Community Empowerment Network's Blog
During my latest visit to Brazil a few months ago, I visited Suruacá, one of the first communities where CEN started work over 10 years ago and one of the host communities for the cCLEAR Proof of Concept Project where we developed and tested our signature PRATICAR Learning Approach.
The community of approximately 600 residents is located about five hours by boat from the city of Santarém, along the western shore of the Tapajós River. Although it is not as well-known as the Amazon River, the Tapajós is still very impressive. During much of the year it is over 30 kilometers (approximately 18 miles) wide, and even during the dry season when I last visited, it was still about 25 kilometers wide.
On the boat ride to Suruacá, I noticed a number of changes. First, the crew members, who all hailed from Suruacá, were better organized than they had been in the past. I noticed little things such as following a standard process of writing down the names of all the passengers as soon as they arrived, and issuing tickets for lunch. As a result, loading and unloading went more smoothly, and the new system cut down on people not paying for lunch or possibly even for the trip itself. It used to be pretty easy to skip on board without paying. I also noticed differences in the passengers: Most were dressed better and looked better nourished than they had looked in the past, and some children were playing with toys. All this pointed to a rising standard of living, which was confirmed when I arrived in the community.
As I climbed up the path from the river shore and entered the community, I was struck by the number of houses that had extensions. Several years ago, the federal government built basic houses for all residents to replace their substandard wooden houses. Each new house was constructed from bricks and had two bedrooms, a kitchen, an indoor bathroom and a tiled roof. In many ways they are an improvement, but they were not designed for the heat of the forest, so they can become quite hot inside. Many people have either expanded their houses or built on top using more traditional wood and palm thatch, which helps to keep the temperature cooler inside. A lot of the houses have nicely tiled floors now too.
As I roamed around the community catching up with old friends, I learned about other new developments, including numerous new businesses that have sprouted up. For instance, Djalma and his wife, Magarete, both participants in CEN’s projects, continue to build upon the micro-businesses they started. Djalma started selling phone cards after the local cellphone provider put up an antenna in the community. Magarete’s bakery is still doing well. Now they are both dreaming of expanding by building a lunch counter, which would be the community’s first restaurant. Other small businesses that now serve the community include a grocery store – the first true store in the community1, hair salons, as well as those run by artisans who produce handicrafts such as clothes, pillows and baskets. This is a huge development because when I first started visiting the community 12 years ago, there was not a single true business.
As impressive as these developments are, perhaps the most exciting change I witnessed was the residents’ new focus on exploring and addressing their problems, rather than simply resigning themselves to the many limitations they face, as was the case when CEN started visiting the community, and is still prevalent throughout the rest of the region. Today there is a growing awareness and confidence among residents that they do not need to rely on others to solve the problems they face.
For instance, Djalma’s and Magarete’s dream of starting a restaurant has been hampered by a lack of electricity. Instead of depending upon electrical appliances such as toasters, stoves and blenders, which are typically used in restaurants in cities, Djalma built a propane stove and oven out of bricks, which they will be able to use when there is no electricity. When electricity is available, he can use the appliances, which are much cheaper and easier to operate.
Another powerful example is how Larissa Sousa, the owner of the community’s grocery store, met the community’s need for frozen meat and cold beer (and yes, if you ask me it’s a need in the Amazon heat!), despite having no more than a couple of hours of power from the community generator each day, which isn’t enough to keep food and ice frozen. Although community members have lamented for years their inability to store ice or keep things cool, including storing medicines at the community health center, the problem was never solved.
Undeterred, Larissa met with energy specialists in Santarém to discuss her options. Consequently, she decided to install a solar energy system with enough batteries to power just the freezer for several days if the weather becomes overcast. Although the system cost a considerable amount, she recouped her investment in less than six months by selling meat, ice, and cold beverages.
Over the course of my visit, I was pleased to discover that nearly every participant in our proof of concept project continues to create or sell some product, even if it’s not necessarily the same one that they started with during the project. Even more impressive is the number of their family members and neighbors who have learned from them. For example, Rosivania, who produced clothing during the proof of concept project, is now fashioning decorative pillows. Her mother, who had learned to weave baskets years ago but gave up, became inspired by her daughter and has now started again. She has been selling baskets to neighbors as well as in Santarém when she or a family member goes into town. Our participants have become change agents for the community.
While it would be disingenuous for CEN to claim the entire credit for these gains, our focus on strengthening soft skills and continued mentoring in the community have made an important contribution to the transformation of the community. Our work would not be possible without your support, and I truly appreciate it.
1 There have been a couple of small stands that sold a few groceries in the past, but they rarely had more than a few items – and were rarely open. This is a real store.