Amazon Rainforest

‘Remote’ Amazonian Tribes Have Been Using the Internet for a Long Time

The Marubo people written about by the New York Times have been using the internet—and grappling with its implications—long before Starlink came to their village.
‘Remote’ Amazonian Tribes Have Been Using the Internet for a Long Time
Image: Brandon Weaver for NAVI On Project

One of the bigger discussions happening right now on the internet is whether a “Remote Amazon Tribe” has become “addicted to porn” as a result of getting SpaceX’s Starlink internet. People all over the world who have never been to Brazil, let alone to the Marubo village where the people live, are now arguing about this as the result of a New York Times article called “The Internet’s Final Frontier: Remote Amazon Tribes,” which has been aggregated widely by hundreds of outlets with headlines like “Remote Amazon Tribe finally connects to the internet — only to wind up hooked on porn, social media.” The beef is traveling in many different directions: Elon Musk and his fans are mad at The New York Times and The New York Times even wrote a response article titled “No, a Remote Amazon Tribe Did Not Get Addicted to Porn.”

At the center of all of this beef, however, is the idea that the internet is “new” to the Marubo people, or that this is the internet’s “final frontier.” What has happened is that the Marubo people have gotten constant Starlink internet access in their villages in the Amazon rainforest. But this does not mean that they are getting online or experiencing internet culture for the first time. 

The passage in reporter Jack Nicas’s article that everyone has glommed onto is this: “After only nine months with Starlink, the Marubo are already grappling with the same challenges that have racked American households for years: teenagers glued to phones; group chats full of gossip; addictive social networks; online strangers; violent video games; scams; misinformation; and minors watching pornography.” 

In a follow-up article published this week titled “No, a Remote Amazon Tribe Did Not Get Addicted to Porn,” Nicas wrote that the aggregations of his article showed in part that the internet truly is a dark place, in part because of the way the story spread: “The Marubo people are not addicted to pornography. There was no hint of this in the forest, and there was no suggestion of it in The New York Times’s article.” In this article, Nicas blames the people who aggregated him for sensationalizing his article. That may be true, but Nicas’s article is also sensationalist. 

While the article does explore the history of Marubo people getting access to motor boats and radios and notes “(Some Marubo already had phones, often bought with government welfare checks, to take photographs and communicate when in a city),” it does not explain that many Marubo people have been using the internet for quite some time, and implies that the problems they are now grappling with are things that the Marubo people hadn't thought about before. 

It contains the following passage, for example: “The New York Times traveled deep into the Amazon to visit Marubo villages to understand what happens when a tiny, closed civilization suddenly opens to the world,” which suggests the Marubo people are being exposed to the internet or are opening to “the world” for the first time. This is not actually the case. 

It is true that installing high-speed internet in the Amazon rainforest is a level of connection that the tribe didn’t have before, and there’s nothing wrong with writing an article about what that means (and I found much of the article to be pretty interesting). But what the Times did not stress and should have stressed is that what the Marubo people are experiencing now is a difference of degree and scale, not of kind. They are also not wholly new problems to the tribe. What I have learned over the years is that there are very few parts of the world that are not touched by technology, and that many Amazonian tribes, in particular, have made the choice to intentionally interact with non-Indigenous society (or have felt, at times, that they have to interact with the non-Indigenous world and technology) in order to represent and advocate for themselves in political systems that seek to seize or exploit their land or otherwise marginalize them. They also use these technologies for the same reasons everyone else does, have for years, and have been grappling with what it might mean for their culture all this time.

“The Marubo people loved Orkut when they initially got online,” Ruedas said, referring to a social network that launched in Brazil in the early 2000s and was shut down by Google in 2014. “Then when Orkut died they all migrated to Facebook, and I’ve been connected with Marubo people on Facebook for many years.” 

I have not been to the Marubo villages. But in 2013, I did a reporting trip to an Indigenous town of the Haorani people deep in the Ecuadorian Amazon

What I learned from both of those trips, as well as from reporting about the internet access all over the world, is that people largely use technology in the same ways, and that even before a community has widespread internet access, they often have used the internet in some way for a long time. The Huaorani people who I visited, to write about how local oil exploitation was impacting the environment and the people who lived there, did not have access to the internet in their village. But they also weren’t ignorant of technology and the internet, and many of them were already using the internet. I got in touch with the Indigenous guide who brought me into the village over Facebook, which he checked once every few weeks when he walked or hitched a ride to a river, then took a several hour canoe ride to Coca, the closest small city. People who lived in the village would regularly do that same trip to Coca, where they would connect their MP3 players or tablets to the internet at an internet cafe and download music, YouTube videos, movies, shows, and, yes, porn, to their devices and bring it back to their village in the Amazon rainforest. People in the village would trade USB thumb drives of media with each other from their trips to use the internet. When I got there, the teenagers in the town asked to look through my phone so that we could share music or videos. 

Lots of places—not just Indigenous Amazonian villages—have gotten some version of internet access gradually over time. In 2015 I did a reporting trip to Cuba to write about how people’s lives were changing as they were getting widespread internet access for the first time, and the the story was similar. When I was there, people were getting widespread access to a (still censored) version of the internet, but for years had “El Paquete,” which was a USB drive of pirated content that was often physically brought into the country from Florida (or created using pirated satellite internet connections on the island) that then spread throughout the entire country by people copying and adding to the “paquetes” whenever they got it. This, too, was full of TV shows, movies, music, games, and porn. 

The Marubo people, in particular, have been seeking out and using technology—including the internet—for decades, which has been detailed by anthropologist and University of Texas at San Antonio librarian Javier Ruedas. In a retrospective published in Geography of Time, Place, Movement and Networks in May, Ruedas explains that “Indigenous Marubo people of western Brazil often subvert the idea that their remote villages represent the past while the downriver cities and towns represent the future … Marubo people think of their journeys as bringing the future into their upriver villages and their traditions into the downriver towns, reversing non-Indigenous expectations that the deep rainforest represents the past and the city, the future.” 

In a phone call, Ruedas told me that many Marubo families live in “multi-sited households,” meaning they have a home in the forest and also one in the town of Atalaia do Norte, where a lot of children and teens will go to school, families interact with the pension or political system, and use the internet. 

“Marubo elders traveled downriver to become part of the political process in the towns, reversing stereotypical associations of Indigenous traditional culture with the past and its absence with the future,” Ruedas wrote in his recent retrospective. Through multiple visits to the villages between 1997 and 2009, Ruedas details how people who live in the Marubo villages have been banding together for generations to “work together to secure land rights, to resist the loggers, commercial fishers, rubber tappers, and exploitative merchants who wanted to profit from the natural resources in Indigenous lands.” 

To do this, they had purposefully installed radio communications systems, made regular visits to “the city” and had been working to bring TV and other technologies to the villages. They then used the internet while in the city to advocate for themselves. Ultimately, Ruedas’s paper concludes that Starlink coming to the villages “is the outcome of decades of conscious planning and effort, plans executed largely by river journeys to carry and install equipment and bring the future into the Javari [Valley indigenous territory] interior.” 

This is a point also made on Instagram by Enoque Marubo, who is partially responsible for bringing Starlink to the villages and who is featured heavily in Nicas’s article: “We are an Amazonian tribe that for more than 100 years has been in contact with non-Indigenous society. Full isolation has not existed for a long time … there are still people who defend the idea that indigenous people should remain isolated and alienated from technology. This view is primitive and ignores the fundamental right of Indigenous peoples to decide their own futures and to have access to the same opportunities as anyone else.” Enoque Marubo has been on Instagram since 2013 and follows many other Marubo people who have also been posting on Instagram for many years. The Marubo Instagram accounts I have seen are a mix of photos of life in the Amazon as well as memes and photos of themselves at football matches, posting with Star Wars characters, at school, bodybuilding, cooking, etc.

Ruedas told me that he has been communicating with Marubo people over the internet on different social media sites for decades. 

“The Marubo people loved Orkut when they initially got online,” Ruedas said, referring to a social network that launched in Brazil in the early 2000s and was shut down by Google in 2014. “Then when Orkut died they all migrated to Facebook, and I’ve been connected with Marubo people on Facebook for many years.” 

“I’ve been getting WhatsApps from Marubo people for years. Not from the villages—that is new—but certainly they’ve been using this technology whenever they can for a long time,” he added. And for as long as the Marubo people have been bringing technology into their villages, there have also been moral panics and a divide between some people who want little outside influence and people who do. 

Ruedas said the Marubo people have—obviously—known about porn for as long as they have been accessing the internet: “That exposure would go back to kids going to school in the city. The elders of the Marubo people have been concerned about non-native influences on family and relationships for a long time. They love to give these long speeches about the correct way to do things, and will go on for hours and hours about it. It was an issue of concern in 2009 so it’s not entirely new and neither is device addiction.” 

This is all to say that of course headlines like “TRIBE’S STARLINK HOOKUP RESULTS IN PORN ADDICTION!!!” are lazy and bad. But the New York Times’s original article is also not as nuanced as it should be. The article says “modern society has dealt with these issues over decades as the internet continued its relentless march. The Marubo and other Indigenous tribes, who have resisted modernity for generations, are now confronting the internet’s potential and peril all at once, while debating what it will mean for their identity and culture.” It is simply not true that they are doing this “all at once.” Many Marubo people have been using modern technology—including the internet—for generations, and have also been debating what it means for their identity and culture the whole time. 

“Our stereotypes of Indigenous Amazonian peoples is still very much that they’re living in the forest without technology,” Ruedas said. “And you know, that’s not entirely accurate.”