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SMS Mobilizes to Demobilize Rainforest Destruction

BY Justin Oberman | Wednesday, November 2 2005

A couple of days ago both and the claimed victory in their campaign to save the Pizarro Reserve (a nature reserve in the northwest Argentine province of Salta) from being auctioned off to agribusiness's. The conflict broke out in February 2004, when the government of Salta introduced a bill to auction off part of the 25,000-hectare Pizarro reserve, which is home to 3,00 peasant farmers and the Wichi people. The victory comes after 20 months of protesting and direct action, a substantial amount of which harnessed the communicative real-time mobilization power of SMS technology.

Greenpeace Argentina provided the indigenous Wichi people with mobile phones. They taught them how to to text for help whenever they noticed developers beginning to clear and destroy land. "One of the problems we detected is that there are no landlines to stay in contact if landowners are trying to destroy homes and forest.," said Oscar Soria, Communications Director of Greenpeace Argentina. "We gave mobile phones to different leaders in the communities and are using them to get messages from people." At times, Greenpeace would even provide car battery charges for areas where the electricity needed to power cell-phones did and does not exist.

Once alerted to the "immanent destruction" SMS, activists (dressed like jaguars, a species threatened by the developers) traveled to the designated areas on motorbikes and chained themselves to the bulldozers, thus preventing further destruction. The activists also took video and in order to later use for campaign and media purposes.

The bulldozer drivers would of course call the police. But the Wichi people, armed with cell-phones, were able to stake out the reserves entrances and and text the protesters the location of the police so that they could decide what the best action to take next would be. Some stayed and get arrested, those with the videos and pictures always escaped. "We even have a helicopter for that purpose," Soria proudly stated.

The activists also use SMS to contact other nearby groups for support as well as use the technology to call up instant protests and demonstrations in major cities. "It is a good tool for remaining in close contact with local communities," Soria points out, "because one of the problems is that the communities are remote and don’t know each other." The group now has a mobile database of 1,500 people, of what Soria refers to as "mobileactivistas." This group includes 50 leaders of local communities each of which represents 10,000 people.

On September 22nd the mobileactivistas used their SMS network to organize a demonstration outside Government Houses in Buenos Aires. 300 activists showed up, dressed like penguins (mocking Argentinean President Nestor Kirchner who often refers to himself as "the penguin). "Using SMS to mobilize people on the ground, in the forests and in the cities is an extremely powerful tool," Soria tells me, "because you are able to reach so many people in one moment." The truth also applies in the reverse. Sending text messages back and forth between a large network allows for faster communication compared to voice where a game of "telephone" is needed to pass messages along. With a single SMS one can, in as single moment, broadcast the same single message to a large group of people and everyone receives that message at the same time, no matter where they are. An extremely valuable tool for activists wishing to mobilize action in real-time either before or during an event.

In the United States, SMS was used in a similar vein by activists during the Republican and Democratic National conventions where SMS bulletin board like services such as and allowed protesters to organize and coordinate events (as well as stay safe) in real time via text alerts. , putting the protesters a step ahead of the police when it came to technology and its ability to organize mobily and on the spot.

This was Greenpeace's first time using mobile technology and as far as they are concerned it was a great success. In an effort to increase the amount of "mobileactivistas" ready to respond when a call, or should I say "text" to action is made, the group will be launching a campaign in January to try and recruit 5,000 more. The campaign will utilize the publicity surrounding their already successful use of the technology as well as a weekly television program. The show will feature celebrities as well as SMS interactions by sending out SMS trivia questions that will be answered on the show as well as allow users to send SMS messages that will appear on a ticker at the bottom the screen. They hope that in the long run this will add 100,000 more activists to the 300,000 activists they already have via the internet. The mobile medium makes this possible because it allows the group to reach people in places where internet accessibility is rare or non-existant.

As of last friday the Pizaro Reserve recovered its protected status and the Wichi people living in the reserve will be granted community title deeds to their lands. "We are leaving Pizarro, but we are going to follow the situation there centimeter by centimeter to make sure this agreement is put into effect", said Martin Prieto, Greenpeace Executive Director. Its hard to believe that the group will stop utilizing SMS to stay in touch with the groups they worked so closely with in the area. The technology became more than just a communication device for action between two peoples. It established a means by which these two groups could easily maintain the bonds of friendship and understanding that their struggle has inevitably created. As such, it has helped the Wichi people mobilize and situate themselves as a people and has thus helped them rebuild ancient traditions in their communities.

"This week we shared the emotion of the victory during a ceremony organized by the indigenous people in the Reserve," Soria tell me. "It was very important and moving for all of us. We cried..."