Rural Family House student Geiane Macedo got her nickname Lettuce Queen by teaching her parents to grow vegetables and increase their family income
Sea change in the Southern Lowlands
Working in partnership with federal, state and municipal agencies, the
Odebrecht Foundation is bringing about a profound economic and social
change in one of the poorest parts of the northeast-Brazilian state of Bahia
WRITTEN BY Leonardo Mourão ◦ PHOTOS BY Eduardo Moody
> PHOTO GALLERY > CHANGING THE LANDSCAPE
Antônio Rosário Cruz, 47, is a fisherman who had never experienced respect for his profession until the day he applied for credit at a drugstore. The father of seven and a resident of the Torrinhas district of Cairu in the Southern Bahia Lowlands, Cruz had gone to that establishment to see if he could open an account there for his family and pay in installments. The answer was quite different from what he was used to hearing, and filled him with pride: “Of course, your credit is good here.”
With good-humored exaggeration, the nickname Lettuce Queen that Geiane Pereira de Macedo, a 15-year-old student, got from her friends reflects her determination to grow vegetables on her family's small farm in Tancredo Neves, the westernmost municipality in the Southern Lowlands. Her first harvest was enough to fill a shopping cart with coriander (cilantro). By selling her produce from door to door, she was able to invest the proceeds in more seeds. Sales grew. “My dad did the math: in three days I was making as much as he earned in a month.” So the entire Macedo family decided to pitch in. They started out with five plots, and now they have twelve. In addition to coriander, they plant lettuce, carrots, beets and tomatoes, and are setting up a chicken coop so they can also raise poultry.
For Rita de Cássia Guimarães Silva, 42, October 7, 2005 will always be a date to remember. On that day, she kissed her father, Artur Silva, for the first time. That daughterly gesture put an end to an embarrassing situation that had scarred her life. Although it was common knowledge in Camamu, the Southern Lowlands town where they both live, that Artur was her father, he had never officially acknowledged her as his daughter. Even after all that time, Rita still wanted to see her father's name on her birth certificate. “He agreed, so I was able to add Silva to my surname and gained three siblings, a bunch of nieces and nephews and the love of a new family.”
Antônio, Geiane and Rita are three real-life characters in a dramatic transformation: one that is changing the lives and dreams of thousands living in the 11 municipalities that make up the Southern Bahia Lowlands. That is where the Brazilian Government, the State of Bahia, municipal authorities, local organizations and the Odebrecht Foundation are organizing and concentrating their efforts in one of the most creative joint programs being carried out in Brazil through a partnership between the public and private sectors. Officially organized as the Program for the Integrated and Sustainable Regional Development of the Southern Bahia Lowlands (DIS - Southern Lowlands), this undertaking takes the form of dozens of initiatives that are generating new money for the economy, while encouraging the poor to demand their basic civil rights and fulfill their civic duties while preserving the area's natural wealth.
Four kinds of capital
The program's mission is to create the minimum conditions for enabling a rural middle class to emerge in the Southern Lowlands. The objective conditions for making this happen already exist. All societies have four kinds of capital that, under favorable conditions, bring about sustainable material and cultural development. Productive Capital is the capacity to create jobs and sources of income. In the context of the DIS program's initiatives, this translates as organizing chains of production for manioc, tilapia, hearts-of-palm, and soon, piassava straw. Human Capital results from good-quality education. Through initiatives like Youth House, the Rural and Sea Family Houses, and soon the Agri-Forestry Family House, young people are learning production methods and passing them on to their local communities. Social Capital gives citizens access to justice and basic rights, which are being achieved through the work of the Rights and Citizenship Institute (IDC). Environmental Capital is present when society seeks to increase the rational use of natural resources. The Organization for Land Conservation in the Southern Bahia Lowlands (OCT) is participating in that effort.
The 260,000 residents of the Southern Lowlands urgently need to consolidate these four kinds of capital in order to boost the extremely low indicators that place it among the poorest parts of Brazil. One in ten heads of household living there has no monthly income at all, and six out of ten earn less than the minimum monthly salary. The rural exodus from six municipalities in this microregion – Camamu, Igrapiúna, Ituberá, Maraú, Presidente Tancredo Neves and Valença – has added to the number of urban poor. In the other five municipalities – Cairu, Ibirapitanga, Nilo Peçanha, Piraí do Norte and Taperoá – the number of people emigrating in search of more opportunities has made the urban and rural populations shrink. What is worse, this situation is sapping the population between the ages of 20 and 35, people who are at the peak of their working capacity. And there are even more alarming indicators: one out of every three students enrolled in elementary school either fails or drops out, and in 1998 the infant mortality rate was 50.36 per 1,000 live births. In the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul, 19.4 deaths per 1,000 live births were reported during the same period.
Gold from the sea
The natural resources needed to boost family incomes, keep people in the countryside and give them a better life have always been present in the Southern Lowlands, either grown in the fields or extracted from the sea. The only thing that was lacking was organized labor and a direct link between producers and consumers. In short, all the links in the supply chains that already existed there had to be joined together to bolster the micro-region's Productive Capital. And the producers have done just that.
Because it has a shorter production cycle, the aquafarming chain was the first to show signs of resounding success. Impoverished by the rapid drop in the number of fish available in the wild – mullet, red snapper and even crabs were disappearing, decimated by predatory fishing with fine mesh nets and explosives – local fishermen in Cairu received an invitation from the Institute for the Sustainable Development of the Southern Bahia Lowlands (IDES): Would they be interested in farming tilapia in pens set up in the estuary? Yes? Then all they had to do was join the Mixed Cooperative of Southern Lowlands Shellfish Gatherers, Fishers and Aquafarmers (Coopemar). They received training, ten specially designed net pens capable of holding up to 900 tilapias, alevins (newly hatched fish) and technical assistance. In 20 weeks, the fish would be harvested, filleted, packaged and sent to market. The expected earnings for each cooperative member could be as much as BRL 600 per harvest – much more than they could earn by fishing with traditional methods.
These expectations were borne out. “In just a year we already have 80 families involved. At this rate, we'll reach our goal of 250 in less than two years,” says Coopemar President Luciano Freitas dos Santos. Wal-Mart, the retailing giant, has placed the product in its supermarkets and the Auchan chain in France is importing tilapia fillets. And the fishers’ incomes have increased substantially. It was like finding gold in the sea. “I used to rent a canoe to go fishing; there were days when I didn't catch enough to pay the owner of the boat,” recalls Antônio Rosário Cruz. “Now, after two harvests, I've bought a TV set and concrete blocks to add a room to my house.” So it is not surprising that the drugstore extended credit to this brand-new entrepreneur.
“The main advantage of this program is that it brings about social organization.” This is the assessment of the Bahia State Planning Department's Director for Farm Policy, Jackson Ornelas Mendonça. “This program organizes associations, cooperatives and the communities themselves to create groups that are tasked with discussing and developing proposals on specific themes.” The style of this program is very similar to a business organization: work groups have the autonomy to discuss and propose solutions for environmental issues, make suggestions about improving education and the production chains for manioc and hearts-of-palm, and so on and so forth.
Jackson Ornelas is the Bahia State Government's representative at all levels of decisionmaking in the DIS - Southern Lowlands program. He considers this initiative to be in the trial stage, but recognizes that some of its innovative experiments have already done away with some of the paradigms that were obstructing development in the countryside. One was the idea that the local population could only progress through formal education. “Not only is this not true, but in just a year, local farmers from Presidente Tancredo Neves have multiplied the productivity of their manioc fields,” says Ornelas.
There is no doubt that systemized formal education provided by schools and courses makes the fruits of labor in any field of human knowledge burgeon forth. But in just over two years, the DIS - Southern Lowlands program has demonstrated that the existing capacity of the local workforce should not be underestimated. “Farmers know much more about their work than most people realize,” says agricultural engineer Marcelo Abrantes, the technician responsible for the manioc production chain. “All they need is an opportunity to show what they are made of.” One example of this was the Manioc Productivity Competition introduced by the Presidente Tancredo Neves Rural Producers' Cooperative (Coopatan) in April 2005. The average output in that area was 9 tonnes (metric tons) per hectare, less than half the 20 tonnes estimated to be required to cover production costs and bring good returns for farmers. Eighty-five of the 116 contestants harvested over 20 tonnes. The local average has jumped to 26 tonnes per hectare. The winner produced a stunning 60.4 tonnes from just one hectare of land!
> The semi-arid area is next
More value added
Manioc is responsible for 70% of the value generated by the Southern Lowlands area's seasonal harvests. A staple in Brazil, it also represents an essential part of household incomes. Until the cooperative began working through a consolidated chain of production, most of the manioc harvested was cooked and eaten in its natural state or in the form of flour, which has little value added for farmers but could literally save the farm. Even at low prices, sales of manioc flour can provide a minimum source of income for their families.
> Fish that´s grown in the net
Being a commodity, manioc flour is subject to changing prices that its producers cannot control. The only way to increase the product's profit margin is by controlling the entire production cycle for this staple, which includes harvesting, processing, packaging and delivery to supermarket shelves ready for consumption.
This possibility has become a reality since the Fazenda Horizonte Flourmill opened in August 2005 with a daily production capacity of 20 tonnes – the biggest in the State of Bahia. This new facility is now producing manioc flour under the label “Primeira da Bahia” (First in Bahia) which is retailed by the Wal-mart chain and low-income Cesta do Povo supermarkets owned and operated by a state-owned company, Empresa Baiana de Alimentos – Ebal.
The benefits of manioc are growing vertically and horizontally through the full use of every part of that tuber. Another program is also about to leave the drawing board – the Feed Ingredients Processing Unit (UBIR). Located on the grounds of Fazenda Novo Horizonte – a farm ceded for an indefinite period by the Municipality of Presidente Tancredo Neves – it will be fully funded by the Bahia Department for the Prevention of Poverty and Social Inequality (Secomp).
This new unit will process manioc leaves – which are 20% protein and 75% digestive nutrients – into animal fodder. Already in the testing phase, one of the first applications of this product will be as fish food. This will make an invaluable contribution to the tilapia farmers in Cairu, who spend 70% of their total outlay on feeding fish. “These leaves are almost ready-made fish food,” enthuses Marcelo Abrantes. “We can harvest up to 120 tonnes of manioc leaves per hectare.” The stalks will also be used. The top third of each stalk supplies manioc cuttings used to plant new crops; the remainder can be processed into charcoal briquettes.
Manioc will produce even more returns when a planned starch factory is up and running. Secomp and the Presidente Tancredo Neves Rural Producers' Cooperative will finance its construction. “Producers' gains will multiply. Today, just 10% of the amount paid per kilo of manioc flour goes to farmers,” explains Marcelo Abrantes. “This percentage will triple as a result of this new structure.”
Peach palms make a comeback
While the farmers involved in growing a well-established crop like manioc are looking for ways to add value to their production chain, others are putting their chips on the potential of pupunha or peach palms, which produce hearts-of-palm, a crop recently introduced in the Southern Lowlands – or to be more accurate, recently reintroduced. Peach-palm trees were first planted in that part of Bahia in 1983, but several setbacks gave them a bad name, discouraging local farmers from going ahead with the project. Because it got off to a bad start, the DIS - Southern Lowlands program's technicians had to work extra hard to resume growing peach palms in that micro-region. In 2001, they identified farmers who might be interested in planting them. The following year, they jointly selected first areas to be planted. Although the farmers were still skeptical, they planted an average of 3,000 trees per hectare, less than half of the 7,200 plants per hectare grown nearly two decades earlier. Even when the first hearts-of-palm were harvested 12 months later, the farmers still had their doubts. Would anyone buy their produce?
> A plant that´s reborn at every harvest
They weren't alone. Their neighbors were beginning to crack jokes about all that “peach-palm prattle.” “When the truck finally arrived to take our produce to market, we loaded on the hearts-of-palm stalks and asked the trucker to drive around town a few times so all the doubting Thomases could see it was really happening – we had actually sold our produce,” recalls the president of the Small Producers' Association of Areião, Francisco Rodrigues Santos, with a hearty laugh. The news spread. Among many others, Raimundo Souza dos Santos, the president of the Morro do Sal Producers' Association, had questioned whether producing hearts-of-palm made good business sense. But now he is so firmly convinced that this new crop is viable that he has become vice president of the Cooperative of Southern Lowlands Hearts-of-Palm Producers (Coopalm), an organization created just over a year ago.
“I had not only refused to believe that planting hearts-of-palm could be profitable but I tried to convince everybody I knew that it was a bad idea,” he admits. A visit to the grove planted on Fazenda Juliana, a farm in Igrapíuna, changed his mind. Raimundo Santos decided to start planting peach-palm trees himself and even came up with the unique method of planting the palms and banana trees together in the same groves.
The hands-on work of the technicians associated with the DIS - Southern Lowlands program to convince local farmers was successful. Local groups got involved, the technology imported from Ecuador was improved and productivity grew. “Now we don't even have to try to convince people. We have 325 producers, 1,325 planted hectares and everyone knows that it's an idea that's come to stay,” says the leader of the hearts-of-palm production chain, Emile Machado. They sell their produce to Ambial, which markets it under the Cultiverde label. There are currently 20 associations from nine Southern-Lowlands municipalities involved with Coopalm. The group is so highly motivated that one cooperative member ceded a piece of farmland so the income produced by growing manioc and bananas there could be used to pay for the cooperative's new tractor.
Why go to school?
In the Southern Bahia Lowlands, going to secondary school is a luxury that few can afford. According to the Statistical Annual on Education for 2001, there were 93,086 students in elementary school, but just one-tenth of that total, 8,659, were enrolled in secondary school. This is an all-too-familiar situation: massive numbers of students are forced to leave school and enter the job market to contribute to their families' meager incomes. But that is not the only problem. In a part of Brazil where 53% of the population is still living in rural areas, the school calendar is the same as those followed in downtown São Paulo and the toniest districts of Rio de Janeiro: it doesn't take the harvest seasons into account. As a result, students have to miss classes to help their families in the fields. Moreover, the curriculum does not include a single word about the realities of rural life. It is as though the students were hearing one language at school and another at home.
“Students have to know why they're studying, and for what,” says Simone Magalhães, the principal of the Youth House State School in Igrapiúna. “Otherwise, school will be seen as an institution that is incapable of furthering their personal development.” There are 670 students enrolled at Youth House, from kindergarten to secondary school. Now part of the state school system, it is located on Fazenda Juliana and also accepts students from rural areas of Ibirapitanga, Ituberá and Piraí do Norte. All students follow a curriculum that is in strict compliance with Ministry of Education regulations, but they also study, cultivate and live and breathe the countryside, just as they parents do. They learn the theory and put it into practice in the school's vegetable garden and large fields in the area. Furthermore, after they graduate from secondary school, Youth House students can go on to take the professional education courses their school also offers, with a focus on the rural economy.
The school's emphasis on the interaction between what students see and learn in the classroom and the way their families make a living does not mean that Youth House teachers are determined to turn everyone into farmers. These days, rural students have a great deal of contact with the realities of urban life. Like young people in the cities, they want to become doctors, engineers and journalists. But just as the ever-shorter distance between these worlds enables people to share the same dreams, so it can also bring some nightmares closer to home. “Issues like the high teenage-pregnancy rate and the risk of infection from sexually transmitted diseases are also present in the countryside,” says Jorge Luís Oliveira Lemos, who teaches Biology at the Youth House. “And we discuss these topics in the classroom, just as they do in the best schools in Salvador.”
The fact that he works with a more geographically concentrated group of students than urban teachers allows Lemos to make this observation: “In the last three years the number of cases of unplanned pregnancies among our teens has fallen significantly, and this is directly related to the work we are doing at school.” This is excellent news for a micro-region like the Southern Lowlands, where 70% of young people become parents before the age of 20.
Principal Simone Magalhães agrees. “We have to give our pupils the same instruments provided to students living in the cities.” Simone, who accepted a personal invitation from Norberto Odebrecht to run Youth House, goes on to say: “As long as they can develop their talents and acquire the tools they need to exploit and create opportunities, they will tend to remain in this area. And one of our goals is preventing the rural exodus.” As of January 2006, when the school will begin offering professional education classes, students will have a choice of careers as agricultural technicians, soil analysts, builders, electricians and mechanics. This is yet another anchor that will keep these youths in the countryside. “I'm going to become an agricultural technician and I've no intention of leaving,” says student Célia Jesus dos Santos. “There are now jobs available in the rural zone for people who already have professions. So why should I leave my family and the place where I was born?”
More and more young people like Célia dos Santos are becoming convinced that opportunities are arising close to home in the Southern Lowlands. Another phenomenon that is too recent to show up in the statistics is even more encouraging: the first migrants who had left the countryside to find work in the cities are starting to return, heartened by news that the economic situation is improving back home. This is particularly true in the Presidente Tancredo Neves area alongside route BR 101, in the westernmost part of the Southern Lowlands.
Despite the relatively short time it has been active in the micro-region, the DIS - Southern Lowlands program is partly responsible for this phenomenon. The rapid growth of the Presidente Tancredo Neves Rural Producers' Cooperative (Coopatan), which has increased its membership from 60 to 630 in less than two years, and the implementation of projects discussed within the sphere of DIS - Southern Lowlands are both the engines and thermometers of these advances. Nevertheless, the initiative that is shaking up the area to its very economic roots is the Rural Family House.
Opened in March 2004 on Fazenda Novo Horizonte, the Rural Family House focuses on bolstering family farming. Its students are the children of rural producers who spend three years alternating a week of studies in the classroom, where they learn about the most recent farming methods, with two weeks of work on their families' farms. While at home, they review the materials they have brought from school, and go out into the fields to put the methods they have learned from their teachers into practice. As they work, their parents, relatives and neighbors watch, compare results and listen. The youngsters tell them about the latest innovations: soil analysis, core-hole fertilization, spacing rows, combining crops, etc. Those two weeks in the fields are causing a sea change. Productivity is increasing, money is starting to flow in and the good news is reaching relatives, neighbors and friends who had gone off to try their luck in the big cities.
Students become teachers
The parents of Geiane Pereira de Macedo, aka the Lettuce Queen, were heartened by the excellent results their daughter's vegetable garden was producing and got into the act. They were not the only ones. Hundreds of local farmers in the Tancredo Neves area have learned how to modernize their farming methods from Family House students. Now they are trying out new crops and, most important, increasing their productivity. “I'd come home and show my dad what I'd learned in school. He liked some of the ideas and rejected others,” says Adriano Jesus Santos, 18, a student at the Rural Family House. “When I told him that planting manioc in double rows was more productive, he said: 'Oh no, that won't work.' So I asked him to plant part of our farm my way so we could make the comparison. When harvest time came round, my field yielded almost twice as much as his. He laughed and said, 'Hey kid, it really works!'”
One of the first people in the micro-region to plant pineapples, Adriano's father, José Ferreira dos Santos, has also made good use of the knowledge of the Rural Family House's technical consultants, who supervise the performance of students during the two weeks of “alternance studies” literally spent in the field. A pest destroyed 18,000 of the 21,000 pineapples he had planted, but he overcame this problem with a consultant's help. “I've got my confidence back,” says José dos Santos, who has started planting cloves and is preparing to grow rubber trees. “I thought planting them was too complicated, but now I'm game.”
> They don't want to leave home
This sea change is just the beginning of a new wave. By late 2006, Adriano and another 34 local youths will have finished their senior year at the Rural Family House. They will be the first graduating class, and if at least some of their plans come true, they will form a team of leading rural entrepreneurs. Some of them have already organized the Association of Young Rural Entrepreneurs (AJER). Their aim is to purchase farmland in the region by taking advantage of benefits provided by the Brazilian Ministry of Agrarian Reform's Our First Farm program, which provides loans to young people in rural areas aged 18 to 24 to enable them to buy farmland. AJER's young members often travel around the area to find the best land available and are studying the micro-region's market potential. “We're not going to limit ourselves to Presidente Tancredo Neves, which won't be able to absorb all of our output. We'll also sell our produce in nearby towns and cities. The sky's the limit,” says Luciana Lima, 19, one of the AJER's organizers.
Luciana is amazed by the transformation her two years at the Family House have made in her life. In a moving statement, she tries to explain what she has experienced: “When I used to think about my life, I couldn't see any way out of going to live in Salvador (the state capital). I was going to find work and try to go to school there, and maybe I'd come back one day. There was no way of knowing what my future would be. But then I started studying at the Rural Family House and all that changed. Now I feel confident about my future. I like where I live, I want to be near my family, and now there's no need for me to leave. I can see myself with my own land, my own plans, planting bananas, rubber trees and cocoa in a few years' time. I see myself becoming a major entrepreneur. I want to do all this so I can tell my grandchildren about it when I'm a little old lady.”
The Sea Family House opened a year ago and will soon have its own headquarters in Ituberá. Over the course of 2005, its first group of students alternately took practical and theoretical classes on the coast of Cairu and at the Rural Family House in Tancredo Neves. Its students, like those from Presidente Tancredo Neves, also have an influence on their local communities – this time on the fishing villages where they live. As a result, fishers who once used predatory methods such as explosives, fine mesh nets and fishing during the breeding season, are beginning to adopt the best practices for their profession. “My family used to fish in a disorganized way, without any kind of method. Anything that fell in the net was OK,” says Gleidson de Souza dos Santos, 15, a Sea Family House student. “Now they're starting to realize that the sea isn't an endless source of fish, and they have to change their ways.”
These students may face an even bigger challenge than their classmates at the Rural Family House. In addition to making an effort to apply new methods in a community that is just as conservative as those that make their living from the land, they are also involved in an economic activity that is under threat, facing a real risk of shrinking due to the harm being done to the environment. “I want to help my family and community,” says another student, Patrício do Rosário, 18. “I'm going to work with my dad at the tilapia farming module he set up in the Torrinhas estuary. That way we can keep producing food, give the environment time to recover and improve our quality of life.”
> Using everything but its shadow
The fishermen share his point of view. Orlando da Hora Santos, Vice President of the Mixed Cooperative of Southern Lowlands Shellfish Gatherers, Fishers and Aquafarmers (Coopemar), believes that the local fishing communities are imbued with a new spirit: “We've always heard lots of promises that progress will be arriving soon, but now, right here and now, we are seeing for ourselves that farming tilapia can make a real difference. We are confident that the Sea Family House students will keep making progress and improve things even more.”
The power of piassava
A few kilometers south of Cairu, in the former maroon communities of Jatimane, Boitaraca, Lagoa Santa and Ingazeira, residents are also convinced that local youth will become the driving force for a more vigorous economy. The Agri-Forestry Family House will open its doors in that area in January 2006. Surrounded by Atlantic Forest, these communities were originally quilombos, or maroon settlements founded by escaped slaves, and are still relatively isolated. Their residents' main source of income is extracting straw from piassava, a palm tree commonly found in the region. Fishing used to be very important to the original maroon communities' subsistence, but today that activity has been drastically reduced. The challenge they now face is diversifying their economies, preserving the environment and encouraging an enterprising spirit among their residents. As we have seen, these are things that Family House students are well equipped to do.
> Maestro of progress
“The natural environment is extremely rich, and there are real possibilities for economic development here,” says Reinaldo Souza, who coordinates the Piassava Production Chain Project. The Agri-Forestry Family House will operate along the same lines as its existing counterparts. Students will spend a week studying theory in the classroom and two weeks working in the field. Each three-week period will focus on a theme related to farm production and extraction. “We will cover 45 themes during the three-year course. In other words, by the time they graduate, these young people will have encountered 45 opportunities to become entrepreneurs,” says Reinaldo Souza.
While preparations are under way to open the Agri-Forestry Family House, the institutions and practices required to start up the piassava production chain are also being introduced. The Cooperative of Rural Producers of the Pratigi Area is one of these institutions.
“We've tried to form a cooperative before, but there was a lot of disagreement and it didn't work out. But now everyone is on board and excited about it. I sincerely doubt that people will forget to go to meetings like they used to do,” says Paulina Oliveira do Rosário, 34. Like nearly all the women in Jatimane, Paulina's job is stripping the fibers from piassava leaves by hand. Her husband then cuts them to the required lengths and ties them in bundles. Working long and hard, from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m., they earn just BRL 6 (less than USD 2) per day.
“This is the only kind of work available for the people who live around here,” says Reinaldo Souza. “But we can create much more income just by developing piassava.” This project, which has the full support of the Institute for the Sustainable Development of the Southern Bahia Lowlands (IDES), is expected to extract coconut starch from piassava – which is richer in that substance than the babassu palm – as well as oil, bran for animal feed, and the conversion of husks into activated charcoal. An agreement has been signed with the Escola Superior de Desenho Industrial in Rio de Janeiro, an industrial design college, to develop a new design for piassava brooms that will be used by the broom factory the program plans to build in that area.
Civil rights on paper
Communities develop rapidly when they can produce wealth and continually update and renew their technologies – even, as in the case of the Southern Bahia Lowlands, ways of producing objects that were believed to be impervious to improvements, such as piassava brooms. However, a society can only say it is truly civilized when all its citizens are respected and integral parts of that whole. First-class citizenship means having access to the mediating assistance of the State when one's rights are under threat; being able to fall back on government assistance if one cannot make enough to survive, and having the means of taking part in and influencing the government's choice of policies. This “whole” is what forms a nation's Social Capital.
To gain access to these rights, people must first obtain documents such as a birth certificate, voter registration card (voting is compulsory in Brazil), an ID card and work papers, get a social-security number or CPF, enlist in the Armed Forces and pay taxes. Although these documents are a routine part of life in urban centers, where they are easy to obtain, a significant number of people living in the Southern Bahia Lowlands – where the illiteracy rate for the population over the age of 10 is as high as 44% in some municipalities – have never possessed any of these vital documents. “When they request a document, people become aware of their civil rights and obligations. This enables them to grow, because poverty and oppression thrive on lack of information,” says Maria Celeste Pereira de Jesus, who is responsible for the Rights and Citizenship Institute (IDC) unit in Presidente Tancredo Neves.
An integral part of the DIS - Southern Lowlands program, the IDC pays all the fees charged to issue these legal documents. Its units have distributed over 32,000 documents to the local population. They have also provided services such as legal aid and conflict mediation 92,000 times in the last three years through the Legal Rights Desk program. Lawyers and Institute-trained social service agents provide mediation services.
This sort of work carries a powerful emotional charge. For example, it can involve obtaining formal recognition of parental responsibility and even love. This was the case with Rita de Cássia Guimarães Silva, the woman who kissed her father, Artur, for the first time when she was 42: “There were tears in my eyes when he said his name so they could write it on my birth certificate. His hand was shaking.” Moving moments like this one must have happened thousands of times throughout the Southern Lowlands. The IDC's Responsible Paternity Campaign, which inspired Rita de Cássia to seek out her biological father, covered all 11 municipalities in that micro-region. A survey had found that in Presidente Tancredo Neves alone, 650 birth certificates did not give the father's name. “This campaign was so popular that we extended what was going to be a three-month effort and made it a permanent service,” says the IDC's executive director, Liliana de Mello Leite.
> Quilombos come into their own
Another surprise was people's persistent efforts to have their existence as citizens recognized, even for those who had gone without public services all their lives. One example is Francisca Xavier de Oliveira, 78, who requested an ID card although the only official proof that she exists is a torn-up marriage certificate that some well-meaning but absent-minded soul had taped together in random order. “My husband's name is Gilberto Anísio Coelho, but I haven't heard from him in 40 years. I don't even know if he's still alive.”
Just as the Rights and Citizenship Institute is helping people exercise their legal rights, so another institution is ensuring that those rights are respected from an early age. Created in 2005, the Municipal Board for the Rights of Children and Adolescents (CMDCA) of Presidente Tancredo Neves managed to rescue a teen named Evandro, 13, from the vicious cycle of cruelty and neglect that had taken over his life. Even though he was enrolled in school and his parents were well known in their town, Evandro used to sleep rough in the streets, wandering about in rags. He was physically abused and adults assaulted him on more than one occasion. “We managed to get the boy off the streets, convinced his father to complain to the police about one of the people who beat up his son, and got Evandro back into the classroom,” says Maria das Graças Barreto Alves, who is in charge of the Juvenile Authority Board, part of the CMDCA system.
Municipal Boards began to appear in early 2000, when the Institute for the Sustainable Development of the Southern Bahia Lowlands (IDES) conducted a study to evaluate the effectiveness of these instruments in that micro-region. The situation they found was discouraging. Most of the boards, which had been established by the Brazilian Constitution of 1988 as a strategy for decentralizing public administration, were isolated and invisible. The public did not know they existed, and even their members had no idea what to do. Some did not want to be on the boards at all.
“The first step we took was to train board members by discussing issues related to children and adolescents, education and health,” says Liliana Leite. “We held meetings and organized seminars and debates.” In the end, over 250 board members were groomed and 55 municipal boards were organized. The best thing is that nearly all of them are young adults. “This is what we wanted – young leaders,” says Liliana Leite. Today they run the Boards for Children and Adolescents and some even ran for a seat on the town council. “They didn't win, fortunately. It's too soon for that sort of thing. Now is the time to concentrate our energy on the boards.”
The support of municipal leaders is key to ensuring that the proposals made in partnership with the Odebrecht Foundation get off the drawing board. These people know the area well and are familiar with its potential. “The programs being carried out in the Southern Lowlands have taught us a lot about the strength of partnerships,” says the President of the Association of Southern Lowlands Municipalities (AMUBS) and Mayor of Itaperoá, Ito Meireles. “This micro-region's capacity to generate wealth has always existed and it is now being rediscovered through the work being coordinated by the Odebrecht Foundation.” Meireles guarantees that the municipal governments of the entire micro-region are convinced that progress depends on a firm alliance with the private sector. “The government couldn't run a program of this magnitude on its own. We're always on the lookout for partners.”
Those vitally needed partners do not necessarily have to be corporations. In Ituberá, many of the most committed partners are not even old enough to vote. In that town, the Idelzito Elói de Abreu State secondary school students taking part in the Young Citizens of the Environment Program are working hard to set up a collective trash collection system in their municipality. Even in the world's biggest cities, this is a major challenge. As a first step, they propose to create a trash pickers' cooperative along the lines of a similar organization in the southern Bahia city of Itabuna.
> The power of unity
A committee of school children is planning to visit that city and see for themselves what is being done there. “They've developed a taste for this and are producing proposals non-stop: after the cooperative, they want to set up a mini-manure factory to process recycled organic waste,” reveals Rosângela Ché, the program's pedagogical director.
Created by the Organization for Land Conservation in the Southern Bahia Lowlands (OCT), another Odebrecht Foundation partner in the Southern Lowlands, the Young Citizens of the Environment Program aims to win the hearts and minds of the area's economically active population and lay the foundations for establishing its Environmental Capital. Since the end of June 2005, the program has been working with 18 young volunteers aged 14 to 17 who meet twice a week to talk about subjects ranging from developing self-esteem to studying the characteristics of the Atlantic Forest biome. “Personal development is essential because we believe that people can only treat the environment with respect when they respect themselves and others,” says Rosângela Ché.
The young people's involvement in debates about the threats posed to the environment – Ituberá is the Southern Lowlands district with the largest concentration of Atlantic Forest – is having an impact at home. “The parents are taking part in activities spontaneously. Thanks to their children's influence, five of them have enrolled in Biology classes,” says Rosângela Ché. The father of Layane Souza, a 9th-grade student, even waits eagerly for his daughter to come home on the days when she attends the program. “I sit down with him on the sofa from 7 to 8 at night and tell him all about what I've learned at the OCT,” explains Layane. “He listens hard and doesn't say a word.”
Conservation and use
The special relationship between Southern-Lowlands communities and their natural environment presents both a serious challenge and a solution for those who intend to preserve it. Nearly half of the 6,138-sq.km micro-region is made up of rural areas with extractive economies. People extract piassava, lumber and game from the Atlantic Forest; fish and shellfish from the estuaries. Native trees are felled to plant peach palms, cloves, guarana, cocoa and other crops. Is this a serious threat? Clearly the answer is yes. However, this profound symbiosis leaves no doubt in farmers' minds of the urgent need to conserve their local biomes. After all, they will be the first to feel the impact of a degraded environment.
“It is important to conserve and preserve but also to use the environment,” says OCT biologist Alexandre de Almeida. “We want to change the concept that the environment is a hindrance for landowners.” The organization is working with local municipal governments and farmers' associations, but it expects the biggest advances to be made after the Municipal Boards for the Environment are put in place. They are just beginning to be established in the Southern Lowlands, but by law they should be present in every Brazilian community. An inventory of the micro-region's biodiversity is another key initiative. Without such a study, it would be almost impossible to organize conservation and management studies tailored for the local environment. We already know that the micro-region is rich in endemic species and has a world record for diversity – 144 different species of woody trees in a single hectare – but much more needs to be learned.
Compliance with existing laws and regulations would significantly reduce the danger of environmental degradation. One of the possibilities presented by current legislation that has made the biggest contribution to the preservation of the Atlantic Forest is establishing Private Natural Heritage Preserves (RPPN). Legally, all rural properties must preserve 20% of their plant cover. When properties choose to transform that part of their land into an RPPN, it cannot be expropriated for public works, which will ensure that it is permanently preserved. In exchange, the landowner gets a tax exemption for the declared area and priority for farm loans.
“Our strategy is to form regional biodiversity corridors, which means connecting preserved areas, because plants and animals can't live in isolation,” explains OCT director Jorge Velloso Viana. “And this is going to happen. We've already finalized agreements with 22 properties to create RPPNs, which will cover a total of 9,323 hectares; we will achieve connectivity if landowners comply with the law and preserve the vegetation on the edges of waterways, which forms a natural connection between one part of the forest and another.” All the necessary tools are readily available. Getting the entire community on board requires winning them over, which is only a matter of time.
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