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Can-do attitudes of local residents transform Amazonian community

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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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Mr. Bortner is the founder and executive director of the Community Empowerment Network and the president ofAcumen International, a consultancy that works around the world to promote sustainable social and economic development by using information and communication technologies. Bob is skilled in international business management strategy, technology access and utilization, and has expertise in cross-cultural people skills and database design. He has managed multidisciplinary teams and projects addressing the macro/policy level, as well as the individual and community level, for more than 25 years. Many of these projects and teams have applied renewable energies and ICT as tools for individuals and communities to generate income, as well as to meet other development objectives, including education, health and governance. Initiatives have included the design and implementation of a program that provides hard and soft skills development, and access to capital and domestic and international markets for a range of nontraditional products. Bob’s cross-cultural skills have been honed by a lifetime of living and working in many regions of the world, including North and Latin America, Western Europe, Israel, Southern Africa, India and Southeast Asia.


Bob coordinated several projects for Greenstar Corporation in South Africa and Brazil. He has helped to establish the business case for programs in the village of Kgautswane, Limpopo Province. He has also helped to lead Greenstar participation in the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. He continues to advise the community on a variety of development efforts. Bob has also assisted with the utilization of information technology in a number of development efforts, including Tarahaat in India, Fundação Pensamento Digital in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and Digital Partners in the U.S. His previous business experience includes work as a corporate account representative for headquarters sales at Microsoft Corporation. He ran a virtual team based in Redmond, Washington, that was responsible for developing customer satisfaction, identifying customers' IT needs, and contract negotiation. Bob's team was responsible for managing and implementing a marketing program targeted at converting influential Lotus 1-2-3 and WordPerfect users and their work groups to Microsoft Word and Excel, working closely with more than 300 channel partners to build their business development skills, marketing and sales resources and to engage in corporate accounts. He also worked in enterprise and channel sales as territory manager for small and medium-sized businesses in the U.S. Great Lakes District, and was also responsible for anti-piracy efforts for the headquarters district.


Previously, Bob pursued market development and distribution opportunities for a variety of products, including computer software, as an independent consultant in Washington, D.C., and Seattle. He successfully developed a distribution network in Puerto Rico, and researched and co-authored studies involving the utilization of satellite telecenters in the Dominican Republic. He was also involved with the management of the petrochemical project task force with Trinidad while working for the Puerto Rico Economic Development Administration as an industrial promotions officer. He was primarily responsible for generating U.S., Far East and European investment in a five-nation Caribbean territory and managing the relationship between those countries and the Puerto Rican government. This work generated more than $300 million of investment in Trinidad and Barbados in a two-year period. Bob oversaw and managed all aspects of participation by four Puerto Rican government agencies and 10 exhibitors in international trade shows in Trinidad. He also researched and implemented countertrade exchange in Brazil for International Trade and Investments, Chicago, which involved identifying target products and locating and negotiating with U.S. buyers and Brazilian suppliers.


He worked closely with top management from the pharmaceutical, chemical, electronics and metallurgy industries, among others, to promote investment sites and expedite relocation. Key investors included General Electric, Schering-Plough, Mobil, GTE, ICI, and Matsushita. Bob met regularly with key government officials in the region, including the chief minister of the British Virgin Islands and the former secretary of state of Puerto Rico. These efforts resulted in more than 20 projects, which were together worth $500 million.


Bob received a master’s degree in international relations from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and speaks English, Spanish and Portuguese.

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Guest Sunday, 19 November 2017