by Mariana Madureira
The Jequitinhonha Valley in Brazil is a region of dry climate, hence also known as “Sertão de Minas” (the state back lands), and for many years was stigmatized as „the Valley of Misery“. Water scarcity has always been an obstacle to agricultural development. Distances and infrastructure conditions are a hindrance to the development of the industry. The economic activity that appropriated the dry lands of this region were the lucrative eucalyptus. Substituting the native tropical savanna (cerrado), these plantations were not able to improve the living conditions of the local populations, since they employ little labour. In addition to not creating the jobs that would be expected, the eucalyptus plantations deprive the local community of the fruits of the cerrado and the original rustic landscape – a great input for tourism.
The men often migrate to other states to work on sugarcane cuts and other transitional demands. The women remain in the communities taking care of the children and the elder, taking care of the vegetable gardens and orchards, taking care of each other. From these needs arose a strong social capital, anchored in relations of and in the necessity to count on the other to exchange surpluses. Maybe because they can just rely on each other the people of the Valley are very supportive and humane.
These women began, many years ago, to create earthenware vessels, the result of the need to create their own pots and utensils, as well as the great abundance of quality clay where almost everything else was scarce. Dona Izabel Mendes was one of the first to transform the traditional pots that stored the sparse rainwater into beautiful dolls. She explains that the desire to mould a doll came from never having one in childhood. Today, Dona Izabel, who died in 2014, is recognized for her pioneering work, her history and her technique, and her dolls were raised from the craft category to the folk art category.
Crafts and Community Based Tourism
Crafts and, more recently, tourism, have enabled these women to change their living conditions. The Raízes’ Experimental Tourism Project is one of the external actions that helped in the Jequitinhonha Valley’s transformation.
Raízes Sustainable Development, a tourism social business, wanted to work with a region of Minas Gerais that would have a rich culture and traditions to offer, but would need appreciation of this richness and income generation.
On the first visit to the Jequitinhonha Valley in 2009, an impression was confirmed: the distances were great, the dislocations difficult and the roads of poor quality. If it was not possible, in this context, to take tourists to the Jequitinhonha Valley, why not bring the best of Jequitinhonha Valley to these tourists? The best way to materialize the beautiful culture of the Valley, at that moment, seemed to be its varied and beautiful craftsmanship.
Raízes began to commercialize the handcraft of these groups in an e-commerce of its own. The social technology applied followed the principles of fair trade and support in distribution as forms of sustainable income generation and valorisation of the culture of the Jequitinhonha Valley.
The e-commerce stayed online between November 2009 and September 2012 and its low effectiveness as a social technology for generating income was evidenced by the low volume of sales that was not able to generate significant income for the community and sufficient resources to maintain itself. The impact of community outreach was a bit more timid than expected.
Probable the main reason for the e-commerce failure is the fact that these crafts involve stories, specificities, textures and values that can be not easily transmitted over the internet. Who made it, why and how is more important than „what“ was produced, yet people are not interested in reading those stories. They need to be experienced in some way.
In 2011, Raízes felt that it would be a good time to start working with tourism in the region. Some improvements in the roads, the increase in the number of commercial flights to Montes Claros (3 hours away) and a perception of increase in the interest of the Brazilians for the community tourism influenced in this sense.
The approach sought to empower women as entrepreneurs and project partners from the start. Some previous projects have had very positive impacts on the community such as the Sebrae Handicraft Program, which has improved the design of artisan products and Idene’s Solidarity Tourism which provided the information necessary for families to properly receive their visitors. When asked about the impact of these projects, however, people in the community often respond that „they helped a lot“, „they gave us…“, „they did…” „they’ve gone“, which leaves the question: the community did not empower itself?
This type of approach, although very positive, failed to give the community its due power and participation. The construction of a community-based tourism destination is a collective task that cannot do without community participation.
Raízes made clear the role of each in the process: „We are not government, we are not NGOs and we are not doing charity. We are a social tourism company and we want to develop a win-win business partnership with the community „.
One of the situations that the project intended to change since the beginning is the sad condition of women being abandoned by their husbands for migration needs. Zezinha, in a testimony to a journalist, presented the importance of income generation for the strengthening of families and community relations. Zezinha’s husband, Ulisses, don’t travel to work anymore. He helps Zezinnha producing dolls and receiving tourists.
Tourism has been gradually consolidating its role as a complementary income-generating activity in rural ceramic communities in the Jequitinhonha Valley. The elevation of the self-esteem of the women directly and indirectly involved in the project has been perceived in the resourcefulness with which today they receive their tourists, present their products and give press interviews.
Mariana Madureira is PhD student in Psychosociology of Communities and Social Ecology (EICOS -UFRJ) and Founder and Consultant in Raízes Sustainable Development and Director in Projeto Bagagem Brasil.