Empowered Community

[Originally published February 2016.]

Toward the end of 2014, as Lima hosted the United Nations Climate Change Conference, five different oil spills belched into the Amazon from a single major pipeline. The effect is devastating, hordes of dead fish and millions of human lives tainted by illness and fear.

It’s not fair. In a matter of five months, Petroperú created an environmental holocaust that will take decades to recover from. In a December, 2014 article for The Guardian, Alfonso López Tejada, an indigenous leader representing over 60 communities, said, “The pipeline has been neglected for 40 years. It doesn’t have the capacity but they use it anyway.”

By sacrificing 75% of Peruvian rainforest to oil companies in 2008, and lowering fines for environmental crimes by 50% last year, the government has practically encouraged big oil companies to develop–and mar–huge swaths of the Amazon.

There’s urgency to projects like the Floating Fab Lab, which aims to be a sustainable source of energy and education in areas affected by environmental and cultural pollution. Founder Beno Juarez has been traveling around the Peruvian Amazon, interviewing locals, introducing the idea of the FLF, and hosting workshops for children, natives, and entrepreneurs in digital fabrication. “More people are getting involved, especially young local people,” Beno said in a recent interview over Hangouts. “This is the second time we’ve connected people with technology and creativity, and there is a very positive reaction. For the native peoples, technology is natural.” He intends to work with local Amazonian communities to determine the FLF’s infrastructure and what materials they should use in construction.

“The local population can see the contamination,” Beno continued, referring to the oil spills. “Contamination is one of the biggest problems, the other is education, no access to any knowledge–no electricity, no internet.” The FLF will provide free, hands-on education for local communities. In fact, team members have already started. At a workshop in June, kids designed out of ceramics an Amazonian superhero to protect the jungle, and observed as their physical creations were made digital, and ultimately physical again with 3D printing. Additionally, team members Kate Adamala and Ilaria la Manna are developing a bracelet for children to wear that can test heavy metal levels in the water–“like a biosensor,” Beno said.

Beno is not alone in that he views biogeneration as one of the principle elements that can save the Amazon Rainforest. He rattled off a few applications: “Biosensors in the river for water contamination, people mapped in different areas for different contaminants, maybe we can generate electricity from some fungi and bacteria that can eat plastic and other contaminants.”

More biology later. The UN moves slower than the rate of contamination, and the government’s out there mining for profit. Citizen scientists are hard at work, tackling huge real world problems, inventing their own parameters. And they’re having fun while they’re at it.

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