Projets - 2 March 2014

en - Umburanas community development project

Bride Counihan is a Little Sister of the Assumption, sent on mission to Brazil by the Anglo-Celtic Province. She arrived in the semi-desert region of Bahia in 1995. Since then she has remained in this region, first in Capim Grosso and now in Umburanas.

This region of the North East of Brazil suffers greatly from drought. The lack of water, aggravated by neglect on the part of the public bodies, has caused increasing desertification of the soil, with the resultant exodus of the people in search of better conditions of life.

By being close to the daily realities of life in Umburanas town and in the rural villages, Bride has experienced at first-hand the struggle for survival, especially the suffering of the people when they have to leave their native land because of lack of water. She understood that change would be possible by encouraging a journey of the people together in community, which would enable the people to unite and awaken their energies to work for change. The first nucleos was the Missionary Community of Umburanas, founded in 2001. This community worked to develop a community spirit, and to involve the people in a process of change of their reality. One of the first important objectives was work on the crisis of water, learning to live with the resources and the limits of nature. In the town, the work centred on campaigning for a more just distribution of public water, leading eventually to the end of the privatization of public water. In the rural areas, water cisterns were build, serving to harvest rain water in the short rainly season. New life sprung up in Umburanas.

In 2011 after 10 years and over a year of preparatory work a process was set in motion for the handing over of the community development projects to the local people and the gradual withdrawal of the Missionary Community. The local organizations chose a local man who had worked with Bride for 6 years to be the new coordinator. Because there is still some funding coming from Ireland, the donors make it possible for Bride to visit Umburanas at the end of each year to help the groups to do their annual evaluations and to exercise transparency in accounting for funding. This offers valuable support as there is very little support either from the local authorites or from the local church for this type of development.
The seeds were planted, and God gave the growth… there are a core of very dedicated trained local people employed to work with the children, and adolescents and parents of very disadvantaged families and well as in the overall coordination of all the activities.

The social, political, economic and religious backgrand of the area

The area is part of the semi-desert region of the north east of Brazil which is the poorest region. Our state is Bahia which is one of the three poorest states of Brazil. Our Municipal area is Umburanas which is rated 408th in terms of development, of the 417 Municipal areas of Bahia. 
The people survive mainly on subsistence farming, and cutting sisal used for making rope. The only big employer is the local authority as there are no factories because of the drought.

The majority of the families are poor, and dependant on government handouts. The population of the Municipal area of Umburanas is approx. 16,000, of whom 7,500 live in the town and 8,500 in the rural areas.
 Traditionally the area has been governed by one of the conservative elite families, but this changed for the first time over the past 10 years when a new Mayor was elected from the centre left. However the old practises of buying and selling of votes, though now illegal, still continue.

 The people are a religious people, but the Christian faith of Vatican II is little known as yet. Overall, there is little Church attendance. However people have great faith in God in the midst of their suffering lives.

 Until a few years ago, the only social organizations which existed were small farmers organizations. The concept of voluntary service did not exist, and there were no organized groups working for the benefit of the community. In general the people are an oppressed people who fear community organization as they have been conditioned to be dependent on others, and not to take their own initiative to solve their problems. There is a very high degree of apathy and a sense of helplessness about their situation. This is now changing slightly, through the work of the Missionary Community.
Where to start?

 In 2001, Umburanas was chosen as the location of a partnership between the Association of Lay Missionaries and the Anglo-Celtic Province of the Little Sisters of the Assumption, represented by Sr. Bride Counihan. 

 At that time, it was a region of the Diocese of Bomfin where there were no priests or sisters or lay missionaries living, and the people were asking for some church personnel to live in Umburanas. They expressed the need for help to organize the community, in the face of many social needs, principally a clean public water system, health issues, and the need for a more active involved local church.

Starting from where the people are

 Our way of evangelization, agreed by both groups in the partnership, has been to integrate faith and life. We try to give attention to what fosters life, and improves living conditions for the poor, as well as to recognise in their human journey the presence of the God of History. We understand church to mean a community united in their faith in the Risen Lord, trying to reach out to the poorest, trying to gather together the scattered children of God, to create one human family. In practical terms, this has meant supporting the people to become aware about their rights and duties as citizens and involved in meeting their needs, through community organization. 

The first major need identified was the need for access to clean drinking water, both in the town and in the rural areas. The water system in the town was privatized, and the majority of the 40 rural villages had no access to clean drinking water so the situation was really precarious.

The need for community organization

 A Water Comission was set up as a result of a public meeting on the water crisis. The team who became involved in this were local residents who were concerned about the issue and had the courage to try to tackle it. The Water Company was owned by the Mayor´s son and relatives, so that made the situation much more difficult. In general, they were aged 30-40 years of age, both men and women, mainly parents with young families, with a poor level of education. None had completed primary school level. There were no professionals involved, as it was a type of work which most people feared would prejudice them in some way, in relation to the Town Hall. They did not want to be seen to be against the Mayor. 

 The process used was a participative methodology, whereby all decisions were taken jointly. It soon became evident that a wider organization was necessary, not just one concerned with water issues, but one which could deal with other social problems also. This awareness eventually lead to the setting up of a Provisional Committee for the creation of a Citizens’ Forum. This committee worked for one year in the preparation for a Citizens Forum which was elected by the people at a public meeting in 2003. It had its own management committee from the start all of whom were local people. The various courses of action were discussed in general assemblies of the Forum, decisions were taken and later put into practice by the management. Sometimes the management put forward proposals for action. 

Migration from rural villages to larger towns and cities

The Citizens’Forum has sub-comittees in 7 rural villages, and this basic level of organisation enables rural people to join together to solve common problems. It facilitates the families, to some extent, to stay in their villages rather than migrating into the town. However, there is still a level of migration, for example, in 2009, a total of 70 adults migrated from the village of Angical, which has 200 families, to Sao Paulo. There is also a noticeable increase in the size of the town over the past few years, as families relocate, often through the need for education for their older children, which is only available in the town.

First steps in addressing the problem of the privatization of public water

 In the case of the struggle against the privatization of the public water system of Umburanas, a lot of efforts were made to get the various involved parties together. Meetings were held with the Mayor, the public elected representatives, and the Water Company directors, but no one wanted to take responsibility for solving the problem of lack of access to clean drinking especially for the poorest. Their water supplies had been cut off for non-payment of a high water charge.

 The group got a lot of support from the Water Comission of the Diocese, and from some organizations in the State capital. After 5 years of hard struggle, a lot of conflict and much suspicion by many local people, the Water Company finally closed down, and the State company took over the running of the water system. Today the situation is greatly improved and all families living in the town have access to clean drinking water at reasonable cost.

Learning to live in the semidesert...building water cisterns together

 The situation of the rural areas was so bad that many families abandoned life in their rural villages, choosing instead to move to bigger towns and cities. The water situation was a real crisis, with the only option being the “carro pipa”. This is a tanker of water which the Local Authorities send out to rural villages in times of extreme drought. The “carro pipa” unfortunately is a tool of political manipulation because the water is given only to the families who are supporters of the political party in power. The others are left with nothing. If the Municipal area is designated as an area of Public Calamity because of the drought, as happens most years in Umburanas, the army brings water to the people. 

 The lack of access to clean drinking water for all the people led us to focus on a project whereby the people could learn together how to overcome the chronic water shortage, and live with a certain quality of life and dignity in the semi-desert conditions, instead of having to flee to bigger towns and cities which had no infra-structure to cater for such large influxes of people.

This project is the building of family water cisterns beside peoples’ homes. These cisterns capture the little rainfall which falls each year, and through PVC piping, the water runs directly from the roof into the cistern below. They are a very simple technology, suited to the semi-desert conditions. They are built by small groups of 5-6 families working together in schemes of voluntary labour. Each water cistern holds 16,000 litres of water, which if used only for drinking and cooking, will serve the needs of an average family of 4, until the next rainy season.

 The problem of the semi-desert is not so much in the lack of rain, but in the very sporadic rainfall each year. However, when the rain does come, it is usually very heavy rain, which if not captured, just runs away and benefits no one. So by building the water cisterns together, families help each other to store the rain water which falls heavily during the very few heavy thunderstorms each year. Once they pass, there is usually no more rain until the same time the following year. This project was financed mainly by resources from overseas as the Local authorities said they had no money to help. However in 2009 we have been very actively seeking finance from organizations within Brazil and within Bahia for this work. In 2014, there is no longer overseas funding for the building of the water cisterns as the State is now funding water cisterns in rural villages and we are benefiting from these programmes, even though they are very bureaucratic and slow do reach those who need them.

The experience showed the people what could be achieved by joint action. We did education work on the global water crisis, on the question of why semi-desert regions, and this helped the people to see that the struggle was not a party political one against the Mayor but rather a struggle for social justice.

Development of a Communal Farm for planting and animal rearing in the semi-desert

Thanks to some benefactors, the Citizens’ Forum was able to buy some land on the outskirts of the town, and over the years has developed a communal farm for landless families living in the town. We were able to dig a well which has a reasonable level of water. At the beginning, this served for the irrigation of the 12 vegetable plots where families grow organic vegetables which they sell at the Sunday market in the town. In 2014 there are 9 plots. The children from the Supplementary Education Programme of the Children’s Centre also have their plot and are learning how to plant and cultivate vegetables, which are then used in the Centre. 

There is also a sheep-rearing project to supplement the income from the vegetables. This involves some of the families who plant, and also some other families. Again, the work of running the Communal Farm is done communally. 

Concrete actions which express our commitment to justice and peace

Over the years many other issues have been addressed. A Childrens’ Centre was developed through the Association of the Missionary Community, and this offers voluntary community services for the children of the poorest families. The Happy Child Project has preschools, homework club, youth activities (capoeira), arts and crafts for adolescents and Summer Holiday Playschemes.

In 2008, Forum embarked on a three-year programme of education for citizen partnership. 

This includes a study of various laws, which directly affect the people, such as, the Law against Electoral Corruption, the Law on Water, the Law on Fiscal Rectitude. The work of checking of the Public accounts which the people have a right to do, for 60 days per year, was initiated and has been done each year for the past 6years. As in the case of the water crisis, this work met with a lot of opposition, and active almost violent confrontation by the local authorities initially, until they learnt that this was a citizens´ right.

The issue of long-term sustainability

The support structure in human terms is very fragile. For example, with the election of a new Mayor, many of the best trained voluntary community leaders got employment in the Town Hall so this has changed the position of at least some, from being active, to being more passive. We have had a heavy dependence on Ireland for funding. Since our evaluation in 2007, we have been actively seeking funding within Brazil but without much success. It is a mine field of bureaucracy which needs a lot of investment of time and energy, with very little return, so it is tempting to continue relying on the organizations in Ireland who are easier to deal with generally.

No one grows we work in partnerships

 The main local partners are the Citizens Forum of Umburanas, the Association of the Missionary Community and the Missionary Community of Umburanas. These three groups, two of whom are registered legal entities work very closely together. A tenuous partnership is developing with the new administration at town hall. A good partnership is developing with the Committee of the Territorio to which we belong. This was an initiative by Lula´s government to strengthen civil society partnerships. We are also partners in the local Municipal Councils for Social Welfare, Sustainable Development, and the rights of Children and Adolescents. Unfortunately the Municipal Councils have been very subject to political manipulation in recent years so it has become more difficult for the local oranizations to have a constructive influence on their planning and on their budgets.

Expressing the charism of the LSA

The project was set up on the initiative of the Irish LSA in 2001 and they have been very supportive from the beginning. They supported in building the houses that the Missionary Community (7 people including 6 lay people and 1 LSA) live in, and they also supported in negotiating funding from the Irish Government, both for personnel and for projects. 

The values found in our spirituality govern our approach to the work and are imbibed to varying degrees by the lay people with whom we work. Values such as simple presence, attentiveness to daily realities, family focus, faith linked to life, hope, love, struggle for social justice, belief in the small seeds of the Kingdom being planted.. They are expressed most explicitly in the Missionary Community but are also shared sometimes in the Association. 

 A reflection done in 2008 revealed that the values the LSA hold dear, are also held dear by several of the people we work with. The importance of small steps, simplicity in relationships, courage and the call to be prophetic and speak out against injustices, bringing people together in family relationships, the importance of caring for the environment and protecting the future of the planet.... Did they learn from us or did they gravitate towards us because of something which already resonated within them? Only the Lord knows.

Umburanas, November 2009 Bride Couninhan LSA

(*) Photos taken by Sr.Bride Couninhan LSA, in agreement with the people.