RIO DE JANEIRO
WHEN rain-forest activist Chico Mendes was killed deep in an Amazon jungle in 1988, those with him could not get the news out by phone or telex. But they did link up to a peace group in the United States by computer network.
Within hours, the Brazilian government was receiving telegrams from around the world demanding justice.
This success showcases a new and revolutionary weapon being wielded by Brazilian nonprofit civic groups in their struggle to transform society - the Internet.
Throughout Latin America, social activists are using computers and modems to aid the poor, minorities, women, and the environment, making up for the days when the military dictatorships of the 1960s and 1970s restricted their flow of information.
But nowhere in the region is the Internet - a worldwide web of computer networks that receives and sends information and electronic mail - more popular than in Brazil.
Brazil leads Latin America with some 161 Internet networks, compared to second-place Mexico, with 105 networks, according to Tony Rutkowski, executive director of the Virginia-based Internet Society.
The Internet Society reports that, as of October 1994, Latin America had 22,500 ``cyberusers,'' North America roughly 2.8 million, and Europe, 850,000. In the Middle East, 10,000 are hooked up; in Africa, 21,000. Only 127,500 are linked up by computer in Asia, compared with 154,500 in Australia.
In Brazil, almost 80 percent of the nation's largest nongovernmental organizations are already interconnected with each other and the Internet. Brazil has around 5,000 NGOs, but many are very small.
So, for the price of a local phone call an activist for landless farmers in the northern state of Tocantins can alert urban colleagues in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo to the latest death threats from large landowners.
A Rio organizer can exchange information with colleagues in the northeastern city of Recife about solving the problems of street kids. Or an Amazon ecologist can send the latest deforestation statistics to Greenpeace offices in the United States.
The Internet's nerve center in Brazil is located at the Rio headquarters of the leftist think tank, the Brazilian Institute of Social and Economic Analysis (Ibase).
Through its Internet access system, called Alternex, 1,400 users in 15 countries throughout Latin America and Europe are hooked up to the latest information on pacifism and social justice, the environment, and human rights as reported by such groups as London-based Amnesty International, the Green Party, Oxfam, the Sierra Club, and the Swedish Peace & Arbitration Society.
The guru of Brazilian cyberspace is Carlos Afonso, who helped found Ibase with Herbert de Souza in 1988.
Mr. De Souza's campaign to fight hunger, called Citizen Action Against Misery and For Life, has won the support of millions and earned him a nomination for this year's Nobel Peace Prize.
De Souza has used the Internet to find food donors from as far away as Japan and to keep more than 3,000 autonomous food committees throughout Brazil informed of the campaign's latest achievements.
Social activists who use the Internet say it has been an invaluable tool. Since most NGOs experience constant financial problems, they have learned to depend on the Internet as a cheap way to communicate. Currently, users pay as little as $10 a month, saving thousands of dollars on traveling, postage, and copying.
With a few keystrokes, an individual can send 20 to 30 pages a minute between Rio de Janeiro and San Francisco, or between Managua, Nicaragua, and London. Most important, the only required equipment is a desktop or laptop computer, a modem, and a telephone line.
But Ibase's Mr. Afonso fears that the era of cheap information could soon end. He says the Internet - which today has users in 239 nations - is a ``potential gold mine'' and has already caught the eye of such United States communications giants as ITT Corporation and MCI Communications Corp.
Currently, access to the Internet in Brazil is not conrolled by any major telecommunications company. Afonso is concerned that, in the future, the phone lines could come under the management of one company, which would control use of the Internet and charge high prices for its services.
Afonso insists that if the Internet were to remain a nonprofit enterprise, it would only ``benefit society.'' He says the so-called information highway is an important instrument for Brazil in its struggle to transform itself into a modern nation.
``The Internet's main function is to provide its users with a true democratization of information,'' he says. ``This can only help society to keep dictatorships from returning.''