Ham Radio News: Radio Technology for Isolated Communities

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Isolated communities in Central America derive great benefit from radio technology. Here a neophyte Mayan CB operator receives some medical good news.
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Copthorne Macdonald is the inventor of slow-scan television, a method of amateur radio transmission that allows ham operators to both hear and see each other during shortwave broadcasts.

Those of us who want to retreat from the over-development that’s taken place in our own rich nations are also well aware that the opposite problem exists in many poorer countries below North America’s southern border.

The majority of the world’s people would gladly swap their situation for ours–and few of us “wealthier” folks would want to retreat all the way back to the 50% infant mortality, insufficient food, and chronic illness still found in some “undeveloped” lands. The choice is not “All technology or none,” but rather “Which technologies are appropriate, both for human beings and for the other inhabitants of our small planet?”

In order to improve the quality of life in less developed nations, it’s usually necessary first to supply the basic physical needs: nutritious food, pure water, and health care. It might not seem that radio technology is appropriate during this early stage of the development process, but some recent work in isolated communities of two Central American countries indicates that electronic communication can be of help.

Besides radio’s ability to provide a high return in human terms for the amount of capital invested, it also has little environmental impact and can be used by folks who aren’t able to read or write–a definite advantage in areas where literacy isn’t widespread.

Radio Saves Lives

When an earthquake shook Guatemala in February 1976, a group from PLENTY–the relief organization run by The Farm in Summertown, Tennessee–went down to help the Guatemalans rebuild. After the emergency was over, Farm folks remained to work with the local Mayan people on some of the area’s longstanding, basic problems.

Among those who stayed were hams from The Farm’s radio crew, who used their equipment to keep relief workers in touch with relatives back in Tennessee. Later, as these people became more deeply involved with the problems of the Indians, they sensed other ways that radio could be of value. During the next three years, the Tennessee group helped to bring several new communication systems into existence. Of prime importance were two emergency radios that employed standard CB transceivers.

The first of these citizens’ band hookups enabled eight isolated “volcano villages” in the Lake Atitlan region of Guatemala to communicate with clinics and ambulances. “Such a Village Emergency System,” says a recent report from PLENTY, “is especially useful because of the limited transportation in the area. Some villages can only be reached by traveling as far as 25 kilometers over volcanic dirt roads. One community is actually up the side of a volcano! Many such settlements are only visited by one or two buses a day and have almost no additional vehicular traffic. Others have no water in the immediate area, infant mortality rates as high as 50%, and reoccurring outbreaks of TB, dysentery, typhoid, and other diseases.

“We found the people in the villages to be intelligent, capable, and anxious to improve their lot but without the money or equipment necessary to do so. We had set up a program of apprentice `Health Promoters’ (in training with the nearby clinic) who dispensed medicine and reported serious cases. We installed CB base stations for these people, and through the use of the radios hundreds of lives have already been saved. With the help of just one inexpensive CB station, the area’s overall health statistics have improved greatly.”

Health and Education

The second emergency radio system uses CB radios to connect lakeshore villages to clinics, hospitals, and fire departments. In addition, PLENTY’s crew helped build a broadcasting facility (owned and operated by local Mayan Indians) which presents educational programs, agricultural information, and bulletins–as well as music–in the area’s native language. (The PLENTY radio technicians trained local people to operate and repair all these systems.)

The crew also maintains a daily ham radio lifeline back to the States, which allows two physicians in Tennessee to advise Mayan doctors on difficult medical problems.

Similar things are happening elsewhere. A few hundred miles away in Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, Gary Garriott (WA9FMQ/YN4GG) works with a rural educational project aimed at training “health and nutrition leaders” in 25 Miskito Indian villages. Eight of the clinics are now connected by two-way, 3850 kHz SSB ham communication. The radio is used for medical consultation, to support the distribution of medicine, and to relay information on scheduled visits by medical personnel and courses in health and nutrition.

As in Guatemala, most of the Nicaraguan radios are powered by 12-volt car batteries, but one of the sets is charged up with a solar panel and more experimentation with alternative energy sources is planned. Gary is also involved with a regional educational radio project which uses a 2.5-KW AM transmitter to broadcast health, nutrition, and agricultural information.

Of course, radio systems require technically skilled people to maintain them. Historically, among the first such people in the industrialized world were the radio experimenters–the hams. I suspect that history might repeat itself in today’s developing nations if amateur radio in these countries were to be stimulated by interested governments and by gifts of equipment and parts from us hams in wealthier lands.

To conclude, I’d like to pass on some information I just received from Elmer Osterhoudt of Modern Radio Laboratories, whom I mentioned in another column. It seems that MRL has gotten hordes of catalog requests from MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers, and Elmer would just like to ask everyone to be patient. His little firm is nigh unto buried in mail, and he’ll get the catalogs out as soon as possible.

Cop Macdonald (VE1BFL)