A tide of good influences
In northeastern Brazil, new prospects for a better life are opening up for communities near the Mundaú and Manguaba lagoons
Written by: Antonio Fernando Borges
Photos by: Eduardo Moody
Bruno Holanda: from student to teacher of English and an avid participant in environmental conferences
“Don’t let your friends lead you by the nose, kid!” Who hasn’t heard that advice from their mother as a child or teen? By the looks of polite, mild-mannered Bruno Holanda, 17, from the northeastern Brazilian state of Alagoas, no one would think he would ever go against his mother’s advice. But it was precisely because he let his friends “lead him by the nose” in 2003, when he was a boy of 12, that his life began changing for the better – and he also started seeing fresh horizons open up for his neighbors and friends in Pontal da Barra, a district of Maceió, whose traditional activities are handicrafts and fishing.
Naturally, there was nothing wrong about Bruno’s decision. All he did was go along with his friends Charles, Jean and Felipe, who were enrolling in an English language program that was about to get started at a school in Pontal. The classes were not only free but they were given at night for students of all ages. The most attractive feature for the boy was the fact that the first groups would be taught at the Silvestre Péricles School, where he was already a student. Bruno wasn’t particularly interested in learning the language, but “for want of anything better to do,” he gave up his afternoon TV and other pastimes and started going to class.
“A good thing, too!” as he would eventually learn to say in English. In less than five years, Bruno Holanda has learned much more than a foreign language: he has also taken environmental awareness classes and joined in the fight to preserve the biome of Mundaú Lagoon, which lies to the south of the city of Maceió. He also has new future prospects. And in the short term, he has obtained a source of income to help with the household budget: in addition to carrying on with his studies of English, he has begun “picking up some pocket money” as a teacher’s assistant for Beginners English classes at the language workshops that have been part of the “Living Lagoon” Environmental Education Program since 2003. Created and sponsored by Braskem, “Living Lagoon” is offering the Pontal community what they have needed most: prospects of a better life.
More tradition than prospects
With its modest homes, narrow streets with crowded sidewalks and a harmless hubbub in the main square, the Pontal da Barra district has all the look of a sleepy rural town. All this peace and quiet is only disrupted on weekends, when tourists visiting Maceió swarm into the community in pursuit of the famous local handicrafts – lace, embroidery, and fillet lace (needlework that produces fine netting). But there is more to this neighborhood than its picturesque appearance: set between Mundaú Lagoon and the sea, in the easternmost area of Maceió, it offers its residents few opportunities beyond making an income from their handiwork (an activity that yields far less than it could) and disorganized, extractive fishing that has been the harbinger of a real environmental disaster in the Mundaú Lagoon ecosystem.
Plenty of tradition but few prospects – in short, more about the past than the future. This was the situation that led Braskem to choose Pontal as the location for its “Living Lagoon” Project in 2001. There was another reason, of course – it is right next door to the company’s Chlor-Alkali Unit, which makes it the ideal site for the company to carry out its policy of investing in educational, environmental and social inclusion programs in its local communities.
Back then, Bruno and his friends were just 10 years old, and naturally more interested in playing children’s games on the shores of the lagoon. But it didn’t take long for them to hear about the project, which initially focused on the ongoing education of public school teachers in the field of Environmental Education. The basic idea was to groom multipliers who could introduce that brand-new subject – environmental awareness – to their colleagues so it could then reach their students.
“We have worked with teachers from the outset, because our target has always been young people, who represent the future of Alagoas,” explains Lenice Santos de Moraes, the President of the “Living Lagoon” Institute and educational coordinator for the program. “Young people are the ones who will share this new awareness with their parents, at home. That’s the only way we can make an effective change in our community,” she says.
The idea worked: in no time, Pontal residents had begun to question their own ingrained convictions and habits – particularly the families of fishermen and artisans whose children would come home with new ideas about their parent’s livelihoods. The kids were learning that disorganized, extractive fishing (which pays no heed to breeding cycles) and predatory timber extraction for firewood were endangering the environmental balance. Even worse: in the medium term, this would negatively impact the community’s main sources of income because fish and local plants were becoming scarce and even verging on extinction.
The idea of preserving the environment and sometimes even restoring degraded areas has begun to take root within the community, and projects and programs are multiplying through new groups set up to groom “environmental educators” and campaigns organized to pick up trash on the beaches and shores of the lagoon. “Before long, ‘Living Lagoon’ could count on the young participants to talk to their peers,” observes Lenice. “And when an idea gets that sort of grassroots support, there’s no holding it back,” she says enthusiastically.
Although he doesn’t come from a fishing family (his father is a policeman), Bruno also felt the influence of that unique community organizing campaign. After just a few weeks of classes – hey presto! – he had developed “a new environmental awareness” (although he doesn’t put it in those exact words). “I just sort of stood by and watched when the workshops got started,” he recalls, concluding: “But right after I started taking the English course, I started to realize that it was part of a bigger program that was full of opportunities.”
In addition to the environmental education classes for teachers, the “bigger program” also included a number of workshops that taught professional skills to Pontal residents, including hydroponics, silk-screening, handicrafts and beekeeping, all of which provided immediate opportunities for earning an income. After all, according to the educational aims of the “Living Lagoon” program, simply criticizing “environmentally incorrect” behavior was not enough. It also had to open up professional opportunities. From the start, the English language workshops had a specific aim: giving the community a tool they could use to communicate with foreign visitors, so that they could take advantage of Pontal da Barra’s attractions as a tourist destination.
Ever since, young Bruno has kept a close and lively eye on all the “Living Lagoon” initiatives. The program has been working on several fronts, such as the Eco-Sail program – a sail-canoe race combined with an ecological scavenger hunt to collect trash on the banks of the lagoon and in the Pontal district. Bruno has also had a first-hand look at the beekeeping workshops for fishermen, taught by agronomist engineer Mário Calheiros Filho. In 2006, they gave rise to the Honey Fishers project in Coqueiro Seco and soon became one of the program’s flagship projects.
But fate had much more in store for Bruno Holanda than learning and teaching English. At Silvestre Péricles School, he heard about the Environment and Quality of Life Commission Program (Com-Vida), which the Environment and Education Ministries were organizing in the schools, and was getting special support from the “Living Lagoon” Program right there in Pontal. Bruno didn’t think twice: he joined his school’s Commission and started attending the program’s Environmental Conferences.
“We put our heads together – me and the other kids – and said let’s get going! We’ve got to take action and do something!” he says. He has been an active participant in the Young Pontal Environmentalists (JAP) movement since 2007, where he is in charge of initiatives that have been making a significant impact on his community’s life – such as restoring and replanting mangroves in the middle of the lagoon and collecting trash on Pontal Beach. Once they collected 380 bagfuls of 100-liter bags stuffed right to the top with trash.
Bruno Holanda’s life and the story of the “Living Lagoon” Project are becoming more and more intertwined, thanks to their shared objective of improving environmental and social conditions in Pontal da Barra.
The “Mayor” of Pontal
Bruno is articulate and well-spoken, but clearly embarrassed when he hears people singing his praises. “He stood out quickly. He’s a born leader,” says Hilbert de Souza, the director of the English workshops held in partnership with the Federal University at Alagoas. “Bruno always wants to lean more,” says Hilbert, “but he has a generous curiosity: he wants to know ‘How can I help?’” Thanks to their can-do attitude, with the help of “Living Lagoon” Bruno and his fellow JAP members have obtained federal authorization and financing for an urban development project in the Pontal district. The idea is to bring more progress, comfort and convenience to the neighborhood without disrespecting the ecosystem or defacing the traditional architecture.
All this energy, plus his leadership skills and undeniable charisma, has earned Bruno a nickname – the “Mayor of Pontal” – but he finds the title slightly embarrassing, partly out of modesty and certainly because it is a “tremendous responsibility” that would weigh heavily on his 17-year-old shoulders. However, he is mature for his age – in recent years he has “collected major and deserved personal successes,” according to his friend Rennisy Rodrigues Cruz, who also lives in Pontal and, like him, is a TA for Beginners English classes.
One of Bruno’s biggest accomplishments has been getting a paid internship at an IT company where he works as a “young apprentice” in the Quality, Health, Safety and Environment areas – “It’s a subject that, in all modesty, I know a little about,” he observes. Meanwhile, he is getting ready to go to college and get a Business degree, but he makes a point of underscoring that the biggest accomplishment of all belongs to Pontal, where other community members are racking up their own personal victories. For example, Bruno mentions his friends Charles, Jean and Felipe – the ones who talked him into taking English lessons: “Charles is a TA for two new classes, like me. Jean is an apprentice boilermaker and Felipe is going to college. And all three are also working with me on the JAP.” And to make it clear that he never forgets his community, he adds: “Today, I’m much happier because I’m seeing Pontal grow along with ‘Living Lagoon’...”
Like these young men, the “Living Lagoon” program has also grown and matured in the last few years. Since its inception in 2001, the number of schools involved has risen: from 11 institutions that number jumped to 26, 69 and 165 in the three following years. The number of towns and counties involved has also grown: now there are 26 on board. But the program’s growth is not just about numbers: committed to improving teachers’ professional qualifications, “Living Lagoon” has created a specialization course in Environmental Education at the Federal University at Alagoas (one of its partners) for public school teachers. There are two classes currently taking the course. This demonstrates that, in this program, environmental education and professional qualifications (such as creating opportunities for jobs and income) go hand in hand.
While dividing his time between English lessons, his regular studies, the internship and JAP activities (such as talks on sexuality and the environment, replanting trees and shrubs in the mangroves on Mundaú Lagoon and the Teachers’ Fair, which provides job counseling for other youths), this 17-year-old still has time for new projects. One of them will be the publication of a basic English language skills book (which he helped write) aimed specifically at artisans, tour guides, waiters and other professionals working in the fields of tourism and hospitality.
When asked where he sees himself in 10 years’ time, Bruno Holanda has a confident answer: “I’ll be in business school, getting an MBA and teaching English.” Then he adds: “And I’ll be living here in Pontal, of course!” In the near future, he plans to visit the United Kingdom and practice the English he has learned so far. But he intends to go there as a tourist and come straight back to Brazil. As he will soon learn to say in his second language: “Nothing in this world could make me leave Pontal!”
Music workshop: an opportunity for professional educationProject benefits 26 counties
• After starting out in Pontal da Barra, on the shores of Mundaú Lagoon in Maceió, the “Living Lagoon” Program broadened its range of operations to include the entire Mundaú-Manguaba Lagoon Estuary Complex, which is an important biome in the state of Alagoas and encompasses 26 counties. The most recent county to join the program was Maravilha, in the Caatinga (dry shrubland and thorn forest) area of the High Backlands of Alagoas.
• In 2007, the ongoing teacher training program in Environmental Education groomed 1,150 teachers who shared their knowledge with 9,232 of their colleagues in the municipal and state public school systems, as well as over 387,000 students.
• Professional skills workshops cover hydroponics, English as a second language (with an emphasis on hospitality and tourism), traditional handicrafts (fillet lace and similar products), art with plastics (using recyclable plastic packaging collected on the beaches and lagoon shores), sewing and tailoring, bread making, environmental monitoring, drama, music and dance.
• The Eco-Sail race and scavenger hunt (which involved 160 sail-canoes in the first edition) currently involves nearly 350 boats and 2,500 people, including fishermen, technicians, students and community members. Eco-Sail got started as an educational action project that is part of “Living Lagoon,” aimed at mobilizing fishermen in the lagoon complex.
• Introduced in 2005, the Honey Fishers Program has firmly established beekeeping as an economic activity and currently involves 100 families from several counties (who make a living from selling honey, beeswax and the exclusive locally produced red propolis). The goal for 2012 is to build a trading post at Pontal using PVC concrete technology and to set up a cooperative with the involvement of some 500 families.