- Brazilian Indigenous communications network Rede Wayuri has won the 2022 Rule of Law Award from the World Justice Project (WJP).
- Using word of mouth, radio, and mobile messaging apps, the network plays a key role getting news to and from Indigenous communities in the Rio Negro region of the Brazilian Amazon.
- Rede Wayuri has been credited with debunking wild claims circulating on WhatsApp about the COVID-19 vaccine — including that it can turn a person into a crocodile — thereby helping counter vaccine hesitancy among vulnerable Indigenous populations.
- The network has 55 Indigenous communicators from 15 ethnic groups, disseminating information in at least four native languages (Baniwa, Tukano, Nheengatu and Yanomami), in addition to Portuguese, in a region the size of Nicaragua.
It’s said that the Rio Negro is so long that it can take two months to row its entire length. The river starts out in Colombia, touches Venezuela, where it forms much of the border between the two countries, then dips down into Brazil and meanders through the state of Amazonas, unspooling like a black ribbon 2,250 kilometers (1,400 miles) across the Amazon Rainforest before flowing into the mighty river of the same name. In a region this vast and remote, where getting around is slow and challenging, infrastructure is practically nonexistent, and cultures and languages are diverse, getting accurate information to local populations has historically been an arduous task.
That’s what makes the efforts of Rede Wayuri, the Rio Negro Indigenous Communicators Network, so remarkable. Established in 2017, this grassroots news network fights fake news and brings local journalism to and from Indigenous populations along the Brazilian section of the Rio Negro. For its efforts, the network has been awarded the 2022 Rule of Law Award by Washington, D.C.-based civil society organization the World Justice Project (WJP).
Rede Wayuri was selected for its “extraordinary achievements countering disinformation on COVID-19 and existential environmental threats in the most preserved but increasingly endangered region of the Brazilian Amazon,” according to a statement from the WJP, which advocates for advancing the rule of law worldwide.
In the past two years, a lot of Rede Wayuri’s work has focused on combating misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine. Anonymous messages shared on messaging platform WhatsApp tout all kinds of outlandish claims about the vaccine: that it can turn a person yellow, for instance. Or turn them into a crocodile. Or outright kill a person. Some messages claim that the Chinese-developed Sinovac jab, one of the most widely used in Brazil, contains a microchip that can monitor a person 24/7. Other messages claim the vaccines were created using dead embryos.
With so much misinformation circulating, vaccination rates among Indigenous populations in Brazil were slow to take off, even though they were among the priority groups for a shot. Rede Wayuri’s work has been credited with helping counter this, using methods ranging from modern communication tools such as WhatsApp and Bluetooth, to long-established media like community radio and the Indigenous oral tradition of passing cultural wisdom from generation to generation.
Rede Wayuri is based in the municipality of São Gabriel da Cachoeira in Amazonas state, in the tri-border area with Colombia and Venezuela. The network itself covers a region spanning 11.6 million hectares (28.6 million acres) — an area the size of Nicaragua — including three municipalities, 750 communities and 23 different Indigenous nations. The network aims to bring reliable information produced by Indigenous peoples to Indigenous peoples, debunking the fake news that spreads through WhatsApp groups. It also brings Indigenous voices to a wider audience, providing information about native communities to the mainstream media.
From their respective villages, 55 Indigenous communicators representing 15 Indigenous groups disseminate information in at least four native languages in addition to Portuguese.
Much of the project’s success is down to the culture of collaboration — wayuri means collective or task force in the Nheengatu Indigenous language. The idea behind the network came after years of partnership between Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), a nonprofit that advocates for the rights of Indigenous and traditional peoples, and the Federation of Indigenous Organizations of the Rio Negro (FOIRN), according to Juliana Radler, a social and environmental policy specialist at the ISA. Radler was the journalist responsible for building up the structure for the network, which grew with workshops to train communicators from across the region.
São Gabriel da Cachoeira was a fitting place to base this Indigenous initiative. It has the highest Indigenous population as a proportion of its total population of any municipality in Brazil, at around 90% in both urban and rural enclaves. It’s also the only municipality in the country with four official Indigenous languages — Baniwa, Tukano, Nheengatu and Yanomami — all of which are used in the network’s journalistic output. Rede Wayuri also rents a time slot at a local radio station.
While many Indigenous communities in Brazil routinely face the challenge of proving their historical rights to their land, archaeological excavations this past May in São Gabriel da Cachoeira have unearthed ceramics and artifacts that indicate Indigenous occupation of the region going back up to 2,000 years. Other research indicates the Indigenous presence here may be even older, up to 2,700 years. “This area has the history of our existence. We can see in the concrete the stories we tell orally,” Indigenous expert Arlindo Maia, from the Tukano community, said in a statement after participating in the excavations.
A symbol of resistance
While the World Justice Project award this year has gone to a Brazilian organization, the country itself has dropped three positions on WJP’s Rule of Law Index. It now sits in 77th position out of 139 countries and jurisdictions. WJP calculates the scores and rankings based on constraints on government powers, absence of corruption, open government, fundamental rights, order and security, regulatory enforcement, civil justice, and criminal justice.
Marivelton Barroso, a co-founder of Rede Wayuri from the Baré Indigenous group, received the award on behalf of the network at the award ceremony in The Hague, Netherlands, on May 31. Barroso, who is also president of FOIRN, said the award was recognition of the Indigenous fight for a democratic state based on the rule of law.
“We [Indigenous peoples] experience a series of violations perpetrated by the Brazilian government, which incites hatred, racism, prejudice and ends up not recognizing all the importance that Indigenous peoples have to their own country and the world,” Barroso told Mongabay by phone. “[The award] shows the symbol of recognition for the very resistance of our territory.”
In October this year, Brazil will hold national elections, in which President Jair Bolsonaro, who has pursued an anti-Indigenous and anti-environmental agenda, is seeking a second term in office. Among his many controversies, Bolsonaro has circulated false claims about the integrity of the electronic voting system. With relations between the federal government and Indigenous communities hitting a low under Bolsonaro, news coverage of the elections from an Indigenous perspective is poised to be hugely important, the ISA’s Radler said.
“It is a very decisive year for Indigenous communications in the region,” she told Mongabay by phone from The Hague. “It will play a fundamental role in clarifying [information] for voters, bringing the candidates’ platform, bringing the names of Indigenous candidates, who they are, and their proposals. Rede Wayuri will try to publish interviews with candidates, [providing] more transparency, more information.”
While past winners of WJP’s Rule of Law Award have been democracy icons and legal rights champions, such as former U.S. president Jimmy Carter and Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi (both of whom are also Nobel Peace laureates), the selection this year of a communications collective like Rede Wayuri highlights the increasingly important role of the news media in advancing the rule of law. “There is perhaps no greater threat to the rule of law today than disinformation, and Indigenous peoples are particularly vulnerable,” Elizabeth Andersen, the WJP executive director, said in a statement.
In addition to dropping down the Rule of Law Index, Brazil also fares poorly — 110th out of 180 countries — in the 2022 World Press Freedom Index from Reporters Without Borders (RSF). RSF cites the deterioration of the relationship between the press and the government since Bolsonaro took office at the start of 2019, as well as structural violence against journalists, a media landscape marked by a high concentration of private ownership, and the effects of disinformation posing “major challenges” to progress on press freedom.
For all the challenges it faces pushing back against disinformation and championing the Indigenous cause, Rede Wayuri isn’t alone in Brazil. Similar grassroots initiatives have taken off in other regions of the country, such as Rede Mocoronga, a network that trains and supports more than 400 young collaborators in more than 30 communities in Pará state to act as “forest reporters.” Rede Mocoronga has rural chapters operating as community radio stations, with speakers mounted on poles and mobile units such as canoes, bicycles and bull carts. The network covers more than 70 communities and Indigenous villages and has been an essential instrument of education and community mobilization through news, videos and documentaries.
“The absence [of the state] in these regions impacts not only access to information but also access to other basic rights,” Fabio Pena, education and communications coordinator at the nonprofit Projeto Saúde e Alegria (PSA), which initiated Rede Mocoronga, told Mongabay in a phone interview. “So here, in our region [in Pará], we encourage the use of communications to reduce the isolation of these communities, so they can express themselves to the outside world in an educative way, respecting the populations’ identities and cultures.”
Alongside Rede Mocoronga in Pará, the Coletivo Jovem Tapajônico also works on supplying information to communities of Indigenous peoples, Afro-Brazilian Quilombolas, and riverine populations. The group was founded in 2018, aiming to disseminate information about the Tapajós-Arapiuns Extractive Reserve and increase political education; the group helped about 100 teenagers register to vote in recent months.
“We want youngsters to have critical thinking and to defend public policies before a candidate visits the territory,” Walter Kumaruara, one of the group’s founders, told Mongabay by phone.
The growing number of Indigenous communication networks is inspired by the success of Mídia Índia, said Fernando Bittencourt, a coordinator at The Nature Conservancy, where he leads the strategy for organizational strengthening of Indigenous peoples and traditional communities.
Mídia Ninja is a decentralized network of communicators from different regions and Indigenous groups in Brazil. It has grown recently with the coverage of Indigenous demonstrations in the country’s capital, Brasília.
“Those communications groups grew a lot, especially during the pandemic, when movement was more restricted,” Bittencourt told Mongabay in a video interview. “Internet is also reaching a larger number of Indigenous communities, and young people have the curiosity of appropriating new technologies.”
Banner image: Rede Wayuri co-founder Marivelton Barroso and ISA socioenvironmental policy specialist Juliana Radler receive the 2022 Rule of Law Award on behalf of Indigenous communicators working in the Rio Negro region of the Brazilian Amazon. Image courtesy of Diana Gandara/ISA.
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