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Keeping E-Mail Afloat in Brazil

August 15, 2001 

Barco Navegar
This boat offers Internet services to villagers in the Amazon jungle.

RECIFE, Brazil — If you lived in a house with no running water, no electricity and not many amenities, getting access to the Internet wouldn't seem to be such a high priority.

But that's what's happening in Amapб, a small state in Brazil near the Amazon region, where a project called "Navegar" provides Web connectivity to riparian, poverty-stricken communities.

The Navegar Project consists of a boat with a computing laboratory and a satellite antenna for the Web connection.

The boat has eight desktop computers, a GPS system, a digital camera, a scanner, an ink-jet printer and two Web cams. It's all inside a three-floor, wooden boat, a type of boat common in the north of Brazil. And the boat provides room and board for 20 instructors.

Amapб's neighbor states, including Amazon and Parб, are known for their lack of infrastructure. Only a few of their cities are linked with roads or airports. Their transportation system is usually river-dependent and based on boats. The north of Brazil, which includes the rain forest, is the less-advanced region of the country.

According to Amapб's government, the Navegar project uses advanced technology to reduce the geographical distance among riparian villages. Since villages are only connected by rivers and boats, many people are separated by two or three days of travel.

Those distances can be easily be shortened with the Internet's help, which would let people e-mail each other to keep up-to-date with what's going on in nearby villages.

But Navegar — which is Portuguese for "sailing" — does not cover the whole Amapб state. It covers only the archipelago of Bailique, which is an expanse of waters with people living on many scattered islands. The Bailique is formed by eight islands and is 70 miles away from the capital city of Macapб. It's a 12-hour trip by boat from the capital to Bailique islands.

There are about 8,500 people among 38 communities living on Bailique — whose economy is based on fishing and agriculture. The Navegar initiative could help the Bailique people use the Web to sell their goods to citizens all over Brazil and, perhaps, the world. That is, by the way, one of the long-term objectives of Navegar, according to project officials.

Until the boat started sailing over Bailique, no one had seen a computer or was even aware of the possibility of getting in touch with each other so quickly. Real-time chats are the most-desired tool because telephones are rare equipment in the region.

The plugged-boat also visits a public school in Bailique. The Web usage gets a sort of restricted access. Villagers and students are encouraged to browse through websites related to culture, education, environment and economic planning. The idea is to create a large database for the social economic activities of the Bailique archipelago.

Web cams are attached to the boat, so people can see its exact location through other Web cams located in strategic places in the villages.

Instructors were trained to deal with the equipment and teach villagers how to use the boat's computers. On each island, there are a couple of trained villagers who works as "multiplicatives" -- who teach and instruct others.

Navegar assessors believe that by providing the knowledge available over the Internet, Bailique citizens will see their quality of life improve.

It's a world of contrasts, indeed.

By Paulo Rebelo, Copyright © 2001 Wired Digital Inc., a Lycos Network site.

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