. That's a big fear for indigenous peoples. As we learn how to use the information systems and as we put our knowledge in there, our stories, our history, etc. The big fear is that the developed countries, corporations, pharmaceuticals, etc. are going to harvest our information for their own gain, and we'll again be left out without the benefits of having shared this knowledge.

- Kenneth Deer commenting on the Information Society

The upcoming World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) poses a distinct set of problems for the world's indigenous peoples. The Information Warfare Monitor recently interviewed Kenneth Deer of the Indigenous Media Network (IMN) and the editor of The Eastern Door, on the subject of how indigenous communities are confronting the unique challenges posed by ICTs and the growing digital divide.

Konstantin Kilibarda (KK): Can you give us some background information on your organization and its involvement in the upcoming World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS)?

Kenneth Deer (KD): The Indigenous Media Network is an organization of indigenous journalists from around the world. It's still a fledgling, a very young organization, which was created really at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous issues last year, in 2002. The object was to try to link indigenous peoples from around the world, to make sure that we could share experiences, share stories, etc. When we found out about WSIS - we didn't really, none of us knew about it, surprisingly - or I shouldn't be surprised I guess. Lots of indigenous people didn't know about WSIS and what we wanted to do, as people involved in media who are therefore very much involved in the information society, we felt that we had to say something, we had to produce something to present to WSIS. We realized that there was not very much indigenous participation in PrepCom-1 and PrepCom-2, and we needed to increase our participation. That�s why we got ourselves together to try to do something for WSIS. I tried, myself personally, through my own newspaper The Eastern Door and through the Indigenous Media Network to get to PrepCom-2, but we were denied funding. That was I think a big setback.

KK: I was reading about Wayne Lord recently, who's involved in this issue apparently in the name of indigenous peoples here in Canada

KD: Well, Wayne Lord is government. Let me explain Wayne Lord to you. He works for the Canadian government in the Department of Foreign Affairs. I think he's a director and his field is indigenous issues. He, himself, is indigenous. He says he's Metis. So he always carries the Canadian government flag in this issue. However, at the same time, he's also a member of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. He's a government representative on there which when you are there, you're supposed to be there as an independent expert. So his independence is somewhat compromised. So when you listen to Wayne Lord talk, or if you ever talk to him, you should make clear what hat he's wearing. Now, because Wayne Lord has this position with the Canadian government and the Canadian government has a big part to play in WSIS they are taking the lead in the creation of an extra event called, I think they're calling it the Global Forum on Indigenous Peoples and the Information Society.

KK: They're creating this?

KD: Well this is the curious part. They are pushing for this because they know that indigenous people don't have enough participation. So this was at first supposed to be a side event, but now it has been elevated by WSIS to an official event. Now the Canadian government is going to contribute C$ 200,000, the city of Geneva is supposed to commit 200,000 Swiss Francs and other governments will be contributing to the Forum as well perhaps Australia, Finland, you know, some of the Scandinavian countries, etc. But the governments know, however, that if there is going to be a Global Forum on Indigenous People it cannot be governments that are running it, it has to be indigenous peoples. So they're scrambling now to get somebody to take ownership of this forum to organize it and to run it. Right now, I think, it's going to be the Secretariat for the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, which Wayne Lord is a member of. Now I have no objection to that. It's just as good a body as any that can do this. The Secretariat is brand-new, they're only less than a year old and this is a big project to handle. I hope they can do it well. So I support their work. So when you see Wayne Lord's name though

KK: Is there a concern then that the process will be controlled by governments in this case, or that there will be an attempt to co-opt whatever comes out of such a Global Forum?

KD: Well, its pretty clear that generally who pays the piper calls the tune. It all depends on what's going to happen in terms of what kind of board or supervising entity will be set up to run this Global Forum. We want to make sure that there is a lot of indigenous input into this global forum and we hope that as an indigenous person I support the Global Forum. It's an interesting idea and I think that we can do some creative stuff with this, as long as the government gives us the money and lets us do it. I can understand that some of the governments because they're contributing want to have some they won't have any say in the Forum itself, in the political forum but they will want to display in the event, during the event, what governments are doing for indigenous peoples. For instance, Canada will want to display its Indigenous Portal that it has. I have no objection to that if governments want to say, Well look, this is what we're doing for indigenous peoples. I have no problem with that, because it will be informative. The important part of the forum will be to have as many indigenous people as possible in Geneva to attend. Hopefully, the high majority of the budget will be used for travel. So we would like to get as many as one-hundred indigenous people there. Not only participants, but also we need panelists, speakers, and also some demonstrators. People who can demonstrate as well what indigenous people are doing in the field of the information society. They can show good use of their radio stations, or their TV stations, whatever. I would personally like to see a demonstration of indigenous communications. In our case we communicated through wampums, you know runners carrying wampums giving messages and sharing information. Also story-telling is a big part of indigenous information sharing. And other indigenous peoples have different ways and different forms of communication that I'd love to see being demonstrated.

KK: Just staying on the Canadian level, I was curious to know - since there have been tensions between the Canadian government and indigenous peoples, and within indigenous communities themselves, over the First Nations Governance Act (FNGA) - if those tensions have played out in preparations for WSIS?

KD: No. Well first of all there's been very little preparation. There has been very little contact. I haven't experienced any tensions though, and I don't intend to bring up that issue (laughing). I think it may remember the Global Forum will have political meetings. Indigenous people from around the world will be there to meet and they will come up with a declaration. What will be in that declaration I can't predict. But I think domestic issues tend to take second place to really the global issues. So I don't expect FNGA to play a big part in this.

KK: Why do you think then that at a global level indigenous people are mobilizing for WSIS? What do indigenous activists or at least your group feel is at stake in Geneva?

KD: Well first of all we're still informing people about WSIS. You know 99% of indigenous people don't even know that this is going to take place. We're dealing with the 1% and we're trying to educate the other 99% and it's very difficult because a lot of indigenous people are on the wrong side of the digital divide. I think that divide is going to be a big part of the whole discussion. How to close the gap between people who have broad access to the information society and those that don't. So its hard to get people who are on the wrong side of the digital divide well represented in a world conference that is taking place on the right side well not to say the right side but on the developed side of the digital divide. It seems to be that that's a big problem. Another problem is the lack of communication that exists between developed countries and non-developed areas. Even non-developed areas in developed countries. Take for instance a developed country like Finland, or Sweden and Norway, who have large and vast areas of land that are inhabited by indigenous reindeer herders who may or may not be plugged into these technologies. We don't know, we're trying to find out you know about the Masai in Africa, or the Mayans in Central America. There are so many questions and you know WSIS isn't going to be the end. WSIS is going to be the beginning. We're looking at this as a stepping stone to 2005, to Tunis and beyond.

KK: Can you maybe give us a description and you've touched on this somewhat but how do current IT trends impact the lives of indigenous peoples? What do you think needs to change in order for this situation as you described it to improve?

KD: We look at it, the way I look at it anyway, is that ICTs, the information society has its own culture. That culture is enveloping and its difficult for indigenous people to have an impact on it. We have to impact that information society, because that information society - It's like colonialism. The information society is being colonized by developed countries and we have a great fear that our intellectual knowledge is being harvested through the information society. That's a big fear for indigenous peoples. As we learn how to use the information systems and as we put our knowledge in there, our stories, our history, etc. The big fear is that the developed countries, corporations, pharmaceuticals, etc. are going to harvest our information for their own gain, and we'll again be left out without the benefits of having shared this knowledge. People want us indigenous people are under a lot of pressure to share their knowledge. But indigenous people, most of the time, don't benefit from that sharing. It's just the big multinationals that will. They benefit form our discoveries you know and they're the ones that make the money.

KK: Along a similar vein, in preparations for WSIS, people have brought up the issue of languages on the Internet and the issue of English language predominance. There seem to be some initiatives from some European countries to break that down in order to promote cultural diversity. Are there specific initiatives in regards to indigenous languages, which are particularly endangered? It seems that so far the initiative for linguistic diversity is coming from other hegemonic or colonial languages, like French or Spanish

KD: Well, like I said, the culture of the information society itself is all enveloping and we're being absorbed into that as well and we have to push back. I think indigenous peoples are trying to find ways of using modern technology to save their languages. Here in my community, we have Mohawk lessons burned on CDs, we try to have Mohawk lessons on the radio, etc. We're using in our won small way, different parts of the information society to protect and save our language. The Internet is a whole different animal. It's very, very difficult. Some languages are still not written. If you can't write them, how can you put them onto the Internet? Furthermore, how do you use the Internet for individuals that are still illiterate for instance. And these are problems that are going to be on our agenda, you know. What are the problems of literacy and language? I can't predict the conclusions people will come to, but those are our major issues.

KK: It seems that some institutions, NGOs, etc. are offering up IT as a panacea for so-called Third and Fourth World development problems. Other people are taking about other issues like the ones you mentioned, i.e. literacy. Are there other concerns on the table?

KD: Well I guess a major issue is access. Especially in isolated areas where phone-lines are a luxury, they're not a facet of life. I guess you have to find ways to use satellite or other ways of communication. If indigenous peoples really want to plug-into the information society this will have to be addressed. But that's a big if, maybe they don't want to plug in.

KK: How appropriate are commercial technologies - which are tailored more to the needs of profit than human-societies - in terms of solving these problems?

KD: Well, I think that the material, the technologies that are produced in the developed world are usually made for the developed world. They're not really made for people on the other side of the digital divide where most people don't have access to phone-lines. What can you do in that case, it's not appropriate at all. An IBM computer in the middle of the jungle is useless. There's no electricity, no telephone line, it has absolutely no value.

KK: As an aside, I was wondering if you heard of the appropriate technology movement? I guess in places like Brazil and India they've been developing low-tech IT solutions.

KD: Yeah, like the Simputer from India. I'm not an expert on it though (laughs) I'm a newspaper guy after all.

KK: Geneva may be, at least, a good opportunity to network with some of the people working on this.

KD: That is why we have to bring as many indigenous people as we can, so that they can see what's there and see what's going to be shown at WSIS and see if it can be applied back home. That's a very, very important part of bringing people to Geneva. It's also a learning experience for them.

KK: What is the preferred outcome then for indigenous peoples at the upcoming talks? Are there any issues that are dividing indigenous peoples in the preparations?

KD: The preferred outcome, of course - I think - would be to have indigenous people get the capacity to have an impact on the information society. That they can be able to have their culture, their languages, impacting the information society and figuring out how they're going to do that. To have the capacity to have an impact on the information society and to use the information society for their needs - not for the needs of the developed world but for their own needs. That's what you want to have. It has to be useful to them, and right now it's not - at least not in a major way. In some ways the technologies are useful but that's the problem with the term information society it's such a broad term. It doesn't mean just the Internet, it means newspapers like mine, or radio stations, TV stations, burning CDs, etc. I remember indigenous people from the South asking me how to set up a radio station. For them the best means of communication, for instance in the jungle or in the Andes, is a radio station. You don't need a lot of technology. For a modern radio station you just need a little box, an antenna and a generator, a microphone and you can broadcast. Everyone can get a radio and they can broadcast in their own languages. It's the simplest thing. To many that's high tech.

KK: If I'm not mistaken, there will be groups talking about community radio networks at the upcoming talks? I know when I visited Ecuador, community radio networks were a huge thing, and I know in Venezuela people have been setting up community radio networks to undermine the hegemony of corporate media conglomerates in the Andes.

KD: Right. And now one of the issues that is going to come up at WSIS is the issue of frequencies. Governments have to allow space, frequencies, for indigenous views, because states use that to stop indigenous people from having their own radio stations. And that's a big problem, which is going to be something the governments will have to deal with, that they have to recognize. Indigenous people need greater access to radio-waves, to these frequencies.

In terms of your other question What will divide indigenous people? I don't know (laughing) I don't want to say anything that will create a division. Indigenous peoples have a lot of solidarity, we have similar problems. We've all been colonized, we've all been removed from our land and our natural resources and in most cases we're not benefiting. A lot of people look at the information society, like they do at globalization, as the new colonialism. Globalization and the information society are seen as part of that colonial process. We have a lot of solidarity, so I'm not looking for divisions. Actually, I'm looking for a lot of solidarity.

KK: How can interested non-indigenous individuals and organizations lend their solidarity to initiatives of indigenous peoples?

KD: Well I think non-indigenous peoples have their own democracies (laughing) however you want to describe them; and they should be using those to help indigenous peoples. Like the whole issue of frequencies and also the issue of helping monetarily so that indigenous people can have the resources to plug into the information society (should they want to). Indigenous people should have that option after all. They shouldn't be forced to plug-in, but they should be able to have the same type of access that most people in developed countries take for granted if they want it, and indigenous peoples in most countries don't. I think non-indigenous people have to be able to support indigenous peoples and try to influence their governments and multinational companies, etc. to respect the rights of and assist indigenous peoples as much as they can.

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