Floating Fab Lab: Digital Fabrication on the Amazon River
By Miriam Engle
Beno Juarez grew up in the Peruvian Amazon in close communion with nature — the rivers, trees, colors, shapes, and structures of the jungle defined his childhood and have continued to inspire him throughout his life. But along with beauty, he recalls the impact the political terrorism of the 1980s and ‘90s had on his life. Communist guerrillas faced off against the government in a civil war that left nearly 70,000 people dead in 20 years. Juarez’s childhood was consistently punctuated by frequent explosions in the distance and abductions carried out in broad daylight at his school. In order to escape the danger and violence, Juarez’s family left the Amazon for Lima when he was sixteen.
Though his new urban setting was starkly different from everything he knew, Juarez adapted rapidly. In a 2014 interview with Make Magazine, he spoke of “a new nature” he found in the city — “forests of mats and bricks, rivers of vans and vendors, and the gray heaven.” Ultimately falling in love with the spontaneity of the vast urban jungle that was Lima, Juarez became fascinated with what he saw as the city actively building itself, growing inexorably at the rate of humanity. “Because many people from different provinces in Peru went to Lima, there was a big migration and the city was not prepared for all the people in terms of housing, transportation, and commerce, so people had to create it for themselves from scratch. People had to self-organize,” he said.Children in the floating houses of Belén, Iquitos, along the Amazon River.
His fascination with urban development, especially with the sporadic growth of unplanned cities, led him to study architecture at the National University of Engineering (UNI) in Lima. There, Juarez came into contact with many different fields, including electronics, programming, and robotics and, eventually, with fab labs (short for fabrication labs) — community-driven workshops committed to open access and open source knowledge sharing — that were essentially a confluence of his various interests.
The concept behind a fab lab is that, by making digital fabrication machines available in combination with a commitment to knowledge sharing, any person with an idea is able to make (almost) anything. No longer are their ideas at the mercy of an outside entity with exclusive access to the supplies and machines necessary to make them a reality — any citizen has the tools they need (and the training to operate them) at their disposal.
Often inexpensive or even free to use, fab labs are an excellent source of social development by providing access to education and technology. At a fab lab you can expect to find things like 3D printers, soldering kits, a laser cutter or two, sometimes a CNC mill, a collection of members’ personal tools, and people who instruct users on how to use the machines. Within the last ten years, fab labs have blossomed in major cities around the world, creating a complex network of shared projects and ideas and a global network of workshops that create, fix, and teach.
Juarez was taken with the potential he saw in fab labs to revitalize urban areas by providing access and empowerment to everyday entrepreneurs who are only limited by a lack of resources. He began to think about how much Lima could benefit from such urban empowerment. In 2009, Juarez attended Fab Academy in Barcelona, which provides students with in an intensive six-month long course in the principles and applications of digital fabrication. The following year he set up fab lab Lima at UNI and, along with Victor Melendez and Paul Giron, founded Fab Lab Peru, an independent association to help support the growing number of fab labs in both his home country and throughout the rest of Latin America. By the time Lima hosted Fab7 — an annual fab lab conference — in 2011, fab labs had emerged in just about every major Latin American city and a dozen more were in the works.
While this rapid proliferation of fab labs was more than Juarez could have hoped for, all of Peru’s fab labs were in urban areas and he felt driven to share the opportunities that fab labs provide with his beloved Amazon. Because opportunities for education and economic prosperity are particularly sparse there, the potential for benefit from the presence of a fab lab is especially high. Many indigenous locals feel like they have only two options growing up: to join the drug trade or try to profit from invasive and destructive outside businesses. “Terrorism is not as big a problem anymore, but social exclusion is,” Juarez said. “Peru has a lot of potential, especially among the youth, but we need to bridge the gap between those who have access to education and technology and those who do not.”
An Answer for the Amazon: A Fab Lab That Floats
Determined to bring the benefits of fab labs to the Amazon, Juarez conceived of the Floating Fab Lab (FFL): a fab lab housed on a boat designed to travel up and down the Amazon River, providing access to education and tools for digital fabrication to traditionally excluded communities. For the past three years, he and his team have worked to establish partnerships with local organizations and have been talking directly to locals. “All the people we interviewed talked about education. We found that education was the main problem in several different contexts,” said Gabriela García, a project manager at FFL. To specifically address the issue of improved access to education for youth, the FFL has been collaborating with Infant, a Peruvian organization that offers educational activities for children and adolescents. Through strategic partnerships like this, the overarching idea of the Floating Fab Lab is that once empowered and better informed, local communities will be better able to lead their own way to revitalizing the Amazon, honoring their culture and way of life that prizes environmental sustainability in the process rather than bending to westernization in order to gain educational access and structural improvements.
Building Out the Prototype
Since Juarez formally introduced the FLF at a fab lab conference in 2013, more than fifty people from twenty countries have become involved in the project, volunteering a vast range of experience and expertise from management techniques to design strategy and much in between. In 2014 the FFL began collaborating with the Shipyard for Marine Industrial Services (SIMA), which builds and renovates ships for the Peruvian Naval Marines and just this past May, the Peruvian Naval Marines donated a recently confiscated vessel named Yonatan to the FFL to serve as the prototype for the floating lab.
Yonatan currently lives at SIMA in Iquitos, where the vessel is undergoing renovations necessary to make the boat not only fully functional but also entirely sustainable by being able to generate more power than it consumes. Because environmental sustainability is incredibly important to the FFL, the team is currently exploring ways to power Yonatan using solar power, hydropower, and possibly mineral and bio-power. “Our biggest challenge will be the materials,” says Juarez about the upcoming renovations. “We would like to research the integration of local materials, but most of the jungle people make houses and other local constructions using materials such as palms, but that’s quite dangerous for fire. So, our first challenge is [figuring out] how to use these local materials safely.”
Another major challenge is, of course, the financial one. Everyone working for the project during the past three years has been a volunteer, donating their time and expertise. In order to increase the project’s financial sustainability in the future, an ambitious Crowdfunding campaign is slated to launch this August in conjunction with Fab12, the fab lab conference, in Shenzhen, China. “Eventually we would really like to involve the global community in the construction of the boat,” Juarez said. “Our FabSourcing system will give people the opportunity to donate machines or supplies, but also to develop part of the boat or deliver it to the jungle for assembly.”
A Fab Future
Yonatan’s renovations are projected to be completed early next year, after which the FFL will set sail for the Padre Cocha, Maracamiri, and Barrio Florido communities to start. The roughly 125-mile territory the FFL will initially reach represents a tiny fraction of the total distance of the Amazon River of course — but Juarez envisions at least ten floating labs eventually, each covering 125-mile stretches and collaborating with stationary nodes at fixed locations along the river. Highly modular, the floating labs will also easily trade supplies and information. Eventually the FFL network will create a territory that stretches from the source of the Amazon in Nauta, all the way into central Brazil.
With the launch of Yonotan, Juarez’s dream of empowering his native Amazon by equipping its citizens with the opportunities necessary for success in the modern world will be a reality. The FFL has a long way to go, but taking design on the road — or the river, rather — represents a new frontier for design innovation in empowering indigenous cultures and communities, one that allows them to preserve the qualities that make their way of life unique without having to sacrifice the access and resources of modernity in the process.
Miriam Engle is a professional nomad and freelance journalist who has been following the international maker movement for the past two years across three continents. Last year she and photographer Madison Worthy cycled 3,000km from Copenhagen to Barcelona to visit over thirty fab labs and makerplaces in Europe. You can learn more about Miriam and her adventures at Gomad Nomad, her personal blog, and Madulthood, the chronicle of her European adventures.
All images courtesy of the Floating Fab Lab team.