The Conservation Conversation

[Originally published September 2015.]

The following sentence is going to sound absurd, but here it is: The Floating Fab Lab, currently in development, will bob up and down more than 2,000 km of Amazon River, bringing education and access to marginalized communities. That can’t be a real thing, right? It’s straight out of science fiction–or maybe Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.

But the Amazon might as well be the setting for Rats of NIMH. The Amazon River winds through northern Brazil, and the resulting swath of fecundity covers 5.5 million square kilometers across Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana. Taken as a whole, Amazonia is the most biologically diverse territory on the planet. I’m proudly sniping these facts from National Geographic Kids. Here’s a quote: “There are around 40,000 plant species, 1,300 bird species, 3,000 types of fish, 430 mammals and a whopping 2.5 million different insects. Wow!”

Major bummer that a fifth of the rainforest has already been destroyed because of deforestation due to industrial ranching and agriculture, infrastructure development, mining, logging, climate change, and oil exploration and extraction. NatGeo estimates that more than half of the world’s rainforests have been destroyed, making the remaining Amazon rainforest vitally important, not just for tree-huggers, but for anyone who likes breathing. The Amazon rainforest stores 17% of the world’s carbon, directly helping regulate the planet’s temperature. The fewer trees there are, the hotter this furnace will get. Amazonia is commonly referred to as the “Lungs of the Earth.”

In a 2014 study conducted by the Amazon Institute of People and Environment (Imazon), the leading challenge faced by conservationists in Brazil is not in fact corporate appropriation, but rather “the poor social conditions of its 24 million inhabitants.” NatGeo estimates that 400-500 indigenous tribes call the Amazon home, many of which have never experienced contact with the rest of the world. However, this is just a fraction of the overall population, which is undergoing much slower social progress than the rest of Brazil. In one of the world’s most important ecosystems, inhabitants often experience “lack of access to clean water, violence, illiteracy and limited opportunities to pursue a better life.” Beto Verissimo, one of the study’s authors and lead researcher at Imazon said, “The findings raise the question of whether we can really expect to protect the biodiversity of the Amazon if the people living there continue to struggle on the very basic measures that define the human experience.”

Introducing the Floating Fab Lab! Beno Juarez grew up in the Peruvian jungle and feels driven to contribute to the conservation of his home. He facilitated the founding of Fab Lab Lima in 2010, the first Fab Lab in Peru. “Nature inspired a special sensitivity and creativity, but I was also witness to the impact of terrorism in one of the poorest areas of my country,” Beno said in an interview with MAKE. “Nature and creativity, as opposed to terrorism and exclusion, would mark, years later, my vocation to connect innovation and inclusion.” His family relocated to Lima when Beno was a teenager, and he was able to compare his “sense of the jungle’s freedom with the extreme need of many families that, like [his], had to migrate to the capital.” He decided to devote his professional life to improving the quality of life for communities living in his beloved Amazon. He sees digital fabrication as the means to accomplish this, combining traditional artisan methods with efficient modern technological advances. He is inspired by nature to foster a sustainable paradigm for cultural and environmental health.

The Floating Fab Lab originated as an idea in 2013. According to its website, the initiative will “create a digital fabrication laboratory (Fab Lab) that will navigate the Amazon River. It will provide local communities with access to technological tools that allow them to cope with their daily challenges with water, energy, health, food, education while at the same time, serve as a place for research and development to better understand the Amazon.” How poetic is that?! When completed, the Floating Fab Lab will consist of a network of about ten mobile Labs and ten stationary nodes that the floating Labs travel between. The network will stretch from Nauta, just south of Iquitos, into central Brazil, a length of 2,000 km.

This is real.

In collaboration with Project A+, their project management partner, Beno and his team have completed 20% of the development. They’ve secured support from CBA-MIT, the Fab Foundation, the Environment Ministry of Peru, SolidWorks, and many others. The pilot floater is under construction, and will launch from Nauta next year. The first major stationary node will be established at the Institute for Amazon Research in Iquitos. Fifteen people will live on board permanently, including the ship’s crew and education specialists on various issues from anthropology to computer science, and fifteen will fluctuate, including administrative personnel in the nodes.

Fab Lab Peru and Fab Lat, the network of Latin American Fab Labs, offered a free, online start-up workshop “open to participants from around the world, from different backgrounds, committed to the sustainability of the planet, who are creative, collaborative and willing to take on big challenges.” The workshop lasted four weeks, with each week focusing on a different practical hurdle in the creation of the Floating Fab Lab, such as the physical design of the boat and sustainable mobility solutions. The Floating Fab Lab is a response to the “urge to develop projects to enhance the conservation and sustainable development of natural and cultural resources.”

The winning design from the Argentinian team focused on floatability, stability, modularity, and regeneration.

The design submitted by the team from Lima had many similar features.

On the pilot floater, solar panels will power the machines on board for digital fabrication, but for future iterations, Beno has been collaborating with the Academany, a bio-hack themed education model along the lines of the Fab Academy. It will be possible to grow solar panels. Apparently, a certain kind of sea slug can photosynthesize, so what we’re gonna do is collect a whole bunch, and glue ’em on a big billboard and let ’em do their thing in the sun… nope? However the bioengineers harness the photosynthetic qualities of the sea slug and convert them into usable power, it’s the next step toward integrating nature and technology–sustainably sourced sustainability. What’s that you say, Mrs. Frisby? We can work with nature to achieve a more efficient, literate society? I agree completely.

The creative solution.

I first heard about the Floating Fab Lab several months ago when Madison shared the article from MAKE magazine online. At the time, I thought it sounded like a pretty outrageous endeavor. I still feel this way, so after the 2015-16 ski season in Colorado, I’ll return to Peru to check it out. I’ve been in touch with Beno and the Fab Lat network about my involvement. I’d like to live on board for at least a month and witness the pilot floater in action. I’ll write an article or eight about the project and its conservational and cultural impact.

This is how we save the world. One wave, one word at a time.

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