Escola Família Agrícola, translates to Family School of Agricultural and is a new idea for supporting families in rural communities. It also plays an important role in the VinB volunteer programme in Cristino. Once volunteers are accepted for a placement the agricultural school acts as the guarantor and prepares the visa documentation, in return volunteers such as myself teach English to the students.
The college has a non-traditional approach to timetabling and to developing a supportive relationship with student and their families. The students alternate between two weeks of residential full time education and two weeks of home study. As the school name suggests this is to sustain the bond with home and family and provides the time and space for students to apply and share the skills and knowledge back on the home farm.
Though the focus is on agriculture and animal husbandry (with some agronomy), the
students learn Portuguese, mathematics, geography and chemistry and the course concludes with an obligatory internship with an agricultural company.
The school opened in 2008 and like other agricultural schools belongs to the community and though salaries and some funding is paid by the state, the college is always short of resources and looking for partnerships. As a relatively new school it is also working to build its reputation and to increasing student numbers. It is an initiative to support and encourage youngsters to stay and farm in rural areas.
VinB’s micro loan scheme is another initiative that contributes to the sustainability of farming in the rural areas around Cristino. As co-ordinator I am excited to be involved in helping students to prepare business plans for a micro-loan.
One of the most effective and sustainable tools in helping families to escape poverty is Microfinancing. With the help of these schemes and their own resourcefulness and integrity, families are able to improve their access to education and healthcare.
Success is due in part to the structure of the lending institutions which range in size from corporates, NGOs to our own Volunteer in Brazil. All working to mediate small business loans directly to people who have ideas for generating an income but who cannot access standard commercial finance. This direct funding greatly reduces the opportunities for embezzlement and mismanagement.
Business ideas put forward for funding are as varied as the people are creative with many ideas based around agriculture and home crafts. Chicken rearing, beef fattening and commercial crop growing are three projects that Volunteer in Brazil is currently supporting families with.
The concept of micro finance is credited to Mhuammad Yunus who said in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech that
Poverty is an artificial creation that can be changed by policy and institutions.
It isn’t easy to write about the politics of North East Brazil, but following elections in October 2012 I just thought that it would make sense to touch this topic and explain some of the issues.
While elections in big cities in the South of Brazil (São Paulo, Curitiba, Porto Alegre, etc.) more or less follow European democratic standards, North Eastern Brazil is still influenced by heritage of so-called coronelism. Many smaller towns are controlled by influential groups of local politicians and vote buying is not uncommon.
I‘m not saying that there isn’t any progress. There are towns where you can see significant improvements in education, health care or agriculture during the last few years. This happened especially in places where people from poorer families got to power and ended the command of influential groups.
Cristino Castro and regions of the Brazilian North East are undergoing a period of severe drought. There was some rainfall in November and December, but since then there was only one rainy week at the end of January.
Droughts are not uncommon, though. The rainy period in southern Piauí normally starts in November and ends in April. However, there are some years with very little rainfall. Or even if there is rain, it might come too early, too late or there can be a big gap in the middle of rainy season. These irregularities have a greater affect on small farmers who can lose significant part of their crops.
To counter the impact of the drought the government releases loans with a prolonged time of repayment (up to 10 years) in case of emergency. These loans are related to use of water sources and enable people to build water tanks, ponds, cisterns, fences, planting pasture or other types of technical infrastructure. It is available only if the municipality declares a status of emergency.
But this still isn’t a solution for immediate food aid. The truth is that Brazil has enough food resources coming from southern part of the country. Hopefully there will be a strategy of bringing the food to the North East if needed later this year.
This entire situation repeatedly brings up the importance of sustainable development based on underground water resources. Cristino Castro has a huge potential for agricultural production, even in times of drought, but the water resources have to be used effectively and wisely.
What a strange name! Morro Cabeca no Tempo translated means ‘The Head Hill in the Time’ and it is the name of a town in Southern Piaui, about 250km south of Cristino Castro.
Four years ago, a young man from this town decided to join the agricultural college near Cristino Castro, since then he has motivated other young people to study at the college and this year five students have enrolled.
The students have invited the college teachers to visit their families in and around Morro for a long time and last weekend we finally managed it. We saw for ourselves just how complicated it is to travel to and from there. Most of the road is asphalted but it has many holes and the last 60 km is a dirt road. We were lucky that it hadn’t rained in the last few days, otherwise it would have been difficult to pass the numerous puddles. Only big strong cars could get through.
Some of the students live in a small village called Gameleira about five km from the town of Morro. They showed us some lovely places such as the church built by an Irish priest called Padre Joao. It sits on the top of a hill and has magnificent views of the natural vegetation and complex rock formations. It has great potential for tourism.
It was very interesting to see the issues and the problems that the people face. Gameleria is very dependent on rainfall. There isn’t any source of drinking water apart from rainfall. Each house has a reservoir which collects the water. Fortunately they have managed to bore wells in some places but the water is salty and unsuitable for drinking. There aren’t any rivers or streams and the wells aren’t able to irrigate larger areas and of course cattle breeding and the production of milk and dairy products depends on the quantity of rainfall. The first rain of the season fell only two weeks ago!
Despite the difficulties of daily life in the area, people are enjoying this festive time of year. Last week they celebrated the feast of St Bras when locals and visitors took part in services, listened to music and visited stalls on the main street.
The agricultural college begins its new academic year at the end of February. I am looking forward to seeing the students again and introducing them to the micro loan project. In my next post I will tell you more about the communities I visit.
Contemplating the journey ahead
Greetings from sunny Cristino. I have just returned from spending Christmas with my family in Slovakia and I am now very happy to be back in Brazil.
This is my my forth year as a volunteer. I never expected to stay so long ! I first came in 2010 for a year as a volunteer, but got to thinking that one year was not enough and that it would be nice to continue living in Cristino for a while. I’ve had that thought a few times since!
During my time here I’ve learnt to speak Portuguese, met lots of interesting people, visited many places, taught English in a variety of situations and helped to organise group visits from England.
But now I am ready to face new challenges. One of these is my new and exciting role as Micro Finance Co-ordinator. Martina (another volunteer) is going to help me and already we have identified some possible projects which I will tell you more about in my next post.