A 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.
The 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.