The Women’s Group of Suruacá, Brazil
by Alicia Craven

In her 70 years of life, Dona Martinha, a matriarch in the small Brazilian village of Suruacá, has had time to come to her own conclusions about development strategies in her community.

“We are the guinea pigs,” she says in Portuguese with a weary, good-natured sigh. “In reality, everything that we have here is through projects—the kitchen, our house for women—all resulted from projects.”

Suruaca Grupo de MulheresCEN is working to change this entrenched dependent, paternalistic approach to development. Doña Martinha and her Suruacá Women’s Group are partners in shaping this change.

Suruacá is a small community of about 100 families on the banks of the Tapajós River in northeastern Brazil. It is accessible to the nearest city of Santarém by twice-weekly, six-hour boat journeys. Change comes slowly. Life requires patience.

Projecto Saude e Alegria (PSA)
, a Brazilian NGO and development organization, first began working with this isolated community in 1987. In addition to health programs and basic infrastructure projects such as installing clean drinking water systems, PSA also helped set up the Women’s Group.

Originally, the group was called “Mothers' Club.” Women met regularly to talk about their families, crochet, and tend to a vegetable garden. In conjunction with the PSA, however, they changed their name to the more general “Women’s Group,” hoping to attract young women and teenage girls as well. The focus of the group also changed—from a loose conglomeration of sociable weekly chats to a strategy of economic development.

PSA encouraged group members to produce goods like handicrafts and value-added food products to generate income for their families. Suruacá is surrounded by a bounty of fresh native fruits such as mangos, caju (cashew), muruci, and goiaba (guava). PSA worked with the community to construct an elaborate kitchen to produce sweets, juices, and jams from the bountiful local crops.

Years later, the kitchen now sat virtually unused. CEN founder Bob Bortner recalls his first tour of the kitchen and thinking, "Why is no one capitalizing on this resource?"

"You (CEN) are making us find the answers ourselves so we can solve our next problem alone. Some day we’re not going to need your help anymore! Djalma Lima Suruacá, Brazilian Amazon

A member of the Women’s Group explained. “We know how to make sweets,” she said. “What we don’t know is how to sell them once we make them. We don’t even know what people want and who will buy them. We are waiting for someone to tell us what to do.”

Bob recalls his response, “To myself, I’m thinking, wow—the kitchen’s been here for several years, and they are still hoping someone will find them to start a business for them. I told her, ‘CEN doesn’t know what products will sell, or where to sell them either. We can’t tell you that. Instead, what we can do is show you how to research it, talk to other groups, maybe prospective buyers, and develop a solution for yourself.'”

This is CEN’s mission—to help people develop the skills and critical thinking abilities they need to become more self-reliant and break out of the circles of poverty. This is the key to creating sustainable, locally led economic opportunities.

The first phase of this goal is already underway in Suruacá—identifying problems, potential solutions, and defining skill sets needed to make those solutions a reality.

Maguary - Children in Mango TreeFor example, another problem with the Suruacá community kitchen was the lack of reliable electricity.  Generators supply power to homes in Suruacá for just two or three hours, a couple of nights a week. The kitchen needs a steady flow of electricity to run refrigerators and to power lights.

“It’s through farming that we meet our daily needs,” community member Palmira Alcântar explained. Busy in the fields during daylight hours, the women only have time to work in the kitchen by night. And they need to be able to see.

The community has thus undertaken an initiative to build a micro-hydroelectric dam. The dam would produce enough electricity to support the needs of three nearby communities for the next ten years.

CEN also works with individual members of the Suruacá Women’s Group, as well as other women in the community, to articulate and realize their individual income generating goals through our cCLEAR program. Maria Eugete Santos, one of the participants in the cCLEAR program, wants to improve her sewing skills so she can work on custom tailoring projects from her home, and earn an extra R$150 (US $65) per month. Magarete Lima, another cCLEAR participant and member of the Women’s Group, wants to increase her bakery’s profits. Dona Salu’s goal is to raise and market chickens and chicken by-products in the community.

Though the goals vary widely, CEN’s approach to helping the women of Suruacá achieve them is the same: mentoring community members as they learn by doing—empowering people with the skills to break down a problem and find the answers themselves. One idea the Suruacá women are entertaining is setting up a rotating community fund. Everyone would contribute, and they would decide how to allocate the funds to best serve the community as a whole.

At the end of Bob’s meeting with the women’s group, an earlier program participant Djalma Lima pulled him aside to reiterate the take-home message. “Bobe,” Djalma said, invoking his Suruacá nickname, “I get it now. You’re making us find the answers ourselves so we can solve our next problem alone. Some day we’re not going to need your help anymore!”

In spite of our love of the Suruacá community and its people, nothing would please CEN more.

Other Articles about Suruacá

Jessie Amazon Visit
Telma's Quest to Improve Education Suruacá
Information is Power in Suruacá
Interview with Djalma Lima, Community Health Agent in Suruacá
New Business Off the Top of Their Heads
Suruacá Bakery a Growing Success