Civil Society, Development & Aid, Education, Headlines, Health, Latin America & the Caribbean, Poverty & SDGs

BRAZIL: Happiness Is Promoting Health and Development in the Amazon

Mario Osava

SANTARÉM, Brazil, Mar 3 2009 (IPS) - On his fourth trip to Brazil, Prince Charles plans to visit a project in the Amazon jungle that has cut infant mortality and illiteracy nearly in half by organising poor communities to get involved in their own development.

Ideal community in Santarém. Credit: Courtesy of PSA.

Ideal community in Santarém. Credit: Courtesy of PSA.

The Projeto Saúde and Alegria (PSA – Health and Happiness Project) has won a number of prizes, both within the country and abroad, and has been visited by a number of prominent personalities. But the Mar. 11-15 visit by Britain’s heir-to-the-throne will bring it a new level of international visibility and could help it overcome its current financial hurdles, the directors of the programme hope.

Reproducing the initiative in other poor areas is the new dream of PSA founder Eugenio Scannavino. "We have developed a methodology that can be applied anywhere, including urban slums; all we need now are the funds," he said, clarifying that the project’s initiatives are low cost and bring results within just a few years.

It all began 25 years ago, when Scannavino left the cities where he had spent the first part of his life – São Paulo, where he lived, and Rio de Janeiro, where he studied medicine – and moved to Santarém, an Amazon jungle city of around 300,000 people in northern Brazil, to bring medicine to those who most needed it, in an innovative and integral fashion.

He began by working with the city government in 1984 and 1985, but decided instead to set up a non-governmental organisation, the Centre of Advanced Studies for Social and Environmental Promotion, better known as PSA, to ensure the independence of the project from municipal authorities and to establish a community development project managed by local residents themselves.

Simple clean-up and hygiene measures, like channeling water and disseminating the use of chlorine to sterilise drinking and cooking water, as well as widespread vaccination campaigns and community-built septic tanks with concrete lids, reduced the infant mortality rate to 27 per 1,000 live births in the 150 communities served by PSA, which have a total combined population of 30,000.

By contrast, the infant mortality rate in nearby neighbourhoods that are not served by PSA averages 52 per 1,000 live births.

In addition, the illiteracy rate among people over 15 is 5.5 percent in PSA communities, compared to 11.3 percent in surrounding areas.

The name of the project sums up its methodology. Health is the focus of its actions, identified as the main problem in participatory debates with local residents. But it is a broad concept that encompasses the environment, education and food security, thus requiring sustainable economic development. And happiness and communication are decisive instruments in bringing about results.

Happiness is personified by Paulo Roberto de Oliveira, better known as Magnolio, his name as a clown.

He leads the Great Mocorongo Circus, which mobilises local communities and teaches hygiene and disease prevention, through laughter. His jokes and antics keep people entertained in the meetings he leads as one of PSA’s three general coordinators.

Magnolio, who is also from São Paulo, studied law, social services and physical education. He was teaching – at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels – until Scannavino invited him to join the project as educational director.

Earlier, he had taken a circus arts course with his brother, learning about acrobatics, balancing, juggling – and humour.

"Circus arts is a profession that you can exercise even as an old man, but you have to learn it at a young age," argued the grandfather who recommended the course of studies to the two brothers.

They were successful as an acrobatic clown duo, but later separated, and Magnolio stayed in Santarém.

"Mocorongo is an interactive circus, with no distance between actors and spectators, who also express their ideas in the circus language," said Magnolio, who describes himself as an "ecological clown." Children and adults paint their faces and take part in the show. Everyone is an artist, and the entire PSA staff performs some circus routine at one point or another.

Mocorongo is the name given to natives of Santarém, a city in the northern state of Pará, where the Tapajós and Amazon rivers converge.

The project also uses methods from the Theatre of the Oppressed, a street theatre method created by Brazilian playwright and director Augusto Boal. The plays teach techniques for preventing diseases or for using homemade rehydration solutions, for example.

Dozens of men running towards a circle of women represent the race among sperm, in which only the winner will fertilise the egg. The sketch is part of sex education efforts aimed at fighting the spread of sexually transmitted diseases like AIDS.

Keeping teaching on health and other matters fun makes people eagerly await the return of the "Abaré", a boat that serves as the PSA’s mobile hospital. The project’s most visible tool, the boat makes periodic tours from one riverbank community to another, providing medical and dental care, vaccinations, family planning and even minor surgical procedures.

The PSA "is a big educational project" focusing on health, economic matters, and self-management of local interests by the community itself, but education is the most important aspect, said Magnolio.

The project involves programmes in community health, the forest economy, and education, culture and communication, all of which come together in the concept of community-driven development, said Scannavino.

His brother Caetano Scannavino Filho, who is also a general coordinator of PSA, but in the administrative department, sees economic and financial aspects as the project’s main challenge today, because of the difficulty in generating sustainable incomes for local populations in the jungle.

Natural resources like fish and forestry products are becoming more and more scarce, limiting extractive activities like the gathering of nuts and fruit, while alternatives such as agroecology initiatives take years to consolidate, and "no one provides such long-term financing," he said.

Furthermore, processing the fruit and nuts to add value takes time, energy and capital that is not readily available in the area, he added.

PSA is active along the lower stretch of the Tapajós river and its tributary, the Arapiuns river, near the Amazon river. The beneficiary communities are riverbank villages in two nature reserves, where they are allowed to make use of the natural resources in a sustainable manner.

Local houses are mainly made of wood and located away from the river to escape flooding. The water level in the Tapajós river rises more than six metres in rainy season, submerging the riverbank beaches and limiting tourism to the dry season, in the second half of the year.

Government agencies built a large number of low-cost housing units in the area, made of bricks and cement to avoid the use of wood. But the houses are criticised as being too closed-in and stifling, running counter to local building styles, which keep people cooler in the heat of the jungle.

The local people, known as "caboclos" – a term referring to Brazilians of mixed indigenous and European descent who live in the Amazon jungle – "do not have an enterprising mentality," a characteristic that has been aggravated by broad government income transfer programmes, said Davide Pompermaier from Italy, who began working with PSA 15 years ago.

Moreover, "their traditional means of production are unsustainable," because they are based on the clearing of forests by the slash-and-burn technique and the cultivation of mandioc, "which is labour-intensive and of little value."

But the forest economy group that Pompermaier coordinates has shown results in fomenting craft-making, community-led ecotourism ventures, agroecological production and the generation of solar energy and other kinds of electricity. The focus is "to invest in young people to change local mentalities," and produce more food in a sustainable fashion, he explained.

Santarém has been governed by a woman mayor for the past few years, and rural trade unions have incorporated the term "trabalhadoras" – the female form of "workers" – in their names, reflecting advances towards gender equality in the area. But PSA continues to address the question of gender discrimination, especially in its work with children.

Young people in the area have been mobilising and seeing new horizons open up, mainly through PSA’s education and communication programme (EDUCOM). The Mocorongo Communication Network involves 350 young people in community radio stations and the production and distribution of small newspapers, videos and television programmes.

Telecentres with a cultural focus, six of which are operating and five of which are in the process of being installed, have brought new opportunities for communication and strengthened community organisation and mobilisation.

The telecentres are two-story wooden eco-friendly buildings, with the first floor open to meetings and cultural activities and the second dedicated to bringing the Internet and new technologies to local people and expanding digital inclusion.

Fabio Pena, 29, is a symbol of PSA. He started out participating in the project’s activities at the age of 10 in his village on the shores of the Amazon river, three hours by boat from the city of Santarém. Today, with a degree in pedagogy under his belt, he coordinates the EDUCOM programme.

"Our work is to create opportunities for learning and inclusion for the upcoming generations of riverbank villagers," so they can have better lives in their own communities, and so that the exodus to the cities is not the only alternative, said Pena.

A number of local young people now head community associations in the area.

PSA leaders say that access to new technologies, like the telecentres and videos, have encouraged youngsters to emphasise and rescue local culture, contrary to fears that they would be drawn in by modern urban lifestyles.

Elis Lucien Barbosa started out as a volunteer and now forms part of the EDUCOM team. She is proud of being "a good clown," and she helps out with community publications and blogs, the production of which has mushroomed at the telecentres.

As a teacher, she is interested in having an indirect influence on schools, to make teaching more interesting and better adapted to local realities.

Mónica de Almeida, 20, a community leader trained by the Mocorongo Network, is now a video producer after receiving training in participative video techniques at the Biskops-Arnö Nordic school in Sweden, which periodically sends teams to Brazil to give workshops to young people involved in PSA.

Today, Almeida coordinates "the telecentre that brought the age of the Internet to the town" of Belterra, near Santarém, by training more than 700 people in its courses, she said.

In the past, local cybercafés went under because so few people visited them, she noted.

Almeida’s team has also produced five videos on issues like teen pregnancy and youth unemployment, and has held workshops on collective blogs.

These young people will ensure the continuity of the local development initiatives promoted by PSA, said Scannavino.

Republish | | Print |