Visit to Instituto Eco-Engenho and Baixas

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June 30th 2008
Published: July 10th 2008
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Instituto Eco-Engenho

Instituto Eco-Engenho was founded by José Roberto Fonseca in 2001. The goal of the NGO is to use technology for sustainable development, taking advantage of renewable resources and innovative solutions oriented toward the needs and capabilities of marginalized communities. The program we visited is called H2Sol, whose goal is to use “micro-irrigation systems to produce high value-added products with the use of renewable energy to generate income in remote communities of the semi-arid region of Brazilian northeast” (from Eco-Engenho). The pilot project is located in Baixas, in the municipality of São José da Tapera, in the interior of the state of Alagoas. H2Sol receives funding from the Fiorello LaGuardia Foundation, Fundo de Microcrédito de Alagoas - FUNCRE, United States Agency for International Development - USAID, E3V - Environment Energy and Enterprise Ventures Limited, and InWEnt.

The sertão or semi-arid region of Brazil covers nearly 1 million square km, comprises 1228 municipalities and is home to 25 million residents. Over 1 million homes lack electricity and nearly 50% of families earn less than R$200 per month, or less than half the federal minimum wage. 35-60% of children over 15 years of age lack basic literacy, whereas the Brazilian average falls around 5%. Infant mortality is at 50 per 1000 live births. In Baixas, the UN-HDI - Municipal is about .586. Brazil aggregate HDI is .8, and the US is .95.

Carlos picked us up early Tuesday morning in his truck to head out to Baixas. He got involved with Instituto Eco-Engenho doing IT work but soon got involved in the organic agriculture aspects of the projects and travelling out to the sites every week to help with set-up and training. We are visiting during the rainy season, during which sporadic showers hydrate the nutrient-rich soils of the sertão and green covers the hills. A few months from now, starting in September, the rains will stop and slowly the soil will dry up, sucking the life from all but the cacti and the torpid trees. Although the São Francisco River is a relatively short distance away and grandiose projects have successfully irrigated a sea of sugar cane, the small communities of the sertão remain marginalized, poor and striving for bare subsistence during most of the year. Baixas is a three-hour drive from Maceió, the coastal capital of the state, the final one hour of which
solar stovesolar stovesolar stove

stick some beans and water in a dark pot, bask in the sun as it cooks your food, and enjoy lunch!
is spent lumbering over a rocky, decrepit dirt road - the ‘good’ one, according to Carlos - that his 4x4 could barely conquer. Somehow the residents of this area are able to ride motorbikes (if they have one), donkey carts and vans along this road to the nearby towns for school and to purchase basic necessities. Suffice to say that calling this a trail would be an overstatement. We arrived in Baixas without realizing it; after travelling down the road for about half an hour, we passed the little hamlet of Xerxé (which is probably misspelled) with a few houses along the road and a recently painted and remodeled elementary school. Baixas was another twenty minutes on the dirt path, truck heaving and hurling.

It is difficult to imagine Baixas before the construction of the pepper beds. Right now the planters are overflowing with peppers waiting to be harvested. The water cisterns stand proudly, a symbol of the community surpassing its dependence on the search for water. There are two planting areas: one that contains two planter beds, which was the experimental one, and a much larger area that contains four structures with two planters each. In total
solar panelssolar panelssolar panels

these panels power a small community patio with a prep area and storage for the peppers. complete with light, battery and big screen TV.
there are ten beds, each cared for by a single family. The abundance of the peppers stands in stark contrast to the red dirt ground and the mud-and-stick constructed houses. Another NGO called Amigos do Bem recently arrived and began building new houses complete with foundations, electricity and running water. For a community in which electricity only arrived seven months ago, much has clearly changed. However, one can envision the barren ground, precarious housing, and scrawny desert grasses that dominated the area and still exist prominently in collective memory.

José Roberto first visited the community of Baixas while working with a team implementing a solar energy project in the sertão. Given that many communities lacked electricity, Instituto Eco-Engenho set about to install solar panels that would provide enough energy for 30 families. As the state has a monopoly on the sale of energy, Eco-Engenho set up a service contract with one individual in each town who would “rent” the electricity to 30 families. The communities had to have some degree of disposable income to make the investment in “purchasing” the electricity. Arriving in Baixas, the team soon learned that no one had the capacity to pay for the energy, even at a steep discount, let alone someone to manage the business of renting energy. This fact nagged at José Roberto - a community so marginalized that even if electricity were provided at extremely discounted prices, no one would be able to afford it. When USAID and the LaGuardia Foundation came in with funds for a sustainable development project in the sertão, Eco-Engenho immediately thought of Baixas.

Bringing together a team of experts - engineers, agronomists and nutritionists - Eco-Engenho developed a desalinator, water pump, food dehydrator and a hydroponic gardening system, all powered by solar energy. The desalinator was an immediate solution to the extreme lack of water. Water pumped up from underground wells (using solar power) was extremely salty, inadequate for agricultural use. They developed a sort of greenhouse using a plastic tent in which the water would evaporate, condense and drip down the sides into an underground tank. The leftover salts posed a disposal issue, so while this solution worked for a while, it was recognized as unsustainable. The community patriarch later told the team about a water source up on the surrounding hills where they used to go in search of fresh water. Eco-Engenho developed a system to divert some of the water using hoses to carry it down the mountain and into the community. The resulting water was clean enough for drinking and household use. A portion of this water is collected in cisterns and used in the hydroponic system.

The decision to use hydroponic techniques was based on the ability to grow a relatively large quantity of food (in this case, peppers) with a very small amount of water that can be recycled almost indefinitely. The peppers re planted in raised, slanted beds inside Coca-Cola bottles using a mixture of charcoal made from rice husks. A mixture of nutritive salts including nitrogen, potassium and phosphate are added to the water before it is pumped (using solar energy) up through a series of hoses and drips down the pepper bottles until it is collected at the bottom and recycled through the system. José Roberto pointed out that although the process is not technically organic - because synthetic nutrients are added to the water - the nutrients themselves are “organic” in that they occur in nature but have to be synthesized in a lab. When the water level gets low more water and nutrients are added to the stream. The entire process uses about 200 liters of water, roughly equivalent to the daily usage of an urban family of four (I think - but I may have misunderstood the measurements). Natural methods are used to manage bugs and there have been no instances of pest infestation or plant sickness.


Pimenta was chosen because of its hardiness, ability to grow easily in a hydroponic setting and its ability to be processed into a high value-added product for the market. The Baixas pimentas are processed into two principal products: vinaigrette, or pimenta preserved in vinegar and salt, and dehydrated peppers. The different varieties of peppers allow for the creation of a unique vinaigrette product that can be savored as a flavor enhancer rather than merely a way to add heat to dishes.

According to Eco-Engenho, “the product…is a vinaigrette of various species of pimenta, which presents a new concept in the use of pimenta, taking advantage of the best of its nutritive and medicinal properties, adding flavor and aroma to food along with a delicate spiciness, which stimulates the production of endorphins, bringing with it a marvelous sensation of pleasure. The product was not conceived to be sprinkled over food but to be tasted together with the food without offending the palate.”

Eco-Engenho works with the communities to develop value-added products to encourage a sustainable form of income for the communities. To put it bluntly, as José Roberto explained, they are working with poor communities to develop products that wealthy people (or people with a greater purchasing power) will buy. Vinaigrette (pimenta in vinegar) is already a traditional Brazilian product - i.e. has market acceptance - but the Baixas product is differentiated by its taste, variety/appearance, and the fact of being a “social product.” On the label is a message about the project explaining that the consumer is participating in the production of “social good.” The vinaigrette also lasts for over a year, and extra peppers are dehydrated and sold whole, in pieces or ground into seasoning powder. There is practically no loss of raw materials.


The philosophy of Eco-Engenho is to create sustainable solutions for impoverished communities that empower the residents, bringing them out of subsistence and turning them into entrepreneurs with the power of
Dona JosefaDona JosefaDona Josefa

and her wood-fired stove, for which Eco-Engenho built a chimney so the smoke didn't come into the house anymore.
choice and self-determination. This is a lofty goal - but Eco-Engenho appears to have made substantive progress toward it. Their philosophy is squarely opposed to “politics of assistance” or handout programs in which poor people receive the absolute basic necessities - a food basket and some cash - essentially in exchange for votes. In José Roberto and Carlos’ opinions, the government has an interest in keeping these people poor, marginalized and dependent because it 1) assures easy votes and 2) limits their ability to participate substantively in politics - thus assuring the continuation of corrupt (or at least lazy) politicians earning easy money through paternalism and turning a blind eye. Politicians also take the easy way out by engaging in big irrigation projects with agro-business giants while refusing to even investigate the possibility of micro-irrigation and small- and medium-scale production.

There exist two basic models for economic stimulus in a community. One is stimulating employment - using incentives to bring business to an area and provide jobs for local residents. The other is fomenting business creation - supporting the development of local entrepreneurs to revitalize (or create from scratch) their own economy and provide opportunities for the community. Eco-Engenho takes the second - and I believe more difficult - route. They start from the premise that anyone can become an entrepreneur. This requires a lot of faith in the basic capacity of human beings and an intense commitment to consciousness-raising, training, education and mentoring.

In Baixas, there are five pimenta plots, each of which is divided between two families, totaling ten families growing pimenta. Each has to take responsibility for their plot and is not allowed to contract out the labor (if there were even a surplus of labor to be found). The better care a family takes of the peppers, the healthier the plants are and the more money they receive from the finished products. Social pressure as well as individual drive help to ensure responsibility and dedication the pepper plots. If a family is not taking its responsibility seriously - as happened already - the plot, which is owned by Eco-Engenho, is given to another family. The mission of the H2Sol project is to produce value-added commodities to allow insertion into the marketplace and provide a sustainable development solution - actual income and movement away from forced reliance on subsistence agriculture. Eco-Engenho provides the long-term, hands-on training to guide people from a mentality of poverty, oppression and low self-esteem to active participants and determiners of their own futures.


One thing I found very inspiring about the way Eco-Engenho operates is its constant consultation and involvement with the community. Many NGOs (and businesses) enter a poor community and say, “I have a solution for your problems.” Eco-Engenho instead saw a community that was suffering needlessly and went to converse with them, especially the elders, about their thoughts on improvement. The only way to gain community acceptance, José Roberto and Carlos both explained, is to gain their trust by showing respect and valuing local knowledge. For instance, as I mentioned above, the groundwater was impossibly salty, although it was used anyway to bathe the children. As the folks from Eco-Engenho were trying to figure out other solutions, through conversations with the community patriarch and the women who went to fetch water, they learned about the clean water source way up on the mountain. The community obviously never had access to the technology to bring the water down the mountain, and Eco-Engenho didn’t know of its existence. But combining local knowledge and outside technology, the clean water arrived in the village.

Another aspect of the project that makes a big impression is the change in self-esteem of the community. The women we talked to told us how their children used to be shunned by the nearby communities, especially in school, because they were dirty and smelly due to lack of regular baths. The people from Baixas were called “urubus,” or vultures. They were completely socially excluded. Now they have the respect of neighboring communities and the fruits of their own labor are sold in chic restaurants in Maceió. The community has become emotionally revitalized and there is a palpable sense of hope and excitement. Eco-Engenho has helped to foster this increased self-esteem and encourages conversation and reflection about the nature of all the changes. I admired how they are careful not to take changes for granted and assume that every change is positive; instead they really work with the community to learn how to deal with the rapid increase in physical standard of living and with the ability to hope and believe in the future.

The two women in Baixas with whom we talked the most, Dona Josefa and Dona Maria, were adamant about the impact that the pimenta has made in their lives. Dona Josefa was nearly in tears when she told how her son had left the village to search for work in “the city” and recently returned as a result of the success of the pimenta. The pimentas reversed the rural exodus, a micro-example of what could happen on a large scale if rural solutions and opportunities were embraced. The two talked about how they used to leave the village around 8 pm every night to go up the serra, the hills, to look for water, and would only return around 2 or 3 in the morning, and then wake up before dawn to begin working in the field to cultivate manioc, beans, corn and rice for subsistence. They would also collect grasses and weave little hand brooms to sell in Pão de Açucar, the nearest town, at least an hour away with their mode of transportation (on foot and in a van or donkey cart). The families, each with on average 8 children, live in two room houses supported by mud and sticks.

Dona Josefa and Dona Maria talked about how their lives revolved around water, and how they never imagined the possibility of a project like this. They said they never imagined that with so little water so many plants could grow, and that from those plants they could produce so many products and have an income. They take ownership over their plants and talk about them as if they were children - comparing each other’s peppers, commenting on the families that are taking less care of their crop, knowing exactly which peppers are ready to pick, which ones need more time, which burn the mouth and which don’t. In essence they have become experts where before they thought they knew nothing; they have become owners where before they were enslaved by nature; they have become strong women where before they were struggling to survive. Dona Maria talked about how she makes all the kids - about 60 of them - go to school every day. They work in the morning collecting the harvest with the men (the subsistence food) and in the afternoon go to the primary school in the little hamlet over, Xerxé, or the middle/high school all the way in Pão de Açucar. Her firm insistence on education is inspiring in a place that only three years ago had the lowest Human Development Index in Brasil.

I think what is most striking is the sense of hope and optimism where there was none before (by the women’s own admission). They thank God for the arrival of José Roberto, but their language is one of ownership, pride and confidence. They are proud of their peppers and of the product that they themselves produce every day. They receive training but they are responsible for knowing when to harvest, how to pack, quality control, maintenance, etc. More importantly they see the project as the key to their future and for their children’s future and as a way to strengthen the community and keep it together. These women’s speeches were not rehearsed; it was not the “welcome foreign visitors!” speech that I fear is so often the case when gringos come to visit. I found out later that they didn’t even know we were coming - Carlos had telephoned to let them know he was on his way, but didn’t even say he was bringing other people. So their enthusiasm, their desire to share their success, their willingness to invite us into their homes and share their existence with us, was entirely spontaneous and genuine. And we left with a lot to think about and digest.


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