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Posted by on in Tourism

CEN tour group“Travel” is a word where some people may conjure up images of pristine beaches and blue water. Although there are quite a few places like this on earth, not all of them can offer an authentic sense and feeling of belonging. 

Recently, CEN has been assisting 16 communities near beautiful Brazil, but more specifically, along the convergence of the Amazon River and Tapajós River to carry out a community-based ecotourism initiative called The Eixo Forte/Juá Community-Based Tourism Project. The project incorporates CEN’s growing experience towards strengthening basic skills and mindsets with a multi-faceted approach to fostering community-based ecotourism. Overall, the target was made to improve community livelihoods without abandoning unique lifestyles and culture.

The process of cultivating a strong and sustainable tourism sector in the region requires building community leadership and institutions capable of developing and managing the implementation of a community-wide, agreed-upon plan. It will also require ensuring strong, equitable economic growth while maintaining the cultural and environmental strengths of the communities that make them an attractive tourist destination in the first place.

To achieve this vision, CEN has partnered with Eunice Sena and Paulo Melo, two seasoned development professionals that live in the area and together, have over 50 years of experience in community-based development, as well as experience working with community leaders and other organizations.

Between the dates of February 13-22, CEN’s first trip, “Unveiling the Amazon”, was organized. Participants visited the communities near the Juá Creek, Santarém, the Tapajós National Forest, and the beachside resort of Alter do Chão.  The main idea of the trip was to give visitors a chance to venture into pristine, remote areas of the Amazon where the CEN program is based, in order to more directly support their efforts towards creating sustainable economic opportunities. The pace of life in these tiny communities was still much the way it was 100 years ago, defined by harmony with nature and their surroundings.  This trip provided the opportunity for people to interact and share with residents and their families informally, while making a lasting contribution to their community by supporting their initiatives, as well as by mutually sharing perceptions, thoughts, and experiences.

Thatched roof lodgeTourists stayed in thatched roof lodges and local families’ houses, canoed with local guides in the streams, hiked the rainforest, experienced folkloric culture, shared traditional meals with their hosts, and discussed the project trip expectations, as well as the community plans with the leaders of the communities.  Chuck Hollenbeck, one of the trip participants, stated: “We stayed two nights in houses of individuals who lived in the communities and I think that would be very appropriate for someone else who wanted to visit and get a very personal experience.”

Living like a local sounds romantic—and it can be. Especially if you were to walk out of your bedroom and the first thing you would see is a monkey or an actual açai tree. The lower Amazon River Basic is unique also because of its flora and fauna. For this reason, this part of Brazil is an amazingly exotic tourist destination not only for foreigners, but also for southern Brazilians (Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paolo). There is a growing trend among young Brazilians to travel within the country. Community ecotourism is adventurous, informative and at times shocking for residents of large cities.  It also gives a perspective on rural life which may not always be a bucolic picture. There are no paved roads between remote communities and after heavy rains they become impassable.  Also, there is no mobile coverage and internet is scarce.  Ronald Harmon, another trip participant, stated: “One of the problems that we encountered is that it was sometimes difficult for [the community members] to communicate. [It was] too difficult, too time-consuming. If they had cell phones, they could communicate more easily. They don’t have cell phone coverage in most of the areas in the communities we looked at. You have to get almost to the city of Santarém to get coverage.”  These communities must truly rely on their own resources in order to survive. 

DancingLower Amazon River Basic rural communities have historically made their living by subsistence farming: growing and gathering traditional açai, manioc, tapping rubber latex from rubber trees, and fishing and raising livestock, like cows and chickens. However, with the growing development of soybean production taking over the rainforest, they also need to look for other means of survival and self-sustainability.  One of the ways to become more self-sustainable is by initiating ecotourism industries which ideally will help raise funds to develop local infrastructure.

The first CEN tourists sensed how much of a “novelty” they were, most of the locals had never even met foreign visitors! The goal of the trip was not only to promote the region as a destination in its own right, but to promote the idea of ecotourism to locals as a method of viable self-sustainability.  The difficulty here lies in changing the inherent farmer and gatherer mentality that has been their tradition for generations.

"[I was] pleasantly surprised at how sophisticated [the members of the community] were in terms of community and community organization."

Ron Harmon,
trip participant

Harmon added, “[I was] pleasantly surprised at how sophisticated [the members of the community] were in terms of community and community organization.” Recently, as a result of CEN work in this region, the 16 communities started to communicate with each other on a regular basis. They’ve created inter-community commissions that advise on everyday matters such as economic development, safety and security, and an overall well-being.  As it often happens, older members of the community worry about preservation while the younger members tend to look for better opportunities outside of the communities. “The older members of the community were very well-informed, very thoughtful, [and] very articulate. They are thinking about how to preserve their communities and develop resources to do that” mentioned Hollenbeck in his interview about the trip.

This presents a unique situation where two views of the future can meet in the rainforest and help solve the economic challenge of self-sustainability.  By enticing the younger generation with the prospect of opportunity within the community, there can be a harmonious balance between established tradition and future socio-economic growth.  The development of community eco-tourism can help accomplish this.

This development of ecotourism will aid in the funding and maintaining of local infrastructure and communications, which in turn will further encourage communities to retain their identities in order to share their local culture with future tourists.

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Posted by on in General

Brazilian kidsI haven’t been to Brazil. I haven’t flown over the endless, green quilt of rain forest or ferried to the remote river outposts along the Amazon. I haven’t cheered for kids in a pickup soccer match, watched women weave bags, or purchased handmade goods from roadside markets. I haven’t stood heartbroken along dirt roads, hungry children, or in between crumbling favelas. I haven’t been inundated by the sights, sounds, and smells. But I have heard the stories and I have seen the photos. While I may not grasp the poverty of rural Brazil like those who have seen it firsthand, I’m aware of it in a way that makes it impossible to quietly slip from my consciousness.

At this point, it’s hard to resist injecting something concrete, like a terse fact, startling statistic or swath of economic indicators. Something that quantifies and amplifies the struggle of daily life for the millions living in poverty in Brazil. I could try the Gross National Product, the distribution of wealth, or the rate of deforestation. Maybe that would make it easier to corral the population and confidently characterize an entire demographic. I could go further and cherry-pick the statistics that invoke the greatest sympathy and smother all the particulars underneath a blanket of numbers.

But it’s hard to empathize with a number. I’m not suggesting that numbers don’t matter. I’m saying that they’re only one measure of well-being. An economic indicator is like your pulse: it tells doctors how fast your heart is beating, but it tells them nothing about your state of mind. Even that analogy, however, has its limits since a pulse is an individual measurement, not a collective one. Economic indicators say something about how effective the hospital is in treating its entire patient population, but nothing of the specific illnesses of the patients—nothing about a person with a name.

Since I’ve started working with CEN, I’ve realized that there are overwhelming social and psychological aspects of poverty that defy measurement. How do you measure marginalization and the disintegration of identity? How do you measure powerlessness and insecurity? It doesn’t seem like I could even begin to understand these fundamental facets of impoverishment without getting closer to people and their communities, without seeking to understand their perspectives and hear their stories.

Djalma and familyThis is what’s missing from the economic data: personal stories. It’s the stories that illuminate the full scope of poverty. It’s the stories that move me. Of course, when you hide behind data, it’s easier to dismiss stories as anecdotal and to measure progress only by trends in a couple of indicators. This way of thinking goes hand-in-hand with the conventional analysis of combatting poverty, the type practiced by many government agencies, NGOs and large non-profits. Traditional forms of aid, like trade liberalization policies and infrastructure improvements may nudge the economic indicators in the “right” direction but they barely remedy the social and mental sides of poverty and they make no effort to listen to what the poor themselves think should be done.

Throwing money and material resources at poverty may make a bureaucrat feel good, but it doesn’t cut it for me. I’m drawn to the CEN approach, which is one of engagement with people and communities. It’s an approach that listens rather than tells and assists rather than directs. It doesn’t ignore the economic side of poverty, but starts addressing it by beginning with individuals, like Ronilson, who started his own barber shop in the small town of Suruacá. It’s seeing his customer base grow month after month and watching him learn how to run a business that will last. It’s all of the intangibles that come with success, like the feeling of self-worth that comes from realizing you have something valuable to offer. It’s that smile that starts as a grin and doesn’t stop growing. It’s everything that cannot be summarized by a couple of numbers in a chart.

It’s the stories.

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Self-reliance in community development projects: a mirage or an oasis? CEN Executive Director, Bob Bortner, was recently featured in an article about international aid and community development.  Check out the article here.  Different topics covered in the article are the intersection of "self reliance" and foreign assistance strategies, CEN's PRACTICAR mentoring model which emphasizes skills development for beneficiaries in aid interventions as well as the complexities of measuring aid impact.

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Posted by on in General

The residents of Caboclo riverside communities of Maguary, Jamaraquá and even the Eixo Forte, where tourism is just starting, are accustomed to tourism. Although the residents of those areas have had few personal interactions with visitors, they are already familiar with long gazes from unfamiliar eyes, glossy surfaces of cameras, and cell phones pointed in their direction. They watched as groups of travelers marched across cherished soil, fumbling with fold-out maps and searching for the essence of an exotic land.

fishbowlFor the children of these towns, like João, the attention carries a whiff of excitement as tourists stop to watch a pick-up soccer game, perhaps even cheering and chanting like ardent fans at a World Cup match. Although these temporary fans may be warmed by the smiles beaming from the faces of João and his friends, they’re likely to miss the skeptical glances from João’s parents. Like many long-term residents, they grow weary of being treated as exhibits on a trail of “off-the-beaten-track” destinations lauded by ecotourism companies interested in nothing more than parading a crew of passive spectators through the remote “wilds” of a rare and pristine place.

For locals, the feeling of being fish in a fishbowl contributes to existing sense of isolation and alienation. Though they warmly accommodate visitors and welcome engagements, locals are rarely spoken to while tourists shuffle past, checking off boxes on their week’s itinerary, and thinking of nothing more than the next shapeless event.

This is a tragic side of ecotourism. Prevalent throughout the Amazon, ecotourism has become the tourism industry’s fastest growing sub sector. Like many hip trends, its benevolent claims are often exaggerated by the crafty marketing of tourism operators concerned foremost with profit. Trips and projects are repeatedly carried out without local consent and support, threatening native cultures, habitats, and economies. In developing countries more specifically, crucial concerns are often side-stepped as the pleasures and leisure of tourists are elevated over the realities of maldistribution of resources; inequalities in representation and power; and unsustainable consumption patterns. Furthermore, contrary to claims, locals do not always benefit from ecotourism. They are rarely given reliable employment or a stake in the benefits that ecotourism operators extract from exploited communities.

"We want to remain engaged with the local residents after our departure, as we work to help them harness and create opportunities that enhance their lives and protect their chosen way of life."

Through our work with partners in the rural communities of the Brazilian Amazon, we’ve heard first-hand the concerns of residents who are exposed to harmful ecotourism practices and have worked with them to develop plans that not only protect their culture and habitat, but that give them the tools, knowledge, and support to take control and direct a majority of the benefits of ecotourism back into their communities.

In our last newsletter, we highlighted the next phase of our ecotourism project in the Eixo Forte (Juá) region. This February, we’re getting off to an exciting start by guiding a small group of 6-10 people to the Amazon for a week of immersion in the rural communities where we work. Our approach runs counter to the typical ecotourism trip. We want to give participants a chance to actively engage with the residents that we’ll be working with in our future initiatives, while also visiting the communities that have benefitted from past CEN projects. We’ll have an opportunity to directly support efforts to create sustainable economic activities as residents pursue paths toward self-reliance.

While we’ll have ample opportunity to cheer for João on the soccer field and partake in local festivities, we want to get to know the people in all of their environments. We want to learn about their fears and desires and to become better informed about the things which matter to them. We want to remain engaged with the local residents after our departure, as we work to help them harness and create opportunities that enhance their lives and protect their chosen way of life.p>

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Posted by on in General

massaivillagersIn 2010, Brazil was the third most popular tourist destination in Latin America, bringing in 5.1 million visitors. This number is expected to skyrocket in upcoming years as Brazil hosts the World Cup in 2014 and the summer Olympics in 2016. As in any country with this number of visitors, the tourism industry is bound to be extremely lucrative. But lucrative for whom? Ideally, an increase in tourists would benefit the whole of the country.  However, this is rarely the case.

I recently spent six months living and attending university in Nairobi, Kenya. Like any tourist spending time in East Africa, I wanted to see the big five animals (lions, leopards, elephants, hippos, and rhinos), and booked a safari for myself and three of my friends. The most popular place for a safari in Kenya is in the southwest region of the country, an area called Maasai Mara.  It’s named after its indigenous inhabitants, the Maasai – an ethnic group that’s likely to come to mind when you think of Kenya. They are a tall, lean people who are known for their warriors as well as the colorful beads that they use to create necklaces, beads, earrings, and other ornamentation for their bodies.

On any given weekend in Nairobi, Maasai markets pop up around nearly every corner. Their crafts are prized by expats and visitors alike, and their dancing is an attraction to many a tourist in hotels, resorts, and cultural-performance centers. This is why I was surprised at how little a presence the Maasai had in the game park. While some of the guides were of Maasai descent, they dressed in the Western idea of how a safari guide should be dressed – khakis and wide-brimmed hats (I expect this is to make the tourists feel less ridiculous in their own khaki outfits, mosquito-net covered hats, and hiking boots – keep in mind that guides and tourists alike spend 80% of the day sitting in a jeep and poking their head out of the windows, an activity that doesn't really require heavy-duty ankle support). I spoke to one of the uniformed Maasai guides from a different tour group, and he told me that he only dresses like that for work. On a normal day, he prefers his traditional robes.

Unlike the other safari companies, the tour we took was partnered with some of the local Maasai people. This meant that while our main guard was from the Kenya coast, we rode with a young Maasai man, traditional robes and all. He was excellent at spotting animals hidden by the terrain, and he knew the park like it was his own backyard, which technically it was. I was really happy with the way that my safari company drew on the expertise of the local community. While other companies had inserted themselves into the region and assimilated the locals into their Western vision, my company was closely partnered with the Maasai, who were able to directly profit from their traditional culture and skills (as well as give a better tour).

Unfortunately, tourism companies like this one are few and far between. In most cases, tourism will naturally make its way into certain regions based on their proximity to larger cities and natural attractions. When this happens, large tourism companies dominate the market, leaving local communities to watch as bystanders while outsiders reap all the benefits of their home. This also puts the locals in danger of losing the culture that is uniquely theirs as a result of following the rules and regulations that the outside companies enforce.

CEN is working to counter this phenomenon. We realize that local residents should be reaping economic gain from an increase in tourism. The indigenous people of the Brazilian Amazon should be seeing an improvement in their lives and well-being as they see more foreigners coming through. CEN realizes that in order for this to happen, the local communities need to be prepared before they see this influx. This means that the infrastructure and social institutions needed to support tourism have to be solidly put in place before they can host visitors.

Through CENs eco-tourism program in the Eixo Forte (Juá) community, CEN focuses on building the community to become self-sustaining and successful on its own, encouraging locals to create ideas of ways to improve the area in which they live.  Visitors to the Eixo Forte Region can then be invited into these communities to learn about and experience their unique culture in its organic state. This creates a sustainable source of income and enterprise in the region; it is a type of tourism directly benefits locals.

Had there been a presence such as CEN in the Maasai region years prior to the increase of westerners going on safari, I expect that the local Maasai people would have a much firmer hold on activities in the national park in their backyard.  Had they been able to build themselves up initially and capitalize on the increasing foreign interest, their lives as a whole might be drastically different today. Rather than taking a backseat to what happens in the Mara, they would have been the drivers. And who better to drive that industry than those who have spent their whole lives in the region? Local communities should be able to take control of their own land and economic growth, and CEN strives to make this possible.

Other Resources

What is Community-based tourism?
Community-Based Tourism Program
CEN's Eixo Forte / Juá Community Tourism Project

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