ARTICLES Using virtual reality to build solidarity across difference: the case of the Munduruku

Cacique Juarez Saw Munduruku, from Sawre Muybu indigenous land. The Munduruku people have inhabited the Sawré Muybu in the heart of the Amazon, for generations. The Brazilian government plans to build a series of dams in the Tapajos River basin, which would severely threaten their way of life. The Munduruku demand the demarcation of their territory, which would ensure protection from such projects. In addition to preserving their way of life, the demarcation of Sawré Muybu ensures the conservation of 178,000 hectares of Amazon rainforest. Cacique Juarez Saw Munduruku, da aldeia Sawre Muybu.

Using virtual reality to build solidarity across difference: the case of the Munduruku

The only issue was that the tears made my glasses steam up. But otherwise, Munduruku: The Fight to Defend the Heart of the Amazon is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. The multisensory virtual reality installation from Greenpeace, AlchemyVR and The Feelies takes you into the Amazon, where you are invited on a tour of the Sawré Muybu village by Cacique Juarez Sáw Munduruku, chief of the Munduruku Sawré Muybu territory.

And that’s before we consider the immersion into a virtual reality headset and headphones, and the extraordinary experience of having a three dimensional world conjured up around you, in every direction. Greenpeace worked with VR director James Manisty from BAFTA-winning AlchemyVR and Director of Photography James Aldred, whose CV includes BBC series Planet Earth, Africa and Human Planet, to record Sawré Muybu in stereoscopic, 360 degree video.  The experience is so realistic that it’s normal, according to the sensory technician who helps people through the experience, for viewers to put out their hand to shake those of people they meet, or to stroke a dog that walks past. As I was winched high up into a tree, I clutched my seat for safety, and felt the motion in my stomach.

But of course, the point of the experience isn’t just the art. The Munduruku people are under threat: while the Brazilian government falls apart, their forests are being chopped and their river is at risk of being dammed.

As producer and Greenpeace staffer Pete Speller says:

“The Tapajós river is the last major tributary of the Amazon that is still free of dams but the Brazilian government are looking to build a complex of hydroelectric dams along the length of the Tapajós which will surround the Munduruku territory of Sawré Muybu.”

The project was originally devised as a way to build support for the protection of indigenous land rights in the Amazon among the country’s urban population, and challenge perceptions of indigenous communities. Greenpeace believes that protecting indigenous rights is the best way to protect the forest. Yet, as Speller says:

“Attitudes towards Indigenous People in Brazil are complex and polarising; they are often seen as holding back the economic prosperity of Brazil. The project was designed as part of Greenpeace Brazil’s ongoing work to challenge this perception amongst urban Brazilian populations to build understanding and solidarity.”

To challenge this narrative, you can’t take thousands of people into the rainforest. But, by pushing at the boundaries of virtual reality, you can transport them there in all but body.

The question of how to build solidarity across difference has long been a difficult one for civil society groups whose concerns stretch beyond geographical boundaries. It’s hard to persuade people to take action on issues that are far away, and different artistic forms have always been a way to break down these barriers – from the iconic photographic exhibitions to films and documentaries to poetry. With Munduruku, Greenpeace have taken that tradition into an emerging art form, and shown that there’s no reason why campaign groups can’t also be key drivers of innovation in the arts.

As Speller explains:

“This links back to Greenpeace’s theory of change around bearing witness. As one of Greenpeace’s founders, Ben Metcalfe, put it ‘Once you have witnessed an injustice, you cannot claim ignorance as a defence for inaction. You make an ethical choice: to act or not.’ Right from the first Greenpeace voyage to Amchitka in the early-70s we’ve always used communications technology to bring stories to people around the world so they can bear witness with us and make their own choice to act. VR is just the latest technology that allows us to do this, though in a more immersive and powerful way.”

When I went along to its only current European showing, in the Future Play VR studio in Edinburgh, this particular installation was high demand: the word had got out, that this was the VR show to see in Edinburgh this year, perhaps because it had been shortlisted for a string of awards in this emerging world. But mostly, it’s not for us: there are five of their VR pods touring Brazil. Already, thousands of people there have taken part in the experience. At the end, as you are pushed out into the river in a canoe, the group’s leader asks you to join them in their fight to save their forest and their way of life. It will be fascinating to see how many do.

A Munduruku boy looks at the Tapajós river, while butterflies fly around him in Sawré Muybu village near Itaituba, in Pará state.
Menino Munduruku observa o Tapajós, enquanto borboletas voam ao redor, na aldeia Sawré Muybu, em Itaituba, no Pará.


19th September 2017