Brasilandia: in Transition

In May/June 2014 I was part of a Journeys for Change1405 Brasilandia reduced visit to Brazil: 6 of us went  to look at a variety of social enterprise and related models for delivering public good.

We were introduced to Transition Town Brasilandia as a transition town based on Gaia principles and serving 80,000 people, a third of the population of the suburb. Although no part of this description appears wholly accurate we nevertheless saw an effective community development institution thriving against a background of relative deprivation in the world’s sixth most affluent city, São Paulo, where disorder is no stranger to recent history. Today Brasilandia appears calm, organised and engaged, though the potential to fall back may still be there.

Clearly Monika and her team have a rosy and positive first hand experience of the transition town movement in the UK; but is their impression sound? Transition Towns are not a high profile, opinion-leading and effective movement in UK. For the most part they reflect a politically Green and largely middle class movement which, although capable of stimulating community development especially in the field of community energy, builds on the back of the fair trade movement. It is largely a movement of personal development and sustainability around recycling, healthy eating… even knitting.

Monika acknowledged that whilst Transition Towns were based on confronting three issues – climate change, peak oil and social justice – two of these were not relevant to a low energy-consuming community like Brasilandia. As for social justice, the examples we were shown are better described as economic empowerment through relatively small acts of entrepreneurism.

The UK Transition Towns model is just one of five acknowledged drivers of the Brasilandia project of which three, community sustainability, mobilisation and resource and needs mapping are both sound and right. But the fifth, listed first and clearly the personal driving force of the two leaders we met, is less obvious. If one were to deconstruct TTB and reconstruct it without its Gaia Education pillar it would change remarkably little. These days the sanctity of the planet, the need to conserve and manage resources and respect for the dignity of all are standard components of green-ish and community politics, faith, environmental sustainability and even enlightened and responsible business agendas; they do not need the added quasi-Pagan theology of Gaia to justify them.

IMG_0894 reducedThe ‘mobilisation’ claim of TTB requires more scrutiny. To assert that a third of the local population of 260,000, or 80,000 people, are engaged in TTB activities is bold; that it operates in 3 of the area’s 11 health districts is a careful modifier; but that it has just 1,200 local followers on Facebook is possibly a better reflection of its mobilising potential, in the era of ubiquitous social media (though Smartphone penetration of an area like this is low, at around 12%). Even if the actual movement which could be summoned and organised to respond instantly to, say, a natural disaster locally were 5,000, rather than the implied 80,000, that would itself be quite an achievement.

Yet the breadth and depth of public engagement at TTB is impressive, covering a wide cultural, health-promoting, environmental and economic portfolio. Involvement in the initiatives of others, such as Unilever’s hand washing campaign, is sensible; the fact that this resulted in but a modest 3% reduction in infectious diseases in local children probably reflects the fact that waterborne diseases in São Paulo are not the challenge that they might be elsewhere.

TTB needs to decide its priorities, structure and succession policy for its next generation of leaders. It needs to focus on where the maximum bang for its buck can be obtained, which is in economic development; establishing a microfinance institution to support microentrepreneurs with loans would be a major step forward.

Not fully understanding the nature, powers and structure of local government in Brazil I cannot comment on the apparent absence of formal engagement between the local authority and a project of this size, though the informal engagement with local government at employee level is commendable and promising.

Despite unrest in the run-up to the World Cup and poor living conditions in some of the favelas, Brazil’s  government appears to be aware of the need for pro-poor policies. TTB should be engaging with government, rather than taking it for granted or dismissing it.

One gaping hole in TTB is, as is so often the case with community development projects, the role of private (for profit) business, though it is noted that Petrobas donated sewing machines to the group we saw making bags for domestic use from advertising banners. Employers do have a vested interest in sustainability, employee health, skills and the need for a harmonious community. Significant employers in the area should be brought ‘into the loop’ through advocacy of a business case for doing so; and the plethora of SMEs in Brasilandia, not all of which will be operating only at subsistence level, should follow.

Overall, TTB is an excellent, engaged, well-led, principled organisation which is doing a great job of community development, even if this is something other than what it claims to be. It needs to re-examine its own purpose, structures, functions and leadership model, however, if it is to grow and help others in Brasilandia to grow sustainably at the same time.