FRUTICULTURA. A friendship which bears fruit

By Valentin Ihßen, April 2012

In the “Discover diversity” competition of the German environmental foundation Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt (DBU), the “Brasilog e.V.” association started by pupils from the Sorsum Free Waldorf School won first prize in the 17- 25 age group and “Act globally” category. The award carries prize money of 1000 euros.

FRUTICULTURA. A friendship which bears fruit

The date is 7 July 2011. We, eleven young people from the Sorsum Free Waldorf School, are sitting excitedly on our packed suitcases and are waiting for our flight to Brazil.

In 2007, during English lessons in class 10, the idea came up not to have the usual class trip at the end of class 12 but to found an association – “Brasilog” – to help improve living conditions in Brazil. We wanted to help – but how? We wanted to build something that would be of real benefit and not become a useless monument to good will a year after the foundation stone was laid! The class contacted Kolping International and asked for support to turn the “Brasilog” idea into reality.

Kolping proposed the small town of Porto in north-eastern Brazil as the project location and this was accepted by Sorsum. A few weeks later, the first project proposal arrived from Porto. The people of Porto needed a youth centre. The plans for the youth centre and the trip by the whole class to Porto to help with building took on ever more concrete form. We applied to foundations for funding, took part in competitions, sold cocktails at school events and town festivals; the whole class worked for “Brasilog” and the whole school supported us enthusiastically. In the autumn of 2008, eight young Brazilians from Porto came to the Sorsum Free Waldorf School for the first time. At the end of their trip the whole school celebrated a “Brazilian evening” with samba, forró and quadrilha.

Shortly afterwards the Software AG Stiftung foundation promised us financial support. That meant the trip could go ahead. At the end of Feb­ruary 2009 the then class 12 travelled to Porto to build the “Centro da Juventude” youth centre together with our Brazilian friends.    

The Fruticultura school of agriculture

Now, two-and-a-half years later, I am sitting with ten other Sorsum pupils at Frankfurter airport. We have succeeded for a second time in getting together the financial resources for a social inclusion project and the youth exchange with the Brazilians. This time the plan is to build the Fruticultura agricultural college with the aim of contributing to improving the future opportunities of young people in Porto through such a training and by giving them an incentive not to move away to the large cities like Sao Paulo but remain in Porto in order to enable economic development there.

After a long journey we arrive in north-eastern Brazil. We celebrate seeing everyone again and in the following period visit all the institutions of this small town on the banks of the great river Parnaiba. There are problems with the purchase of the land because the Brazilians did not have the confidence to choose a property for our project on their own. So we go to look at properties offered for sale which might be suitable for the agricultural college.

Our visit has a direct effect on land prices in Porto which increase fivefold within a few days in the hope that we, as rich Europeans, will not notice the difference.

After viewing them, we are finally able to start once the purchase of a property has been concluded. Our few hectares of land are still densely overgrown with palms and when we pace them off we have to take care not to step on scorpions, tarantulas and snakes. We work our way through the undergrowth armed with machetes in order to clear the land. As we make our way home in the evening the forest around us hums and chirrups and a swarm of parrots flies over our heads.

Destroy in order to build?

The mood at the evening meal is sombre. Did we come to Brazil in order to build something sustainable with the Brazilians and at the same time destroy nature? The conflict is clear. We want to construct something in small, underdeveloped Porto which will enable the young people in the town to build up something for themselves. As the city lies in the middle of the forest, the latter has to give way, at first. Of course our property is a tiny parcel of land in comparison to the surrounding forest but what about the principle? After all, the whole of the forest belongs to someone and what if all the owners did the same as us?

There is no alternative, the palms have to be felled. Is this the classic and apparently insoluble conflict between nature and civilisation in which nature so often draws the short straw? Yes and no! In order to build an agricultural college with areas for cultivation the forest has to go. But what we want to achieve here has nothing to do with monocultures. We do not want to exploit the soil and nature but make it arable and allow a cultivated landscape to arise from which both humans and animals can benefit. The plan is not for intensive agriculture with artificial fertiliser and pesticides but ecological farming.

In order to compensate for the damage we will be engaged in nature conservation back in Germany and participate financially in the protection of the Brazilian rainforest which is increasingly under threat of falling victim to palm oil plantations. We further intend to leave the forest untouched on one hectare of the land which has been bought in order to set a good example. When we are not working on the land we are beaten hands down by the Brazilians at football, teach English in the youth centre, dance the quadrilha or sleep in our hammocks.

Crisis meeting in the jungle

Meanwhile the electricity and water for the youth centre have been switched off as there is a lack of financial resources and no one really seems to feel properly responsible in Porto for what was created with such euphoria in 2009. Yet we are already working on the next project. The question arises whether what we are doing really corresponds to the needs of the people of Porto and is sustainable – as we imagined it would be.

A crisis meeting is called. What are the problems and how can they be solved? After a few awkward moments the dam suddenly bursts among the Brazilians. There are disputes within the group. Many feel ignored and  misunderstood by other participants in the project. Our discussion culture does not correspond at all with the Brazilian one – there are tears and some of the Brazilians are afraid that the project could be abandoned. Once everyone has had the opportunity to have their say in front of everyone else things calm down and we can move on to the next issue. How can the upkeep of the youth centre be guaranteed? There is a whole range of ideas. We like the proposal to scrape together the money for water and electricity through recycling plastic.

Porto has a big problem with waste disposal. As the deluge of packaging set in much later in Brazil, and in particular in the underdeveloped north-east of the country, than it did in Germany, there is much less awareness of what environmentally compatible waste disposal might look like. When the refuse collectors come in Porto, they sweep up the rubbish in order then to take it to the nearby forest in a donkey cart where it is disposed of more or less randomly. Of course Porto probably has more important things to cope with than worry about recycling – poverty for a start – but if we collect the plastic refuse we could pay for the electricity and water for the youth centre; that is the potential which lies in the carelessly thrown away rubbish!

After a month in Brazil we start on our journey home. We did not manage to do everything we set out to do but we think we have obtained a more direct understanding of an important conflict in development cooperation. For the future, the important thing is not to take our eye off our aims and together with the Brazilians courageously face up to any difficulties which arise. Another group from Porto will come to Sorsum this summer. We greatly look forward to our time together!


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