sexta-feira, agosto 26, 2005

Project Santo Amaro

Santo Amaro do Maranhao is a municipality located in the northeastern region of Brazil, more precisely in the eastern coast of the State of Maranhão, at the boundaries of the National Park of Lençóis Maranhenses. Recently emancipated in 1994, Santo Amaro has a population of approximately 10,000, and is on the list of the 10 poorest places in Brazil. Its HDI (Human Development Index) is only 0.512.

With a unique natural beauty unlike anywhere else in world, its urban and rural areas represent more than 40% of the area of the National Park of Lençóis Maranhenses. The park is formed by thousands of sand dunes, comprising a total of 155,000 hectares, interspersed with lagoons of natural and crystal clear water, presenting characteristics that make it different from other places of the Brazilian coast. Its flora and fauna are very rich, presenting rare species, such as the albino fox. It preserves a unique ecosystem of dunes, mangroves and sandbanks, revealing a large potential for tourism and development of scientific research oriented towards environment conservation, handling and monitoring.

Productive activities of the region are concentrated in the primary sector, represented by agriculture (rice, beans and cashew nuts) animal farming (cows and goats), fishing and vegetal exploitation. The means of production are of extensive nature, using primitive techniques and presenting poor levels of productivity. Fishing is very much season oriented, affected by the volume of water of the lagoons, which overflow in the rainy season.

The proximity of Highway MA-402 that was recently built will certainly alter substantially the environmental and socio-economic picture of the region. The major access way to Santo Amaro lies 34 km away from this Highway. Access is gained only through four wheel drive cars, since the road is not paved. During rainy seasons, from March to June, the road is flooded and access is restricted to the river transportation, which takes too long and is precarious.

There is a strong discussion in progress on the need of paving these 34km of sand. To build or not to build the road that connects Santo Amaro to Highway MA-402? That is the question.

There is no doubt that the road will bring many benefits to the municipality. The isolation of Santo Amaro has long prevented local development, according to the point of view of the community.

Very well. The issue that I raise is not if the road will bring development or not. But instead what type of development the municipality will be bringing upon itself.

Despite the difficult access and the little that is known of the place, the pressure of tourism on the price of the land and upon future candidates to Mayor has already started. Even worse, there is a deficit of housing for local inhabitants. There are no houses ready to be inhabited. There is not one single public policy being prepared to protect the area of the National Park of Lencois Maranhenses. The Park was created in 1981 and only now is the plan for handling it being approved by the Ministry of Environment.

The town has no plumbing. The water is pumped from wells in the residents’ backyards. Sewage goes to non-septic tanks or to the traditional backyard privies, and also many of them are simply made in the grass, exposed to the air, therefore absent of basic sanitation.

Is the road really going to solve all these issues, as the community dwellers expect?

Matters of water and sewage depend very little on the road to be solved. Public policies do not depend on access to be enforced. Environmental protection has to be made on site. Sound and visual pollution and lack of garbage collection do not depend on the pavement issue to be resolved.

It is obvious that a paved road facilitates the structuring and solving of all the issues raised above. However, if it does not come accompanied by a true policy contemplating the fundamental aspects of sustainable development, and by the pertinent bodies to monitor these matters, all that the road will bring in the long run is acceleration of disorganized development and a worsening of ill resolved social problems.

Santo Amaro is just beginning a long process of consolidation as a tourist destination. Nevertheless, many problems as those mentioned before can already be noted. The place becomes a popular tourist destination and is promptly consumed. The destination is therefore destroyed, driving away the tourists to other places that are in vogue. Examples of this exploitation are numerous in Brazil. And the wheel of ignorance keeps turning, ironically, through the same road that would bring progress.

And the worst thing is that the community, which is always deprived, is kept at the margin of an actual sustainable development process, perpetuating the conditions that make Maranhão um of the States with the poorest HDI of Brazil and of the World.

Ecotourism, one of the most feasible tools to break this cycle of social exclusion is one more time biased in favor of interests restricted to the local elite.

How can there be so much poverty in an environment of such exotic beauty?

That is easy to answer. What is not easy is to alter the vicious social picture being perpetuated there. At the same time, the natural resources suffer an indiscriminate pressure from tourism, in detriment of the greatest factor of attractiveness of the place and endangering species threatened with extinction.

I have battled to make government, city administration, associations, public works agencies, non-governmental organizations and the community itself be conscious of the type of development that they indeed want. I have given lectures on the subject, promoted discussions with the community, and talked to local leaders. I prepared a Plan of Sustainable Tourism Development for the municipality, encompassing al these that I have so vehemently spoken. Some of these ideas are being analyzed and have a good chance of being implemented by PRODETUR NE, a federal government program for the development of tourism in the Northeast, supported by Inter-American Development Bank.

I believe that the IDCE program will equip me with strategies necessary to transform this situation by enhancing my technical-scientific knowledge to catalyze these changes. I have realized that only commitment is not enough to make the changes happen. A more precise theoretical basis together with the day to day practice in several fields is required for me to become an agent for transformation.