Friday, March 16, 2012

Sustainable Development and Dona Joana

Themes of community organizing in the shape of the machine street vendors use to turn  a  reed of sugar cane into a delicious drink called caldo da cana.  The two circles with tape rolls in the center are the cogs of the machine and represent what organizers bring to the process (critical analysis, compromise).  The line in the middle represents the bases organizers and a community need for any project (ethics, motivation).  And at the bottom is the drink -- the nourishment (collective action, admiration, social responsibility).  
The discussion, one of many, while we were at the little house on Itaparica.

  Since the end of February I’ve been in Salvador, the capital of Bahia, on the northeastern coast of Brazil.  I’m taking part in a project with the federal university of Bahia – uffy-bah as its known, the pronunciation of the acronym for Universidade Federal da Bahia.  The project, Programa Marsol, brings together students from various disciplines to work with clam and oyster harvesters in the rural communities near Salvador on some aspect of their lives and livelihoods.  Some of the administration majors are will interview people about their strategies for getting the shellfish to market and see if they can increase efficiency and develop new strategies.  The geography studnets are designing maps that, in addition to being graphic representations of the area, highlight the cultural and ecological significance of places.  Others are measuring water-quality indicators and seeing how much pollution the filter-feeding clams retain in their tissues.   
My group is trying to gather information about the types of accidents that take place while clam digging (snake bites, cuts, sprained ankles) and looking at the correlation between the age-structure of the harvest and the method used.  Does using a machete to cut the mud bring up a larger number of big clams or small ones? What about the type of trowel, does that matter?  The goal is to find the method that pulls out the big clams and leaves the immature ones to grow and reproduce – ensuring the sustainability of future harvests.   
To provide a background of theory and communication skills for the field experiences, we spent four days at the beginning of the month in a little house on the island of Itaparica, near Salvador, reading papers about sustainable development and non-violent communication and watching films about indigenous and quilombo communities.  Amidst the rapid fire discussions of Paulo Freire and debates about the connection between cultural and natural patrimony, one oration stood out.  This was partly because the woman was speaking slowly and articulating clearly, but also because her words struck an important chord.
She was concerned about how our discussion of sustainable development had gotten mired down in economics -- the conversation was focusing exclusively on the “overexploitation of resources” and “transitioning to more sustainable methods of consumption and production.”  She told the story of Dona Joana, one of the leaders of a quilombo community.  Quilombos were formed by escaped slaves and their descendants continue to live in the small, isolated villages and often have cultures quite different from other towns and cities. 
In the hope of sharing the struggles of her community and communicating with other people, Dona Joana met with different groups: negros, women, youth.  But the agenda of the negros was concerned with the more “typical” black Brazilian and weren’t sure how to engage with her.  The women too had a specific goals for progress aimed at the larger society that couldn’t accommodate her.  And as a middle-aged woman Dona Joana had accumulated too many years too mesh with the youth.  While their struggles were ultimately the same, the visions the larger groups were to narrow for a quilombola woman to fit in.  The message of the woman who told the story was that we can’t obsess with the economics and politics of sustainable development while overlooking the social and philosophical elements of it and that we can’t afford to leave anyone out of the struggle. 


The question of inclusiveness is one I go back and forth on.  The elephant in the sustainable development room is that if the level of consumption in Europe and North America  stays the same, the developing world catches up, and we keep treating the ecological services the Earth provides as a given, the world will be a sorry place to live a hundred years from now.  Shit's gonna hit the fan if we keep treating the economy like a game of pac-man where there will always be more food to eat, we don’t have to worry about our poop, and all we have to do is steer clear of the specters of economic recession. We need to change. On a massive scale.  Fast.  And so I often get frustrated with the people who want to talk about the economies of "non-capitalist traditional societies" and creating a sustainable world one eco- village at a time. The majority of the social-ladder climbing population is not going to buy into this, I want to say, and besides, we need bigger changes, faster. 
But there’s more to the sustainable development room than the consumption elephant.  Policy wonks, myself included, often get hung up on "internalizing the externalities” and incorporating “the polluter-pays principle” at the expense of traditional culture and small-scale innovation.  We miss out on the philosophical questions and exchanges of human and natural creativity in our search for policy solutions in the political and economic realms.
Last weekend we went out to the communities to meet with some of the clam and oyster harvesters.  Most of the two days were consumed with meetings.  I sat with a group in school desks that had been pulled into a judo studio not far from the estuary that fronts the town going back and forth in discussions for hours.  After the last meeting on the second day, we had lunch, then drove down a mix of paved and dirt roads to where another part of our group had just finished up.  We sat down in a room with white flags dangling from the ceiling and pictures of saints hanging on the walls next to women in colorful skirts.  Soon a few men came out and began beating out polyrhythms on some drums and a bell and the women, most of whom were in their 60’s, began dancing a crazy samba.  Everyone except me seemed to know all the songs and the dance went on for nearly two hours, the women’s feet moving furiously. Some of the older women who couldn't do all the steps just spun in circles as fast as they could, their gold skirts billowing. One of the younger women had a two year old boy whose face just lit up with excited happiness at all this, his eyes alight with wonder as he tried to do the dance -- kicking his little legs and nearly falling over.
I learned later that the space was used for candomble ceremonies -- the syncretic combination of Catholicism and animist religions slaves brought over.  The pictures were of saints, but they represented orixas -- African deities of nature like wind and water. The music, dance, and religion are the legacy of people who have struggled to preserve their culture in a changing environment. Within them are stories of overcoming oppression and lessons for survival in a land of danger and beauty. And there are arts and stories and faiths from East Asia to middle-America that tell the same warnings and bestow the same hope.
Somehow we have to make room for them, and Dona Joana, in our institutional blueprints and roadmaps for a green economy, in our politics and in our narratives.  While it's imperative we develop an international framework that will tame the beast of consumption, we have to make folk music and village councils part of our vision, along with new efforts at forming sustainable communities like eco-villages and co-ops. We have to include these histories and traditions and new-fangled innovations in the story of the future we want.  Any notion of sustainability is hollow without them.


  1. I really like your last comment. I never thought of the intersection of culture and sustainable development before.

  2. Thanks for providing information about sustainable development for me, will try to bookmark it and share it to my entire network. Thank you.

  3. Hi, this blog is interesting. I'm not a scholar just a person interested in the subject of quilombos and their contemporary life. Can you recommend a good article on how quilombo interests are different that typical black bahian interests? Is there anywhere to read more about Dona Joana? If you have time to respond, thanks!

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