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Community Associations and Sustainable Development in Rural Brazil

Along the highway to Milhã.
Along the highway to Milhã. (click to enlarge)

After spending two days back in the big city of Fortaleza learning about the finer points of water management in the state of Ceará, I’ve returned to the rural municipality of Milhã, ground zero for the Columbia Water Center’s project to improve water access in Brazil’s semi-arid sertão region. Our group is now just three: Daniele Costa da Silva, the project’s social worker; Hamilton Moura Ribeiro, our translator; and myself. This trip will take us to several communities, where our mission is to visit residents and listen to their experiences, thoughts and concerns about the endeavor to bring water into their homes.

I’m a bit worried about how we—or maybe just I—will be welcomed by the poor rural people who live here. Will they open up their doors and invite us into their homes? Will they tell us the truth about how this undertaking has actually affected their lives, even if it they know it isn’t exactly what others might want to hear?

Roza Maria Pinheiro, secretary of the residents’ association in Ingá.
Roza Maria Pinheiro, secretary of the residents’ association in Ingá.

It turns out that I have nothing to worry about. Everyone we meet is more than willing to sit down with us, often over sweet coffee, and candidly tell us their stories. They all have positive things to say about the project, and perhaps even more so about my colleague Daniele, who has become much more than just a community coordinator after three years of working with them. “She’s like an angel fallen from the sky. She’s stayed with us since the very beginning,” says Roza Maria Pinheiro, the first person we visit. Roza is the secretary of the local community association that Daniele helped form to represent the residents of Ingá throughout the life of the project.

Including local residents in the decision-making process was an important difference between the Columbia Water Center’s joint project and previous attempts to improve water access in the region. Working with associations like Roza’s ensured that any development plans would take into account the needs and desires of the community. Moreover, the architects of the CWC project recognized that getting the “buy-in” of the local people was the key to the project’s sustainability. The residents themselves would be responsible for both the operation and long-term maintainance of any construction. If residents didn’t support the system, they could let it fall into disrepair or simply stop paying the small charge of $10 Real (about $6 USD) per month necessary to keep it running.

However, we hear only glowing things about the new water system, and Roza assures us that the community association in Ingá is going strong. Of the 30 full-time residents in Ingá, 18 have continued to be active members of the association and regularly pay their $2 Real monthly dues. The mayor of Milhã recently donated a small building to the association where it can hold meetings, and Roza mentions that they are considering a partnership with the association in nearby Pedra Fina to apply for a tractor from the government.

Behind Francisco’s home is a cistern, which his family shares with their neighbors.
Behind Francisco’s home is a cistern, which his family shares with their neighbors. (click to enlarge)

Going forward, it seems such community associations could provide a robust model for organizing and supporting development initiatives in rural areas throughout Ceará, and perhaps across Brazil. Beyond helping secure and manage new projects, community associations could give local populations some leverage when they are forced to deal with unresponsive or outright corrupt local and state agencies. Francisco of nearby Valentim says he feels his local association can help him get piped water into his home. Francisco’s family and 11 other househoulds in Valentim currently get their drinking water from shared cisterns. Despite being left out of the government’s water development plans thus far, he is neither resentful nor pessimistic. “I believe that we will have running water soon, God willing.”

However, the story of nearby Monte Grave is a fascinating example of what can go wrong when a strong community movement comes into direct conflict with the local government.

Monte Grave was founded in 1971 as a Christian base community. Subscribing to the grassroots tenets of liberation theology, the devout group of young homesteaders who settled here aimed to create an agrarian, self-reliant and socially just community. And with the early support of Manos Unidas, a Catholic NGO, and the state, they did a pretty good job. In the 1970s, Monte Grave was a thriving village with its own modern health clinic, senior center and skill-based training programs focused around local handicrafts such as stone-cutting and needlework. “Our community was recognized as a great success, even on the national level,” says Rivania Pinheiro, the vice president of Monte Grave’s association. “Our neighbors seemed almost envious of all the attention we were getting.”

Slideshow: Monte Grave Scrapbook

But everything began to fall apart in 1988, when the state changed the way funds were disbursed to Monte Grave. Instead of providing money directly to the community, all state funding would now be distributed through the local government in Milhã. Monte Grave’s leaders had never been on good terms with local officials, and over the ensuing years the relationship only got worse. Monte Grave began to isolate itself from it neighbors as money dried up for its public services. First the senior center was closed. Then the educational programs were put on hiatus. Finally, the health clinic was put on an itinerant schedule, and its non-professional staff reduced to volunteers.

Today Monte Grave feels like a ghost town. Its radio station is still on the air, but no one is at the console when we stop by. Rivania says the local association remains strong, but admits that many people have left town over the years. She blames politicians for Monte Grave’s struggles, but when I ask her if there is any way her group can work with the local government, she says she doesn’t think so. A few years ago she was unsuccessful in her bid for a spot on Milhã’s municipal council.

“I hope you will go back and tell the world our story,” she says to me as we are leaving.

Back in the town of Milhã, Francisco Ecivando Pinheiro—the president of FECOM, the federation of associations in the larger municipality—agrees that communities could benefit from less politicking and more direct access to public and private funds. Still, he recognizes that in order to get things done, organizations like his must work with local governments. But community assocations do appear to be gaining ground in Milhã.

“In 2005 there were only 22 associations here,” Ecivando says calmly. “Today there are 42, and we have over 4,500 members.” However, he shares Rivania’s broader concern about declining rural populations—a concern that is echoed in the United States and other parts of the world. “Many young people leave to find work in the city,” he says. “They see few possibilities here. We need to provide them with more and better opportunities: youth programs, education, jobs. These are things that can help give them some perspective, and perhaps inspire them to see that they could have a future here.”

Part I: “Bringing Water to Rural Communities in Brazil

Part III: “Achieving Water Sustainability in Ceará, Brazil

Learn More:

The Economist: The Northeast: Politics, Water and Poverty

BBC News: The Fight for Fresh Water

The Economist: Education in Brazil’s Northeast—The Missing Link

Columbia Water Center demonstrates research-based solutions to global freshwater scarcity and climate-related water risks. Follow Columbia Water Center on Facebook and Twitter

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12 years ago

[…] Part II: Community Associations and Sustainable Development in Rural Brazil […]