Archive for O Jeitinho Brasileiro – The Brazilian Way

Brazilian 10Ks and 10K of rain in Minas

The last week has been a whirlwind… starting last Friday with my colleagues calling me into the office for a special, urgent meeting, of which I had less than an hour to get from my house to get to in Recife´s morning traffic jam. Moreover I´d spent the week finishing up grad school applications, my final Fulbright report, and final report for work, and had been running on no-sleep and all-caffeine.

I arrive, and my colleague Sofia calmly says ´lets go get a coffee?´ I was too exhausted to process what was going on, but next thing I know the whole staff of Diaconia is in the kitchen with a spread of fruits and cake, wishing me a warm Brazilian farewell with hugs & kisses, a prayer, lots of food, and a beautiful card.  Which pretty much sums up the sweet experience that I have had working with this wonderful organization over the past six months.  I then ran home, cleaned my room in anticipation of my dad´s visit, and packed for the upcoming trip to Minas Gerais.

The morning before travelling to Minas my roommates and I ran a 10K in Recife. Originally scheduled for an afternoon along the ocean, for some reason the run was re-routed to start inland at the Jaqueria Park, my favorite local spot to jog, and was to wind through some closed off, main roads around the neighborhoods of Espinheiro, Casa Forte, and back to the park. Well, being organized in a very Recifan style, in the 8am, 90 degree heat we snaked our way around the neighborhood, running in the left lane of a busy street, skirting city buses and Sunday morning traffic, gulping down lungfulls of car exhaust, only to make it an hour later back to the park to down a few liters of water and agua-de-coco because the run only supplied 1 cup of water around the route! It was a fun accomplishment, however, as it was my first race since Chicago´s also sweltering 88 degree marathon in 2007.

Maybe I could make my next career jump to running in overly hot, uncomfortable race conditions.  I did meet a dude who ran the marathon in Madagascar´s heat, no rest stops or water stations, and being one of a few runners he even placed in his age class.

Post-race, post-hydration and carb loading, my dad and I jumped a plane to Minas, arriving in Belo Horizonte on Sunday evening and here in the stunning colonial town of Ouro Preto on Monday morning.  We´ve visited ex-slave-owned gold mines and incredible baroque style churches, and have been staying at a pousada (bed and breakfast) which has hosted the likes of Brazilian composer Vinicius de Moraes (he wrote Girl from Ipanema), who hid out here during the dictatorship, to US poet Elizabeth Bishop and her Brazilian girlfriend, to Henry Kissinger (Nixon´s Secretary of State) over 20 years later.   Unfortunately we´ve been hit up by tons of rain, resulting in a re-routing our trip from the National Park of Caraça to another mining town, Tiradentes,  but my dad is a wonderfully relaxed travel companion and is up for anything.

More to come… I can hardly believe that this has all been in the past 5 days!


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Race: US & Brazil

“Despite Brazil’s social ease around race, many argue that its blacks simply moved from the slave quarters to the slums.”

This is an incredibly well-written article on many of the issues of race in Brazil, ones which, in the wake of Obama’s election, I have encountered more frequently during my conversations with Brazilian friends, taxi drivers, work colleagues, etc.  The article offers a good look at racial dynamics in Brazil as compared to the United States… from a common history of slavery and social exclusion to the non/evolution of a civil rights movements and the vast differences that our countries face as a result of post-slavery legislation.  Brazilian’s hope for Obama remains extremenly high; “Barack Obama represents what every black person in the world has been hoping for: that the fight of the dream for racial equality in North America can spread to the entire world.”

despedida-recife-2008-033Brazilian kids enjoying a sunday afternoon treat at the beach

Obama win forces Brazil to take a tolerance check Dec 5, 2008  11:44 AM EST
RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – What struck the Brazilian woman most forcibly as she watched U.S. election returns on television was seeing Barack Obama’s two young daughters.

“I can’t believe those two little girls with hair like mine will be in the White House,” said 31-year-old Carolina Iootty Dias, putting her hand to her head, tears in her eyes as she watched the screen.

Black Brazilians such as Dias, a human rights worker, celebrated Obama’s election as giving hope worldwide. But the country that prides itself on racial mixing and tolerance is also being forced to take a reality check.

Though half of Brazil’s 190 million people are black – the world’s largest black population outside Nigeria – power remains firmly in the hands of whites. The country has few blacks in top political positions, and government studies consistently show blacks in Brazil earn half as much as whites.

“This Brazilian hypocrisy that says racism does not exist is one of the things that keeps the nation from advancing,” said Stepan Nercessian, an actor and Rio de Janeiro city councilman, who is white.

Latin America’s largest country has long looked down its nose at the racial discord in the U.S. – segregation laws, civil rights battles and a strained social dialogue that continues today.

But Obama’s election is making Brazilians look inward, with some arguing that an American-style struggle is exactly what Brazil is missing.

“I think it is important for young black Brazilians to know how the civil rights movement progressed in the U.S. and how it produced not just Obama, but blacks at the highest levels of American businesses,” said Edson Santos, Brazil’s minister of racial equality, who is black. “It is important that they have contact with this reality.”

Glaucia Carvalho Oliveira is one of those young people.

“All of a sudden, Obama has arrived and taken us to the next level,” she said, sweat glistening on her face as she assembled her snack stand on Rio’s Copacabana beach. “We black Brazilians need him as much as the Americans do.”

Brazil and the U.S. were two of the largest slave-owning societies in the Americas – some 4 million shipped to Brazil and 500,000 to the U.S. – and the two countries that benefited most from the slave trade.

Brazil freed its blacks in 1888, the last country in the Americas to do so. In that year it abolished all its race laws, while American blacks had to fight for more than 100 years after they were freed to gain full rights as citizens.

Black and white Brazilians mix easily in both marriage and social venues, from soccer matches to samba clubs. Beyond the half of the population that is black, most Brazilians are of mixed ancestry and have a census category, “parda.”

No such category exists in the U.S. census. Obama, who is half white and identifies as black, could call himself parda if he were Brazilian.

Despite Brazil’s social ease around race, many argue that its blacks simply moved from the slave quarters to the slums.

They are only 3 percent of Brazil’s college graduates. Only one senator among 81 is black, which mirrors the U.S. breakdown, except that blacks are only 13 percent of the U.S. population. Twelve of Brazil’s lower house’s 513 members are black, compared with 46 out of 435 U.S. house members.

With Brazil’s history of authoritarian governments and extreme poverty, blacks only started organizing in the last 40 years, said Reginaldo Lima, who is black and directs AfroReggae, which works on race and violence issues in Rio’s slums.

Six years ago the country elected its first blue-collar president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a white man who enjoys huge support among blacks. But only two of his 28 government ministers are black.

In 2003 Brazil appointed its first black Supreme Court justice, Joaquim Barbosa, whom some consider a future presidential candidate. Barbosa traveled to Washington to watch the U.S. elections.

Many whites play down the level of prejudice in Brazil, saying the inequalities are economic, not racial.

“We see people not as black or white. We don’t look at a black person and think they are not as capable as whites,” said medical secretary Liliane Lyra, 43. “It is more a social problem that separates the races here, a lack of opportunity for the poor.”

But Alannah Xavier, 26, says her black skin, not her economic status, keeps her from getting work as a model in Brazil.

“You know where I work the most? In Germany … a nation that is supposedly so racist with its Nazi past,” said Xavier. “Here in Brazil they only have work for blondes. Crazy, no?”

Since Silva took office, there have been positive changes, notably affirmative action in the university system, said Jose Vicente, director of Ciudadana Zumbi dos Palmares University, who is black.

Lima says Obama’s election will help that struggle.

“Barack Obama represents what every black person in the world has been hoping for: that the fight of the dream for racial equality in North America can spread to the entire world,” he said.

Others doubt there will be an “Obama effect.”

“This is a very racially mixed country, but all the elites are white. Things have been so bad for so long, I think people just accept it,” said Carlos Eduardo Antones, 21, a waiter and part-time student who is black.

Either way, Emmanuel Miranda is happy to savor the moment.

The 53-year-old Rio de Janeiro policeman, who is black, sipped an espresso in a cafe off Copacabana beach, lit his first cigarette of the day, and declared a new era.

“The U.S. is a country to dream about, and for us black Brazilians it is even easier to do so now,” he said. “God bless you and your beautiful country.”

Associated Press writer Marco Sibaja in Brasilia and APTN producer Flora Charner in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.

By BRADLEY BROOKS     Associated Press Writers

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Travel Tips to Brazil from a local-ized gringo in Olinda

Here’s an article from the traveler’s notebook, written by a friend of mine who has lived in Olinda for long enough to publish some damn good tips on Brazil.

– the traveler’s notebook –

10 Tips to Improve Any Trip to Brazil

Posted By ernesto-machado On November 29, 2008 @ 3:39 pm

Brazil is different from Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia and its other neighbors. Besides the language differences between Spanish-speaking South America and Portuguese-speaking Brazil, a noticeable cultural divide exists.

Brazil, a place where batucada and jazz, beach and jungle, and bikinis and Jesus coexist peacefully, seems to lie on a planet of its own.

Here are some tips for every traveler who intends to spend any amount of time in this, the largest country in South America. In fact, let’s start with that simple fact…

It’s a big country!

It’s easy to forget that Brazil occupies a large chunk of real estate, with the majority of the population and the tourist hotspots concentrated along the coast.

You won’t be able to “do” Brazil in just a few weeks (though it’s certainly possible to “do” some Brazilians in that time span).

Unless you have a lifetime to travel the country, you’ll always miss somewhere interesting. It’s always a challenge to decide which places to visit and which to skip, no matter where you travel, but in a country as large as Brazil you must think about distances. Assume that you’ll visit, at most, two places per week.

Keep in mind, though, that…

Bus travel isn’t perfect.

Don’t assume that buses will take you everywhere you want to go and don’t assume they’ll be on time. Be open-minded towards alternatives like vans (usually called “kombi”), private cars (called “lotação”, a sort of long distance taxi), and motorcycle taxis.

In places where rivers are more common than asphalt, you’ll need to consider boats of all shapes and sizes. Keep in mind that long distance buses often skip over the most interesting places you could visit, while overnight buses are often the target of crime, giving you two good reasons to avoid these long, overnight trips. Opt for shorter legs.

In spite of these long distances, you should definitely…

Leave the southeast.

Visiting the Iguaçu Falls, São Paulo, and Rio de Janeiro is the equivalent of going to Niagara Falls, New York City, and Miami: everyone and their mother visits these places.

Don’t get me wrong; all these locales are worthy of a visit. But it’s logical that large cities and popular tourist attractions are not the place to meet the “natives”, since locals are usually too busy to concern themselves with you, one in a long line of foreign visitors.

The “heart” of the country lies elsewhere; strive to find it.

Start by trying to…

Photo by [3] babasteve

Skip the hostels.

Though this piece of advice could apply to anyone who wants to get away from the hordes of backpackers in any country, there is another reason to avoid hostels in Brazil.

This appealing option is called a “pousada”, cozy and affordable accommodations usually run by families. Pousadas give you a real chance to connect with the locals, while avoiding loud hostels and expensive hotels.

Don’t pay attention to fancy things like signs, though. I have stayed in some great family-run pousadas that depended exclusively on word of mouth. I’d wake up the next morning to a clean load of laundry, a fantastic breakfast, and a tab smaller than the price of a hostel bed.

Wherever you choose to stay, you must…

Protect yourself.

And no, I’m not just talking about condoms, though I am talking about sex.

The advice here is quite simple: don’t take new love interests to your hotel, hostel or pousada. Brazilians don’t take them home; they go to motels, and so should you. Even if it means an extra expense, at least your belongings will be safe, and he/she/they won’t be able to track you down the next day.

Think of it as part of the Brazilian cultural experience: pay for the three hours and enjoy the motel room sex. And though a casual sexual experience is relatively easy to find in Brazil, a more meaningful relationship with the locals requires that you…

Learn some Portuguese.

Don’t assume that the average Brazilian knows English.

Only two types of Brazilians do: those who have attended the best schools due to their privileged financial situation, and those who work in the tourist industry. Of course, that second category includes all types of people, including some who are earning a decent living (like waiters and tour guides) and some shady characters you’ll want to avoid (like prostitutes and scammers).

In addition, don’t think that your high school or college-level Spanish will be enough.

Portuguese, though relatively similar to Spanish, sounds very different when uttered from the mouth of a Brazilian. Unless you are a native speaker of one of the romance languages, the recommendation is clear: try to learn some Portuguese. It will be the most valuable tool in your arsenal, more so than a guidebook, especially if you wish to interact with the locals (in ways that do not involve you getting ripped off).

Another way to avoid the touts, the thieves and the hookers is to…

Avoid urban beaches.

Except for Copacabana and Ipanema in Rio de Janeiro and, perhaps, Barra in Salvador, you shouldn’t budget time in your itinerary for city beaches. After all, the urbanized coastlines of Natal and Fortaleza and Recife pale in comparison to the charming, nearby towns of Praia da Pipa and Canoa Quebrada and Porto de Galinhas, respectively.

And these are but three examples; the same applies to every coastal capital between Uruguay and the mouth of the Amazon River. Unless you consider gawking at prostitutes an interesting cultural experience… unless you enjoy being the target of hawkers… you don’t have much to gain from metropolitan beaches.

Of course, to visit any beach you need to…

Get some sandals.

But don’t assume that flip flops belong exclusively on the sand.

Brazilians have made wearing flip flops an everyday routine, even though it might seem excessively casual in the eyes of other cultures. The mere variety of sandals for sale in Brazil speaks to this fact.

Wearing tennis shoes with shorts will immediately make you stand out as a foreigner. Men especially should try to avoid shoes unless planning a hike or a fancy evening out on the town. Flip flops are the norm, so head into any store and grab a pair of the local havaianas.

Of course, wearing sandals with socks is a stereotypical gringo ritual. But there is another common fashion faux pas that will teach foreigners that…

Futebol is king.

Travelers should not wear the replica shirts of local clubs unless they are able to hold their own in a conversation.

It’s a simple fact: though Brazil is the largest Catholic country in the world, church takes a back seat to futebol on Sundays (and, in fact, all week). Brazilians love to talk about futebol, and any related paraphernalia is a lure for meeting strangers. It’s a fun way to get to know the locals, but they’ll quickly know to move on if you can’t converse about the nation’s favorite topic.

Naturally, once you’re done “making friends”, you’ll need to…

Stay in touch.

No gringo should travel in Brazil without an MSN Messenger account and/or an Orkut profile. Though you may be used to Facebook and MySpace, Brazilians have fallen in love with a different networking website.

Most Brazilians you meet age 35 and younger will probably have one or the other… or both. If you want to stay in touch with the people you meet, you’ll want to have accounts as well.

Simply e-mailing the people you meet is not a good strategy. I have learned, through almost two years of experience, that Brazilians are notoriously bad at keeping in touch via email.

These tips by no means cover every situation you encounter, but with these in mind you’ll be better prepared to handle yourself when Brazil presents you with a challenge. And, believe me, it will.

[7] Ernesto Machado

[8] Ernesto Machado is a native of Puerto Rico. After living in the US and Argentina, he found a home in Northeastern Brazil. He has reason to believe he’s not quite a gringo, though most Brazilians would disagree.

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Article printed from the traveler’s notebook:

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[3] babasteve:
[6] 10 Best Venues and Shows in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil:
[7] Ernesto Machado: Machado
[8] Ernesto Machado:

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Brazil, through the eyes of a visitor

I’ve been so fortunate to have a barrage of visitors in the past month six months- fellow Fulbrighters, Oxfammers (former colleagues) & gringa sambistas, my family, and my best friend.  Seeing Brazil through their diverse eyes has reminded me of my own first impressions here.

Via my cousin’s sharp & observant eye emerged once again the sharp contrasts of Brazil’s northeast… hectic Recife, sleepy oceanside.  Shoe-less street kids, well-heeled crowd at the neighborhood pizza joint.  Endless options for sweet tropical fruit juices, endless sour caipirinha drinks.  It was fun to share stories as we went about the day – stories from past trips and lives abroad to reflections on day to day here in this city.


The cashew fruit (yes, this is where the nut comes from!). The yellow pulp can be blended into a delicious juice.

I’ve been reminded of many of the cultural differences between Brazil & the US, things that I had gotten used to over the past year, like just how nuts it is to ride a city bus here as the driver slams on the brakes and just as happily on the gas, leaving a sardine-packed bus full of riders to heel the blows.  Or the different noises that Brazilians use when they talk; instead of ‘um, yeah, mm-hmmm,’ it’s ‘e-ayeeee, ehhh, pooisss.’  And the unbelievable comfort level that people have with their bodies.  There are three sizes of bathing suits- xxxxxsmall, xxxxsmall, and xxxsmall, and though Brazilians comment about weight about as much as Americans, I feel generally much more comfortable here in my own skin then in many places in the US- especially the beach!

pb230330A kiddie pool on Boa Viagem beach in Recife.  The waves are strong and the shark attack threat real… so parents rent kiddie pools for their kids.  It’s brilliant.  I might seriously rent one next trip to the beach.

During my first beach trip with two Brazlian friends, I packed a book, magazine, two types of sunscreen, and a towel.  When I met them at the bus stop they looked at me, looked at my bag, and asked me if I was bringing a baby to the beach.  Since then I’ve left everything at home but 1 bottle of sunscreen and a sarong, which doubles as a towel and beach cover-up.  The main reason is that Brazilians simply don’t read at the beach- there’s too much stimulation!  “Caldinho, caldinnnhoooo…” is the most common call, young boys selling hot, thick bean or fish soup in plastic dixie cups in the hot sun.  “QUEIJINHOOOO QUENTINHOOOO,” the call of men selling cheese, toasted to perfection on a portable grill, slathered with molasses and oregano.  There’s boiled fish, shrimp in a plastic bucket, oysters with hot sauce and lime, and even sushi.  All on a beach whose average temperature is 85 degrees year round.

pb230332Check out the contents of the bucket.

But my favorite part of living in Recife, and what I’ll miss going back to the states, is the MUSIC in the streets.  Everyone who’s visited has gone to Olinda with me, and we inevitably bump into a street band or hear the beats of maracatu or samba as we get late afternoon drinks at the local bar.  And there’s always an artist from this region who’s visiting and offering shows at a great price- remaining loyal to their northeastern Brazilian roots.


All female drumming and dance group practicing their set on the streets of Olinda and getting ready for Carnaval.

pb220312At the show for the Brazilian super-rock star Lenine, who’s style is infused with beats from his native Recife.

pb220304Roommates and cousins at the Lenine show (I know it has nothing to do with Recifan culture, given that there are 4 gringos and a Brazilian in this pic, but I love my roomies and had to slip this one in)

For more musings from mamashayna’s visitors, click here


(Thanks to my visitors for lending the fotos, and their lens, for this entry!)

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Sem agua: A water-less afternoon

I guess passing a water-less afternoon in Brazil’s semi-arid region during its ‘summer’ season isn’t so strange, considering that the region has just two seasons: ‘sem agua,’ or the water-less summer which lasts from June to January, and ‘agua,’ the water-full winter, lasting from January to June.  Seeing as it’s October, the unique caatinga brush vegetation of the region has lost all of its leaves in an attempt to conserve water, and the countryside looks like one long softly lolling cushion of beige cbrush-grass.

My colleague Sandra is out of town and was kind enough to lend me her apartment for the weekend ; it’s a cozy, tidy, and simple apartment in central Afogados, complete with the requisite hammock and ‘veranda,’ which I was looking forward to relaxing in this afternoon.  I had woken up at 4.30am this morning to head to the weekly agroecological fair in São José do Egito, and after a long day of interviewing shoppers at the fair in the strong morning sun, I was immensely looking forward to a refreshing shower, a long, cold drink of water, and a long afternoon nap upon my return.  Luckily Sandra left some bottles of water in the fridge, so I was satiated upon arriving home; however I didn’t have the same luck with the shower or the nap.

Not only was the shower faucet dry, but the bathroom sink trickled to a drip, the toilet wouldn’t flush after-the-fact, and the kitchen sink ran for a few minutes until that, too, was out of water.  I checked the building to see if there was a water meter, or a pipe that had been shut off, but all of that hardware is with the landlord downstairs and they were, of course, gone for the day.  I called Mario, the manager of the family agriculture program at Diaconia in Afogados, and he ran over, swiftly climbed up onto the roof, and reported that the ‘baude,’ or water reserve on top of the building, was dry, too.  He then climbed down into the landlord’s first floor outdoor hallway and read the water meter, which said all was okay. We also discovered one outdoor faucet with clean treated water and I was able to fill up two 16 kilogram buckets so that I could at least take a bucket bath and wash my dishes later that day.

So the water-less apartment and missing landlord predicament cause me to change my evening options- I could eat out, since there was no water in the kitchen, or cook in the kitchen of our office here.  I could take a bucket bath, or shower at the office, too.  I needed to go buy more bottled water for brushing my teeth.  And given the effort for all of this, my afternoon nap was out of the picture.  I’d gone without running water for a month at a time in rural areas of Mexico and Brazil, but this was the last thing I was expecting this afternoon!

I then started realizing just how much water I go through in a day, much of it unnecessarily.  I leave the water running as I wash the dishes, instead of latherning them all up and then rinsing ’em all off.  I do the same when I brush my teeth, and althogh I’m pretty quick in the shower, I sometimes linger a little longer when neccesary (especially these days when I get treated to a hot shower, something we don’t have at home here!)

With the nap out of the picture and a bunch of water-full decisions to make, I avoided it all and went for a walk around the neighborhood square. After an hour of living life in the soundtrack of an ipod shuffle, I returned home to a steady, strong trickling sound; the baude on the roof was being filled again treated water that was being pumped up to the roof of the house from the city water supply.  I was able to use all 32 kilograms of water for my bucket shower (as water pressure still hasn’t returned to the shower), but I didn’t have to conserve that water for washing dishes or anything else tonight.

After a cold bucket bath and a good, appreciative teeth brush, I’m off to my belated nap, which is now turning into an early bed-time.  With a fresh perspective on the challenges of water in the Brazilian sertão – and only after my relatively privileged afternoon with 32 kgs of water as a personal back-up supply – I definitely have some new research questions for next week.  But more importantly, I’ve deepened my respect for challenges of family farming here, and am simply amazed at the wide variety of products that these family farmers are able to produce, given the dry, ‘sem-agua’ conditions of Brazil’s semi-arid region.

These delicious goodies were bought at today’s agroecological fair in São José do Egito.  Complete with locally harvested eggs (ovos de capoeira), sweet oranges, cherry tomatoes in a variety of colors, mini-papayas, pear-guava, carrots, home-made cheese, and greens, we’re set for the week!  And this was all harvested over the past week despite the region’s limited water supply — but the very innovative small-farm irrigation systems — in the ‘sem agua’ season of Brazil’s northeast.

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You know you’re in the Brazilian ‘sertão’ when…

… the woman sitting next to you in the minivan out of Recife tells you that she has 9 children, who live all over the state of Pernambuco, and you think ‘wow, what a job, raising 9 kids!’ Then another passenger gets in the bus who has just arrived from Rio, and she’s tells you that she’s just so antsy because she is going back home to see her mom for the first time in a year… as well as to visit a few of her 15 BROTHERS and SISTERS. And the kicker- her mom is only 55 years old!

…while purchasing headache medicine at the local pharmacy in Afogados da Ingazeira (pop: 34,000), the pharmacist says that the computers are out and so there is be no way for you to pay today for your medicine. Instead of telling you that you’re out of luck, he simply tells you to take the box of medicine and come back to pay tomorrow!

…dinnertime, which is the equivalent of lunch in the US (they even call it to lanchar, pronounced lunch-R, which comes from the english word lunch). Lanche includes the ‘lie-chee’, or light Brazilian fair: ham and cheese sandwich, eggs and bread, corn based cous-cous, crackers, a burger. You’re hoping for a Brazilian tapioca, a salty manioc-flower based quesadilla of sorts, but no luck. So opening the menu at this outdoor ‘lanchonnete,’ you find around 30 burger options, including burger with corn & mayo, burger with egg and ham and crunchy potato chips on top, burger with lettuce, tomato, and cheese, etc. You ask for a vegetarian selection and are pointed to ‘the american’ burger… a ‘burgerless burger’ with egg, ham, cheese, lettuce, and tomato. Gotta love rural concepts of vegetarianism.

More sertão-isms to come. In the meantime, here’s to two wonderful weeks of travel, celebrating rural food day (today!) with local agroecological activities, interviewing local farmers for my research project, being hosted at fabulous colleagues’ homes, eating vegetarian ham, and straight up rural hospitality in Brazil’s sertão (semi-arid region of the countryside).

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Another Market is Possible; perspectives from Brazil’s northeast

Versão em português aqui: Outro Mercado é Possível

I’m psyched!  In a country with enormous potential for the solidarity economy & a responsibile consumer movement, Brazil is a huge, sleeping giant. I feel like Recife (the city that I live in) really seems uniquely positioned to lead such a movement; we’re in a region that houses half of Brazil’s family farmers (over 2 million!), and so many people have intimate family ties back to the land.  Even city people here know what a farm looks like, they can identify tons of fruit trees & medicinal plants in the local parks here, and they know that the city favelas are overcrowding in part because of the exodus from Brazil’s countryside.

Related to this, we gave a talk last night called “Sustainable Trade and Conscious Consumerism: Another Market is Possible”  (taken from the popular line of the World Social Forum, Another World is Possible).   This event was part of Brazil’s National Business Day, in which business students chose which lectures they’d like to attend instead of their regularly scheduled classes (we’re last on the list below, and all other events were entirely business-driven).

I’ve met some great characters here in Recife, and my co-presenters are two of my favorites; Eder Leão, a quirky & smart Recife-native who coordinates the solidarity economy work at the Federal University in Pernambuco, and Omar Rocha, an anthropologist and inquisitive social activist who recently got money from Recife’s City Hall to launch Recife´s first responsible consumer campaign, slated to launch in 2009.

I learned a lot from my co-presenters last night.  It’s fascinating is that Brazil does not have an active consumer rights culture like we do in the US; something that we in the US really take for granted.  Outside of the current, hip trend of ‘thinking green’ when thinking of responsible consumerism, think back to Ralph Nader’s advocacy work to get seatbelts in cars, or to how you chose your ideal dishwasher via ratings on The Consumer Reports… all of these came from a movement of active, organized consumers in the US.

But beyond consumer advocacy, during last night´s talk we looked at rethinking, deconstructing, and reconstructing notions and actions of consumerism.  Omar presented two iterations of consumerism which I want to share because I think that these are insightful in understanding how to think of re-constructing truly effective, healthy ideas of ‘consumerism”.

Responsible Consumerism: The capacity of each person or institution (public or private) to choose, to producer services and products that contribute, in an ethical manner, to improve the livelihoods of individuals, of society, and the environment (Kairos Institute)

However, beyond being responsible consumer, to contribute to real sustainability we need to be

CRITICAL consumers: “the deconstruction and reconstruction of patterns and habits of consumption…creating new and alternative forms of consumption and production values that respect social, cultural and environmental… in the ideal of another world is possible.”  The argument is that citizens have ceased to been treated as citizens, with all of the rights afforded to a human being (safety, food, water, etc), and have come to be seen as mere consumers by states and corporations.  How many votes can we buy, how many chemically processes & packaged foods can we sell.  It is our responsibility, as citizens of this world, to reclaim the word ‘consumer’ and the space that it occupies.

A poignant example:

While 1.7 billion people can be classified in a “global consumer class” (people who have access to television, Internet and cellular), 2.8 billion survive on less than two dollars a day and more than a billion people do not has access to drinking water….It is possible to provide adequate food, drinking water and basic education for the poorest people in the world with less than is spent annually on cosmetics, ice cream and food for pets.
Source – Brazil SócioAmbiental Almanac 2008

ie.: There are more citizens of this world who lack access to clean water and adequate resources to eat and clothe themselves than there are people who can afford luxury consumer goods, and we could provide food, water, and education for the price of fancy pet food and beauty products… This is absurd.  Shouldn’t our reality as human beings be the exact reverse?  Isn’t that our responsibility, to take care of each other first?  A kindergarten lesson.

I’m not trying to be simplistic; it’s not as if the policy solution is to ban chocolate ice cream from rich countries and use the money to send food abroad.  (Besides, shipping subsidized corn abroad has casued enough detriment via misguided US Food Aid policy).  But Omar’s articulate conceptualizaion of the reality of consumer behavior struck me as a very effective portrait of what’s actually going on.

Eder and I had the role of showing that ‘Another Market is Possible.’ Eder began by giving an overview of global trade and its inequities (which you can read all about at, and explained what the concept of the solidarity economy means- an economy based on self-management, cooperation, solidarity, and economic action- one in which people & the earth are not seen as commodities, but as living, breathing parts of an integrated ecosystem, and the basic format of trade or exchange can support the very health of that ecosystem, instead of acting to its detriment (that’s my take it).

The race for the perfect tomato

I then jumped in and talked about the consolidation of the modern foodsystem and how this is creating all sorts of negative, downward pressure on small family farmers to produce with new safety, beauty, and heatlh standards and stringent delivery schedules.  I described this as the race to create the ‘perfect tomato’- you know, when you’re in the produce aisle and reach for the most ‘gorgeous’ red, round, juicy tomato… and when you get home, you cut it open, and- alas!- it doesn’t smell like a tomato, let alone taste like one.  It has more of a spongy, watery texture.  Not to mention that its likely full of agrochemicals ’cause it was grown in the dead of a frozen northern winter, probably in a greenhouse.

… yet despite the plethora of market challenges, I’ve found farmers in the interior of Brazil are creating their own forms of market access through agroecological fairs and direct sales to consumers (read more about this on my blog here), and this is the exciting part about this movement for a more ethical trading system here in Brazil’s northeast.

So, how are Recifans poised to take the lead in Brazil’s movement for conscious consumerism?  As one participant noted, “We all know this reality.  It’s our parents and grandparents that come from Brazil’s interior, farming families that lived without water in the semi-arid and/or had to migrate and abandon their land because agriculture didn’t provide for the family.”  Recifans are much closer than us in the US to rural farming realities & traditions, evidenced in the popular ´forro´ music which comes from the countryside, or in the daily consumption of traditional foods like tapioca which uses mandioca flour, the sweet rapadura which comes from sugarcane, or their corn-based couscous.

Most US small farmers were forced to abandon their land earlier in the century due to very similar market consolidation trends and impossible demands being placed on them.  But Recife has a chance to act as a positive catalyst in the preservation of the small farmer by learning from the experience of the US, recognizing the trends in market consolidation and their potentially devastating effects- and then by taking action to support these small farmers.  And it´s easy to do so!  Recifans lives physically close to farming areas, and there are over 50 agroecological farmers markets that take place every week throughout the state, throughout the year (thanks to a tropical climate & innovations to farm in the semi-arid regions).  To sum up, the emotional ties and physical access to products produced outside of the modern food system exist here, and it is realistic to find products that are coming from small farmers who are stewards of the land and produce in organic or agroecological farming systems linked to the solidarity economy.  It’s possible!

Well, this seems like a lot of information to cram into one blog entry- and it was a LOT of information for an introductory workshop on solidarity trade & responsible consumerism.  To sum it all up at the end of the evening, I asked participants what one action would be that they would take today to be a more responsible consumer.  And responses varied-
  • use re-usable cups instead of the infamous small plastic cup which is everywhere in Brazil
  • bring a canvas bag to the supermarket
  • check out the local agroecological fair this weekend to buy directly from farmers
  • learn more about the social technologies of water preservation in Pernambuco’s semi-arid region

I was impressed. We packed a LOT into a two and a half hour presentation, and the participants responded with tangiable outcomes reinforcing our central theme- Another Market is Possible.

Well, I’ll wrap it up for now, but please share your questions & comments on this post!  Let’s get a dialogue going.  And the Portuguese version of this post will come soon, so that we can get some local perspectives, too.

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