2011 Opus Prize Recipient
Sister Rita Pessoa, R.S.H.M.
In the rural state of Bahia in northeast Brazil, small land owners and poor agricultural workers in the towns of Pindobaco and Filadelfia struggled for years amidst drought conditions to eke out a living. Most of the community’s young adults migrated to Salvador in the hope of finding work, but often ended up living in shanty towns where they became involved in drugs and prostitution. People lived day-to-day with little hope for the future, and their lives and livelihood were for the most part dependent on the answer to their constant prayer for rain.
In 1997, through the encouragement of Sister Rita Rodrigues Pessoa, a Religious Sister of the Sacred Heart of Mary who has served in rural Brazil for more than half a century, they formed a cooperative known as the Association of Small Rural Producers of Jacare. The original purpose of the coop was to promote educational, cultural and social activities in the towns and the surrounding farms, but in a few short years, the Association morphed into a small economic engine that is slowly raising the standard of living of its members.
When the coop was formed, seventeen women and two men dabbled in craft making and alternative medicine. The Religious Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Mary believed in the leadership of the group, and sponsored the construction of a small building to serve as a meeting place and a hall to house its activities. In 2001, the cooperative built a pulp house to manufacture fruit juices and to produce a variety of agricultural products from the native plants that thrive in the region’s semi-arid conditions. In 2009, a second factory was built for the processing of cassava (manioc) flour. Once farmers became members of the Association, they brought their fruits and cassava plants for processing and sold the pulp to schools, hospitals and various governmental agencies and other non-profits on behalf of the farmers. These contracts remain the lifeblood of the coop.
Today 25 families work as growers, producing cassava and a variety of fruits. Other families earn money by hauling the raw products to the factory and then delivering juice to schools and hospitals. The program generates enough income for those involved that they’re able to pay cash for goods rather than barter for products. The Association is justifiably proud of the “corporate” culture they have created, stressing financial transparency at every level, and refusing to give in to the corruption that is often rampant in other organizations and government. The agricultural department of Bahia supports the Association in part because they believe this is a replicable project in other rural communities in Brazil.The growers and manufacturers share a communal faith and while they have not been able to earn enough to escape poverty since they are limited in both production and market capacity, the coop has definitely improved the members’ quality of life, allows them to dream of expanding their programs, and provides a sense of hope for the future.
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