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20 November 2017
Författare: Laura von Ketteler

Virtual reality for development: impact through empathy

Photo courtesy of Instituto Socioambiental. All rights reserved.

Photo courtesy of  Instituto Socioambiental. All rights reserved.

Going to the Third International Conference on Community Land and Resource Rights held in Stockholm, I did not expect to find myself in the middle of the Amazon sharing a canoa with a member of the Waurá tribe.

 During the lunch break I saw my colleague wearing a set of these huge black Virtual Reality (VR) goggles, making wired movements and turning on her own axis like a dog trying to catch its own tail. It looked absurd and I had to try it out myself. For seven minutes I got the opportunity to delve deeper into the life of an Amazonian indigenous tribe, learning about the culture, rituals and habits of the Waurá.

The Waurá is an indigenous tribe, which lives in the Upper Xingu River region, in the first indigenous Park of Brazil. Created in the river basin in the early 1960s, it is the first indigenous territory recognized by the Brazilian government and the Waurá are one of the 15 tribes living in this territory.

During the first cut I am standing in the middle of a village surrounded by around 30 Waurá members just decorated in their traditional body paintings and jewellery made out of treasures from the rainforest. All of them stand still and stare at me. I am turning around 360 to get an impression of my surrounding. I have to hold myself back in order to not interact with the people around me, keeping in mind that I am actually in Stockholm at a conference and don’t want to embarrass myself.

In the next moment I am sitting on a canoa, in front of me a Waurá member is paddling over a vide silt up river surrounded by nothing but the jungle. After this they take me to one of their traditional ceremonies with chanting and ritual dancing. In the evening everyone mingles to watch football on a flat screen located in one of the huts – a live between modern era and tradition. Then the movie ends by stressing the issues the tribes of the Xingu Indigenous Park are facing through forest fires, just right before I got too dizzy.

VR is a new communication tool launched by Instituto Socioambiental, a Brazilian NGO that works with defending social and collective rights and the rights, related to the environment and cultural heritage of indigenous people in the Amazon. This is the first VR movie about indigenous habitants ever. It gives viewers the opportunity to go on a trip to the Amazon and become aware about traditions, culture and habitat of the Waurá people.

This way Socioambiental hopes to reconnect people from cities with the indigenous traditions of the country they are sharing and to encourage respect for their habitat. “We want people to understand how important it is to secure the rights of indigenous people in the Amazon so they can keep their heritage alive, to save the environment and to fight climate change, all this in a fun and accessible way,“ says Bruno Weiß from Socioambiental.

Photo by Guto de Lima via Flickr.

Photo by Guto de Lima via Flickr.

By promoting the VR movie at public events, conferences and festivals, such as the Rock in Rio, they try to reach out to people who don’t have the opportunity to go to the Amazon.

The movie highlights the danger of uncontrolled fires that threaten the livelihoods of the Waurá, due to deforestation of the Xingu Indigenous Park and due to climate change. Reduction of forest cover changes raining patterns and influences the micro-climate of the forest, making it drier and inflammable. “We have always used controlled fires to farm our land, but now something has changed. Big farmers around the territory are destroying the land- it’s getting too hot, we are very concerned” says one of the tribe members.

Organisations like the Socioambiental realize how important it is to support the survival of the indigenous tribes in the Amazon, as they have unreplaceable knowledge about how to treat the environment and how to extract natural resources in a sustainable way.

More and more organisations working with environment and development discover new technologies, like VR, which enable them to communicate their work better. VR stimulates senses more than reading, watching TV or listening to the radio. This magic window can create empathy towards remote unfamiliar cultures and places.

Greenpeace, for example, launched an App under the slogan “Adventures needed for a virtual expedition”, which provides VR movies and equipment, taking its users on adventures trips. You can, for instance go for an expedition to the Arctic where you will see glaciers melt and look a polar beer straight in the eyes. Through that Greenpeace hopes to create awareness, empathy and higher financial support.

The Google VR Cardboard headsets with plastic lenses and a space for the mobile phone has already made VR more accessible and affordable. It might be that mass use isn’t far away.

The Guardian mentions some examples where the experience of VR has encouraged people to act more environmental friendly. Studies showed that people who had a VR experience of cutting down an old-growth redwood tree — feeling the vibration and sound of the chainsaw, the crash of the tree as it falls — are more likely to conserve paper. Another example shows that people who take a shower and at the same time see their doppelganger eating coal to represent the amount of energy use, these people are more willing to save water.

Of course, I realise, that VR is not the same as the real time experience. Smelling, feeling and interacting with the surroundings and the people cannot be replaced. Emotions from real experience cannot be recreated virtually. Not just yet.

But VR has great potential for creating empathy through experience of remote places –  a great challenge in the work on tropical conservation or glaciers melt in the Arctic as it is hard to care about something very far away. I am sure we will see more of it in the future.

This is just a beginning and who knows maybe soon we will be able to even smell and touch things through VR!

Watch the video and learn about life of the Waurá here.

Laura von Ketteler


Laura holds Master's Degree in Sustainable Development from Uppsala University. Former SIANI communications intern, she is dedicated to everything related to sustainable agriculture and food...

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