When Margarita Warnholtz first started helping indigenous people in Mexico get Internet access, only two aboriginal groups in the country were wired. Six years later, she has helped create a thriving Internet community that links indigenous people from the Río Grande to Patagonia.
That's the advantage of the Internet. You can reach everyone without moving from your desk, says Warnholtz, coordinator of the Red de información indígena, or Indigenous Information Network.
Before the Internet, indigenous people were hamstrung by their geographical isolation and feeble phone networks. Now they can reach out to the international community and each other to speak about human-rights abuses and strategize.
Groups can denounce abuses to the international community. Before the Internet, they did not know how to do that. They just filed a complaint with the government and it was ignored, Warnholtz says.
Red indígena was created by a Mexico City non-profit group called Professional Support Services for Integral Indigenous Development, with help from private charity. The idea was to help indigenous groups in Mexico get hooked up to the Internet by providing a computer connection and teaching them how to use it.
After two years, the groups started wanting their own sites to post their own information. As well, groups from other Latin American countries wanted the same kind of help.
So we made a website where there was space to put information, says Warnholtz.
The site has Spanish and English versions as well as documents in indigenous languages. Over 100 indigenous groups post regular news items from across Latin America -- about half of them as members of the network. Over the years, the network has helped 50 groups get Internet access.
In 2000, the San Francisco-based Association for Progressive Communications honoured the network as a finalist in its first annual Betinho Communications Prize, which recognizes outstanding examples of how the Internet can make a real difference around the world.
Future plans include expanding the information on the network's website, says Warnholtz, so we can find it in the mass of information on the web.
She says the Internet has proven to be an inexpensive but powerful tool. Before, conferences were difficult to plan and arrange. Now it is easier to get in touch with people, exchange documents and prepare an agenda, she says. Communication between organizations has strongly increased.