We are not alone in the world: Lessons from traveling through Brazil

It is incredibly hard to get back to blogging after all this time, but for much of the time I did not update this blog, I have had a great excuse: I was traveling through the Northeast of Brazil and blogged about it elsewhere (that is Nanda – my wife – did most of the writing and I gave comments, helped translate to English and took photos).

In brief, the trip had a dual purpose: The main goal of Suficiente (enough in Portuguese) was to decide how we want to live our lives and to find inspiration for possible life projects. The second was to find a place where we would invest in setting this project up. I do not want to do a big summary here – our ideas and stories can all be seen and read at full length at http://suficiente.org/ – but rather share some things I learned during the trip:

Unfortunately, nature is a luxury good in many places either because too little is left or because you have to be rich to afford experiencing it.

Most coastal communities in Northeast Brazil seem to take one of two paths to tourist development. Either they go for mass tourism with lots of concrete, preferably directly on the beach, or they are going for the upper class tourists, in which case they take very good care of scenery and surroundings.

The mass model is not just plain ugly, but too small investments in waste management and water sanitation systems of these tourist towns pollute the water and soil, mangroves and forests have to give way to gated communities, resorts and high-rise buildings, and thousands of tourists trample on coral reefs and other attractions nature has to offer… in short many coastal ecosystems end up degraded or even destroyed.

The luxury model on the other hand seems to be very effective in protecting the environment, yet at another price: “Normal” tourists, who cannot afford the high price tags are effectively excluded. In other words nature’s riches are maintained for the benefit of rich tourists and the companies that enclosed the natural resources, earn a lot of money.

Both models see the local population as resources or as a disturbance, and in not too few tourist towns you will find fairly large shanty towns right next to 5-star resorts.

Yet, we have also seen attempts to build a different kind of tourism, a third way so to speak.

North of Maceió in the state of Alagoas a few small pousadas (guesthouses) offer high level services, but do so with an eye on environmental and social development of the region. They actively reach out to the local population, offer education, and participate in local environmental and social projects. With this, the group aims to develop the region as a tourist destination for all types of tourists and to give the local population economic opportunities without compromising the resources they all depend upon: the beaches and the beautiful surroundings.

In São Miguel do Gostoso (Rio Grande do Norte), local folks in their twenties and thirties are leading several NGOs to ensure that the touristic boom turns into better lives for them, their parents and children, and does not end in more poverty and drug abuse as in so many other tourist destinations.

These initiatives also show that environmental projects do not lead to any change if they are not taking into account the social context and vice versa.

Another such example is the work done in Tamandaré in Pernambuco on coral reefs. After several years of protection and research, it has become more and more difficult to convince local fishermen to stay out of the protected area, as fish stocks have recovered and promise much higher fishing returns than anywhere else (or many other activities). Recently the project team together with a few members of the local fishers’ association have created a new organization which helps fishers to exploit the riches of the marine reserve by guiding tours with boat and snorkel as well as acting as the guards for the reserve, instead of fishing. Of course this process is not without conflict and many discussions, but both parties have realized that they can only guarantee the reefs and fish stock if they deal with both protecting nature and guaranteeing the fishers’ livelihoods.

All of the people we talked to had stories to tell of how working with others has made the difference. Natureza Bela, an environmental NGO in the South of Bahia had a rather bad start but turned into a very successful and innovative organization when they established a consortium with various organizations, who are now applying for projects and funds together instead of competing. This consortium managed to set up the first certified carbon sequestration project via reforestation in Latin America.

That working together motivates, inspires and simply works better than fighting alone and against each other was also evident from all the other discussions we have had.

The biggest lesson of all is that change starts in each of us. Big projects, rules and policies may help, but ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what we need to lead a happy and fulfilled life. And maybe what we need is not the latest cellphone or a big car, but watching the moon rise or sitting together with friends.

Just as we had the chance to step back, watch and reflect on our trip through Brazil, I challenge you to do the same – not necessarily traveling, but maybe just in a bar around the corner over a beer with some friends.

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One thought on “We are not alone in the world: Lessons from traveling through Brazil

  1. Pingback: » Activists seek tough U.N. climate pact in 100 days

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