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JoaoA shirtless boy perches on the edge of a red wheelbarrow, scraping the brown skin off manioc tubers using a worn knife.  Manioc is a crop which provides one of the primary sources of income for the small, rural communities within the Juá Creek watershed. João has learned from his father how to grow, harvest and prepare this starchy root vegetable, grown on his family’s modest patch of land.  Like his father, this is what he will be doing for the rest of his life, having no other alternatives.  Over the years, João’s hands will wear in the familiar pattern of his father’s as years of toil erode muscle, leaving behind grooves in his face and vacant channels in his neck.

João’s family’s house is typical in the region, a set of weathered wooden walls topped with a palm-thatched roof, erected a few meters from a rutted dirt road. Lacking electricity and indoor plumbing, the house is no larger than a suburban American kitchen. It’s home to João’s parents and two of his siblings, who sleep beside each other on hammocks strung from the wall. They have food and shelter, but not much beyond that.  Many residents throughout the Juá live on less than $2 a day.

Formal education for the children of the Juá ends around the seventh or eighth grade. If his parents are able to raise enough money on their meager income, João may be sent to a larger town like Santarém for continuing studies. While still a means to escape rural adversity, going away to school does not resemble the American education experience. João will have to live with siblings or other relatives, often on the periphery of the city, disenfranchised in an unfamiliar place. If he finishes school, he’s unlikely to return home to his father’s tiny manioc farm, choosing instead the challenges of claustrophobic city life, impoverished and isolated.

On the surface, João could easily pass as a typical American kid, but ask him what he wants to do when he grows up and he’ll shrug. Where an American boy might have aspirations to a career in medicine, law or business, João has little idea of the world of possibilities within and beyond his community. He does not have lofty dreams of distant expeditions and space travel, nor does he see himself driving a taxi or opening a restaurant. Much like inner city youth in the United States, the children of the Juá struggle with low self-esteem. While João may possess a rich imagination, he has trouble dreaming of a future different from what he’s been surrounded by his entire life.

João’s family and others like them are firmly ensnared in a culture of poverty that extends beyond material conditions and into the psychological and social fabric of the community. The tentacles of poverty are not always visible to an outsider, but they are all-encompassing, manifesting themselves in many ways: as a lack of representation, waning confidence, sparse education and a mindset of learned helplessness.

Joao's familyThe solution to this problem is empowerment: residents of the Juá must be equipped to deal with economic opportunities that come their way - opportunities that, taken advantage of by outsiders, would quickly become threats to their way of life.  Though they are fully capable of living off the land and providing for basic needs, the families of the Eixo Forte (Juá) must navigate the uncertainty of a fluctuating income based on one or two sources.  Like his parents, João lacks the skills to take advantage of potential opportunities, like capitalizing on growing local tourism in the region. Meanwhile, in the nearby resort town of Alter de Chão, residents seize opportunities provided by an expanding tourism industry. Without the entrepreneurial initiative or business skills needed to harness opportunities, residents of the Juá are at risk of being marginalized as tourism passes through their communities, threatening their vibrant culture and native environment.

CEN started working in the Eixo Forte (Juá) region in 2011 to help residents cultivate tourism opportunities and reduce their dependence on scarce and uncertain streams of income. In Phase I of the Eixo Forte / Juá Community-based Ecotourism Project, CEN built upon the cooperative and self-reliant spirit of the Eixo Forte’s residents to mobilize 16 communities, helping them define their vision for tourism and development in the region.  Rather than let the industry overtake their region without their input, CEN has helped these communities develop plans of their own.

In Phase II of the project, which starts in December, CEN will help the communities implement their chosen tourism projects by providing them with vocational and entrepreneurial skills training, mentoring and support. Working with experienced partners living in the region, each community within the Eixo Forte will select two to three leaders to participate in CEN’s immersive PRATICAR training sessions.  CEN partners will coach these 25-30 community members as they learn how to coordinate resources, construct budgets, obtain permits, secure access to government assistance programs, market their projects and manage their profits. Through this process, CEN strives to prepare communities to successfully govern their initiatives after its part in the project has ended.

As a result, instead of a whole day spent wrestling manioc roots from the ground, João might help his parents build a roadside food cart or gather natural materials to weave into handmade rugs. He might help paint signs or teach visitors about local trees. He will share in the deep sense of accomplishment that comes with hard-earned success. Along with his parents, he will learn skills and habits that can be applied to future projects. He might even have a few ideas of his own, borne out of the confidence that comes from a history of positive experiences. Standing behind João will be the encouraging and supportive community of family, friends and neighbors, equipped to overcome problems and determine their own future. Together they will move forward, empowered.

Other Resources

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

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Numerous studies have shown that kids from low-income families who attend quality preschool programs are much more likely to succeed, both academically and later in life. One study in particular tracked two low-income groups with similar IQ levels - one that attended a preschool program and another that did not - over the course of forty years. It concluded that students who have these early learning experiences are more likely to progress further in school and earn more money over their lifetime, and are also less likely to be incarcerated. The reasons behind this are simple: early structured learning serves as a time to develop soft skills that will aid students in further lifelong learning. Learning to share, listen to directions, and interact with their peers allows children to begin forming communication, social and critical thinking skills which can all fit under the umbrella of soft skills.

Soft skills are critically important when considering international development issues. Skills such as critical thinking and problem solving are vital to the success of any livelihood. In the U.S., despite the demand for technological abilities and educational credentials, the top skills employers still seem to desire are soft skills such as critical thinking and teamwork. Obviously, the U.S. job market is very different from how livelihoods are developed in poverty-stricken areas. However, it seems only logical that these soft skills would be just as important in developing nations. Looking at the well-crafted Couro Ecológico  purses, it’s easy to see that these Brazilian communities are not lacking in hard skills. What seems to make these hard skills really effective is an underlying foundation of soft skills, which enable continued growth and and the ability to weather obstacles.

With this in mind, it seems that many non-profit organizations focus a great deal on addressing immediate material needs and development of hard skills, such as supplying mosquito nets or offering basic vocational training. While there are tangible benefits from these needs being addressed, often they only help with surface level problems and therefore do little to create sustainable changes in poverty. Unlike hard skills, soft skills cannot be taught in a singular lesson. These skills are acquired through time and hands-on learning. Through CEN’s mentorship program, people are given the opportunity to be in power over their decisions and learn to use these soft skills, fostering a mindset of self-reliance. While it may be easier to see the effects of basic skills and tangible goods being provided by some non-profit groups, the development of soft skills through CEN takes a more long-term aim at changing the mindsets, opportunities and future success of those in poverty. 


Webley, K. (2011). The preschool wars. Time Magazine, 178 (14).

Molotsky, I. (1999, June 9). Study shows importance of preschool and child-care quality in education. New York Times. Retrieved from www.nytimes.com

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Posted by on in General

begging_webPoverty is more than merely an absence of material conditions, such as money, water, food, education, and housing. The unspoken assumption is that when the missing conditions are provided, the poor will no longer be poor[1]. However, despite spending billions of dollars in development assistance, progress in raising living standards around the world remains very slow.  Over 2.5 billion people in the world, or nearly half of the world’s population, still live below the internationally defined poverty line of less than $2 per day[2].

Poverty is complicated, and includes social and psychological dimensions as well as material ones. According to the World Bank, poverty is about not having a job, fearing the future, and living one day at a time. It is powerlessness, lack of representation and freedom.[3] It is a lack of access to services, exposure to unsafe environments, being a victim of social discrimination and exclusion. Poverty occurs in all countries and economic conditions: mass poverty in many developing countries and pockets of poverty amid wealth in developed countries. Economic recession, disaster and conflict result in losses of livelihood. Destitution and lack of economic future await low-wage workers and people who fall outside support systems and social safety nets.

John Friedmann, widely regarded as among the most authoritative living planning writers on sustainable international development, argues that poverty should be seen not merely in material terms, but as social, political and psychological powerlessness. He presents the case for an alternative development strategy committed to empowering the poor in their own communities, and to mobilizing them for political and economic participation on a wider scale. In contrast to centralized development policies devised and implemented at the national and international level, alternative development restores the initiative to those in need, on the grounds that unless people have an active role in directing their own destinies long-term progress will not be achieved.[4] “The poor must take part in meeting their own needs. To do so, they must acquire the means to do this”[5].

Poverty has social, psychological, as well as economic dimensions

The poor are wrapped in a series of restrictions and limitations in three areas:

Economic Dimensions

The economic dimension of poverty is well understood.  Tangible assets such as capital, material, food, energy, roads and other infrastructure, and the skills to utilize them, are needed to solve many problems.  For example, it would be difficult to educate children without teachers, books, a school building, and electricity, as well as financial resources to pay the teachers and maintain the building.

Social Dimensions

Social dimensions of poverty are more ambiguous than material dimensions.  The unequal social status of the poor inevitably results in unequal access to power, equity and resources.  Dominant groups wishing to maintain their privilege subordinate (both intentionally and unintentionally) those who have no power.  The community, whose purpose is to maintain the status quo, acts as an organ which processes and reinforces this unequal social structure.  It creates processes, systems, and structures that perpetuate the system of inequality.

Social aspects of poverty also include lack of political representation and environmental inequality – for instance, allowing those with power to have a meaningful say in government, or powerful companies wreaking environmental havoc on the local environment without being fined or forced to remediate their damage.

Psychological/Mental Dimensions

Psychological aspects are often underappreciated because they are less tangible than financial or social inequality.  But without the proper mindset, it is impossible for impoverished individuals to take control over their lives.

The poor often believe that they are destined to live out the rest of their lives in the same pattern.  Because they live hand-to-mouth, they learn behaviors that are not conducive to creating a better life – for instance, they cannot plan for the future with resources they don't have, so they don't know how to set goals and create plans to reach them.  They have a poor self-image, believing themselves incapable of breaking out of poverty.

In short, they are victims of learned helplessness and fatalistic attitudes. The impoverished must learn the mental skills, behaviors, and mindset with which they can break out of poverty.  They must learn how to identify their own strengths and capitalize on them. Otherwise, they will accept financial and social aid when it is offered but do not believe themselves capable of perpetuating any positive change. They will be stuck in a cycle of poverty, dependent on aid and unable to gain control over their own lives.

The problem of sustainability

Several years ago, a highly respected community organizer in the Amazon region where we work confided to our Director, Bob Bortner, that, in the over 25 years she had worked with the communities in the Amazon, she could only think of a few individuals who embraced acceptance that they didn’t to rely upon others to solve the challenges they faced in leading productive lives and realizing their goals.

This is representative of a widespread failure of development.  Unfortunately, much of the aid given to those stuck in the cycle of poverty doesn’t meet all three prerequisites of empowerment, and often further perpetuates the dependence of the intended beneficiaries. Many projects attempt to address economic dimensions of poverty - by providing needed infrastructure, such as building wells, or providing energy and telecommunications, or teaching residents new livelihoods. Others focus on the social dimensions by redistributing land, improving governance and building leadership institutions.

Few also address embedded psycho-social dimensions of poverty by helping the residents develop the mindsets, critical thinking, and problem solving skills they need to overcome inevitable obstacles they will face – and to realize they are able to overcome the obstacles.  As result, after the project is over and they are left on their own, many of these projects cannot be sustained and they fail.

The solution to poverty: empowerment

The empowerment of individuals and their communities is key to sustainably overcoming poverty and addressing economic development.  The term empowerment has become a buzzword that means many different things to different people. For many, an empowered individual is one who simply has the opportunities to accomplish goals.

However, all three aspects of poverty must be addressed before the impoverished have control over their lives.  No amount of resources alone will sustain positive change until individuals and their communities are empowered to identify their own strengths, assets, skills and attributes that can then be channeled into activities that result in a self-sustaining livelihood.  Even before being able to take advantage of material opportunities, you must:

  • Realize that you can better your life through your own problem solving skills
  • Have the skills, resources and opportunities to accomplish your goals, and
  • Have freedom from obstacles, which would prevent you from accomplishing your goals. Examples of obstacles include war, epidemics, adequate transportation, access to energy, limited access to capital, and many others.

Thus, the problem of disempowerment is a complex one with few easy answers.  CEN's work is only one piece of the solution, but it is a crucial one.  By empowering communities, we can help ensure that positive change will be self-sustaining.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Poverty. N.p., 2011. Web. 8 Mar 2012. <http://www.worldbank.org/poverty/ >.

[4] Friedman, John. Empowerment: The Politics of Alternative Development. Wiley-Blackwell, 1992. 102. Print.

[5] Ibid.

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deforestation_2Tropical deforestation accounts for almost one-fifth of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Because of its substantial deforestation, Indonesia is thought to be the world's third-largest producer of greenhouse gases, after the United States and China.

The Amazon rainforest has been described as the "lungs of our planet" because it provides the global environment with the essential service of continuously recycling carbon dioxide into oxygen. More than 20 percent of the world's oxygen is produced in the Amazon rainforest. In 2001, the Amazon covered approximately 5.4 million square kilometers, which is only 87 percent of its original size.[1] Rainforests have decreased in size primarily due to deforestation. Despite reductions in the rate of deforestation in the last 10 years, the Amazon rainforest will diminish by 40 percent by 2030 at the current rate.[2] According to WWF Brazil, deforestation and forest fires are responsible for 75 percent of Brazilian greenhouse gas emissions. 

In The Political Economy of Deforestation in the Tropics (NBER Working Paper No. 17417), co-authors Robin Burgess, Matthew Hansen, Benjamin Olken, Peter Potapov, and Stefanie Sieber find that Indonesia's decentralized and relatively weak governmental controls over forest resources in the post-Suharto era have contributed to illegal logging and widespread deforestation.

This is similar to the situation in the Brazilian Amazon. The far northern state of Roraima is very dependent upon timber sales and cattle production, and politicians are extremely beholden to these special interests. A few years ago, a group of state police set fire to a large part of Xixuaú, one of the communities where CEN has worked. The police also attempted to arrest the head of a local NGO, Associação Amazônia, on trumped charges in order to block the NGO's efforts to include the Reserva Xixuaú-Xiparinã in a new federal reserve, which would prevent forest extraction and cattle farming on the land. Ultimately, the police effort failed, but this demonstrates how far local and state officials will go to support the efforts of logging interests and cattle ranchers.

deforestation_1Recently, there have been increasing calls for part of the state of Pará, where CEN is working, to split to become a new state. This new state of Tapajós, of which Santarém would be the new capital, would be heavily reliant upon soy and timber revenues. Local and state politicians would be increasingly susceptible to influence by these interests, in the same way as they are in Roraima. The communities where we are working would be increasingly threatened by illegal logging, cattle ranching and soy farming, and deforestation rates in the region would undoubtedly increase.

The results of the Burgess et al. study suggest that, in their efforts to encourage conservation in forest-rich countries like Indonesia, Brazil, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, policymakers should consider the incentives of the local officials and politicians who may be profiting from the exploitation of these resources. The authors conclude that standard economic theories combined with innovative means of monitoring illegal extraction can offer powerful insights into what drives shortsighted and destructive resource management. 

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Posted by on in General

quick_fixCEN was featured in an article by Michael J. Carter which appeared in IPS (Inter Press Service) on December 27th about figuring out how to change the world for the better.

According to a 2009 study at Stanford University, a new non-profit organisation is registered every 10 to 15 minutes in the United States alone. As a result there are as many varieties of aid projects as colours in the rainbow.

How hard can it be? Find a problem and solve it.

Problem: Women in Afghanistan are oppressed.

Solution: Help empower them by creating a women-only shopping mall, thereby helping them earn income and gain business experience. Read the full story.

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