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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.

brazil projects tapajos webThe 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.

Larissa Grocery with caption

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.

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.

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brazil_7_10_-_1_0622While in Suruacá in July I met with most of the cCLEAR participants. This is the first time I’ve been back here since launching cCLEAR two years ago. I noticed a lot of changes.
About 10 new families have moved here, bringing the total to about 115. To move to the community, either the husband or wife must have family here. Because Suruacá has more infrastructure and opportunities than most communities, many newly married families have selected to move here. As opportunities in Suruacá improve, a few families have even moved back from the cities of Santarem or Manaus – reverse migration from what’s happening in much of the region.

Another change I noticed was how many more people had cellphones and TVs, especially considering there isn’t regular electricity in the community. A few years ago, only a few people had phones, now many of the youth, in particular, carry them around and use them mostly as a personal music player. Plus, they double as a flashlight in the dark. One of the cellphone carriers, Vivo, is even considering building a cell tower in the community, which will also serve passing boats.

Speaking of boats, the community is now served by three boats, compared to just two on my last visit. Two of the boats are considerably bigger. Two are community owned and one is private. One of the community boats is used primarily as a backup and to travel to other communities. The two larger boats primarily travel twice a week between Suruacá and the City of Santarem, about 6 hours away. They are the only means of transportation in and out of the community.

We were treated last weekend to a big soccer invitational, with many teams from the region, followed by a huge party. Four bands came in from Santarem to play and music raged on until dawn. The cost of putting this on must have been staggering for such a poor community. But they manage to hold a soccer invitational a couple of times a year, as well as several other large festivals. They are financed in large part by patronization from companies, government agencies and politicians in the region. Sometimes it’s a little hard for us from the US to understand how much the culture of doing “favors” is still really active in the region. This culture reinforces the cycle of dependency, which is very hard to break.

There’s no question there’s been a lot of progress in the communities over the last couple of years. In my next blog, I’ll tell more about how the participants in our program have fared since the pilot ended.

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By Elizabeth Thelen

Despite what may seem like insurmountable obstacles in her life, Regina Souza is a highly successful participant in the cCLEAR program. Through persistence, hard work, and most importantly, enthusiasm, she has made steady progress in setting up a sewing business.

Dona Regina  (the term Dona is a title of respect in Portuguese) has faced many challenges in her life. Unable to complete school past the fifth grade),  Dona Regina has worked as a domestic laborer, a farmer, and currently produces farinha flour with her husband. Twenty-five years old, she lives in unfurnished house recently provided by the government with her husband and three young children. Although Dona Regina seems shy and timid when you first meet her, her true courage is revealed in her determination to start her own business and improve her economic standing.

Dona Regina had dreamt of establishing her own crocheting and embroidery business and joined CEN's cCLEAR program to make this dream a reality. Eventually, she hopes to earn 500 Reais a month (about US$250), which is more than triple her current earnings. Getting started was the largest challenge that Dona Regina faced; when CEN started working with her in September last year, she had no sewing, knitting or embroidery experience, nor did she have the money to purchase basic supplies. Although CEN generally refrains from providing supplies to cCLEAR participants, an exception was made for Dona Regina and she received crochet and embroidery needles, some thread, and magazines on how to crochet.

“I love selling my products in the and enjoy the independence of earning my own money”

Regina Souza

A month later, Regina had taught herself to crochet and had started to make several sewing and needlework projects that she could sell. She had used ideas from the magazines and had also sought out the help and advice from seamstresses in the community. Regina made clear goals for herself and had selected to start by making small projects that were also readily marketable.

Since last fall, Regina has continued to make impressive progress toward establishing an independent sewing and needlework business. Regina is innovative in her product design and has a good sense of local market demands. Through her participation in cCLEAR, she has learned to keep accurate records of her earnings and expenses and how to price her products appropriately. She has also developed a new mindset that she can solve problems for herself, and the skills to do so. Currently, she is working with other cCLEAR participants to build a market stand that they can use to sell their products in other towns. When asked recently what she likes best about her participation in cCLEAR, Regina said she loves selling her products in the markets and enjoys the independence of earning her own money.

Read More cCLEAR Participant Profiles

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Posted by on in Communities

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.

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Posted by on in Communities

by Nicholas Tichy

Community development in areas such as the Brazilian Amazon does not happen overnight. There are many problems that restrict the economic growth of these communities, and they are not easily overcome. Instead, development and empowerment happens bit by bit and is measured by small victories. One such victory is the story of Magarete Lima’s bakery business.

Margarete’s son, Kenned takes bread out of the ovenThe business began a number of years ago as a very small stand, and experienced a hiatus for a period of three years. However, it would return due to the most fundamental element for any business - demand. Residents of the community of Suruacá, a small community of 100 families, about 5 hours by boat from the nearest city, missed smelling the scent of fresh bread drift from the bakery.  Since bread from the nearest city is often stale by the time it makes its infrequent journey to Suruacá, many residents kept asking about the bakery and finally Magarete reopened it.

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