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Technology helps preserve biodiversity and traditional cultures

Technology helps preserve biodiversity and traditional cultures

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High in the mountains of northern Colombia live the Arhuaco, an indigenous people renowned for their stewardship of their rugged environment and the close-knit nature of their society. These remote people have traditionally resisted intrusions from the outside world, so one would not expect them to embrace technology as a means of preserving their way of life. But that’s just what’s happening, thanks to a remarkable collaboration among the Arhuaco, the Colombian government, and Microsoft.

Two Arhuaco community leaders pictured with Tony Hey and Rick Rashid (Microsoft Research), Jaime Restrepo (former director of Colombian Council of Science and Technology), and Orlando Ayala (Microsoft) at the 2011 Latin American Faculty Summit
Two Arhuaco community leaders pictured with Tony Hey and Rick Rashid (Microsoft Research), Jaime Restrepo (former director of Colombian Council of Science and Technology), and Orlando Ayala (Microsoft) at the 2011 Latin American Faculty Summit

In an ambitious and inspirational long-term project that aligns with the government’s priority for preservation and environmental sustainability, Microsoft Colombia has implemented a cloud-based solution that helps the Arhuaco preserve their culture and environment. The solution, which is based on customer relationship management (CRM) models and is operated by the Arhuaco themselves, keeps records of the Arhuaco people, lands, and sacred places. The online solution not only maintains these records, which are vital to the preservation of the biodiversity and indigenous culture of the region, but it also provides for autonomy and oversight by indigenous authorities.

How did technology become a strategic tool for this remote place, balancing traditional culture while taking advantage of the Arhuaco’s thousand-year knowledge of their environment? It did so deliberately and respectfully, through a three-year dialogue that built trust among all parties.

The journey began in 2010, when a memorandum of understanding was signed in the Arhuaco’s mountain homeland. With this in place, Microsoft Colombia established an experimental lab for learning and exchange of experiences with the Arhuaco culture. Later in early 2011, they established a joint venture with Microsoft Research to develop a series of digital narratives about the Arhuaco’s traditional culture by using Rich Interactive Narratives technologies (RIN). Then, in 2012, Microsoft Colombia hired Ruperto, an Arhuaco member, to serve as a liaison between Microsoft Colombia and the indigenous community.

This three-year period of developing mutual understanding culminated in the online CRM solution, which was first envisioned during the 2011 Latin American Faculty Summit held in Cartagena, Colombia, where the Arhuaco RIN story was demoed to the President of Colombia. The solution was the result of cross-group collaboration among several Microsoft groups, including Microsoft Research Connections in Latin America, Microsoft Research India, and Microsoft Colombia.

We view Microsoft’s partnership with the Arhuaco as just the beginning; we hope to continue helping them strengthen the autonomous management of their government, and to call upon the partnership’s experiences to help initiate projects with indigenous communities around the world. Putting technology in the service of cultural and environmental preservation—what an inspiring blend of the old and the new!

—Jaime Puente, Director, Microsoft Research Connections, Latin America

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