Even when individuals and communities are capable of supporting themselves, there are still obstacles standing in the way of sustainable self-reliance. Often, these obstacles are too large and complex for an individual or single community to overcome on their own. These barriers include a wide variety of problems, from poor health and education systems to political disempowerment to lack of essential infrastructure, such as energy.
By partnering with other organizations — government and nongovernmental organizations, and also with the private sector — CEN is able to take part in removing these obstacles. We focus on improving infrastructure and access to vital resources such as credit, raw materials, and transportation. This empowers individuals to take advantage of their skills.
For instance, lack of access to credit is a huge problem in the communities where CEN works. Credit is important to help the poor increase income levels, build viable businesses and reduce financial vulnerability. But so few financial services are offered in the region that residents are forced to travel five hours to the city of Santarém simply to access a bank — and even then, a bank will not give them a loan since they lack collateral.
To address this problem, CEN will work with residents to build a local rotating savings fund (or ROSCA). A ROSCA operates as a community savings and loan group. In our Banco da Mulher project, we are currently assessing the viability and impact of one such rotating savings fund (the Association of Women Workers in the Lower Amazon, or AOMT-BAM) to see if and how it can be replicated. Recently, we have evaluated AOMT-BAM and found that it has made concrete, positive differences in its members’ lives. In recent years, however, the group no longer meets, due at least in part to transportation problems. We are in the process of publishing a report on our findings, assessing the problems that caused AOMT-BAM to disassemble, and coming up with suggestions on how to make such a project sustainable. CEN believes that ROSCAs have great potential in the region, and we wish to build on the successes as well as address the problems of previous projects like AOMT-BAM.
CEN also addresses a lack of infrastructure in the rural Amazon. For example, while Suruacá has a one diesel generator, it can only afford the fuel to keep the generator running for a few hours, a couple times per week. Having electricity around the clock would have a huge impact on the community’s quality of life. The residents use power for light (which dictates the amount of time they can spend working or studying) and refrigeration (used for cooling everything from beer to medicines like snake venom antidotes). And the community needs electricity for a variety of business needs, such as running the wood shop and the production of manioc. CEN introduced the community leadership to a local engineering firm, which took measurements of a nearby waterfall to assess the feasibility of generating electricity using a micro hydroelectric turbine. We also provided technical expertise, organized a visit to a similar turbine in another community, and coached the community on navigating various hurdles. While it was ultimately determined that the waterfall was not large enough to meet its needs, the community developed the experience it will need to assess other options.
Due to the remote location of rural communities, the lack of information and communication technology is a major barrier to development. To address this issue, CEN’s director partnered with Projeto Saúde e Alegria, Greenstar Corporation and USAID to build computer telecenters in the rural communities of Suruacá and Maguary. The centers utilize solar power to run Internet-capable computers. These computers have greatly improved the educational capabilities of these communities. Youth not only use them to research assignments, but also to take online classes, reducing the need to move to the city in order to obtain an education. Community members also use the computers for business and personal communication, and they use the building itself as a community center and meeting place.
A lack of social capital is also a major problem in the rural Amazon. This is an issue not only because the communities cannot network effectively, but also because it is difficult to receive aid. For instance, an organization trying to give aid in the region will provide an important service or piece of infrastructure without including the community’s residents in the process. If something goes wrong with their project, residents don’t know how to fix it. Alternatively, they don’t know who to ask for help; or if they do know who to ask, they don’t have the negotiation skills needed to communicate what is necessary. Thus, the well-meaning project will languish in disuse because its recipients don’t have the connections or networking experience to solve it.
CEN not only teaches residents negotiation skills, but also closely involves them in projects that they would not know how to begin. For example, both communities were closely involved with the planning of the telecenters discussed above, and they provided most of the labor in the construction.
Removing obstacles is therefore a crucial and tangible way we help to sustainably empower rural communities. This is also only one part of the solution; without hard and soft skills, residents could not take advantage of the needs we address. Our goal is to empower communities through self-reliance. CEN believes that communities should be the ones who decide what they need, and the work is done by the participants with guidance from partners trained in our methodology.