Successful collective efforts

Benedetto Gui
Successful collective efforts

The Economy of Communion mentioned by Pope Benedict in his latest encyclical, “Caritas in Veritate,” inspires local entreprises around the world. A visit to the village of Vazantes, in the Brazilian state of Ceará, where social programs engage the entire community
published in Living City (August 2009)

Our vehicle speeds along, brushing against leaves that invade the narrow road to Vazantes, a Brazilian village of about 2,000 people. Is this really the “semi-arid” zone which is supposed to include most of the state of Ceará and neighboring states? The vegetation consists of bright green shrubs, interspersed with clearings for grass and the cultivation of caju, a particularly drought-resistant plant that produces cashew nuts. Pools of water fill large potholes in the road. “I would call it the ‘semi-humid’ zone,” I say to the others in the car.

Fr. Pedro Rubens, the young rector of the Catholic University of Pernambuco/Recife, smiles and explains that we are still in the rainy season which was wetter than usual this year. “If someone comes here at the end of the nine-month dry season during which there is no rain at all,” Fr. Pedro continues, “they immediately understand why local people have problems surviving.” People end up leaving the villages and going to the coastal cities.

Twenty years ago Fortaleza, Ceará’s capital city, had only about a quarter of its current population of three million. New arrivals crowd into the ever-growing number of favelas. Even though the slums of wood and sheet metal have been replaced by more solid brick structures, the socioeconomic living conditions remain difficult. Behind the current boom in sex tourism lies the desperation of many local people who can find no better way to improve their condition.

Our first stop in Vazantes is at a fish farm cooperative which uses a large artificial lake. Dimas, an agricultural technician, is our guide. He is writing a doctoral thesis on the enterprise because it is highly innovative in this region. With just a hint of pride, he tells me that this company has finally provided dignified jobs and sufficient income for ten families. “Along with water for the state capital, the lake now benefits the people who live here,” he says.

It would be difficult for initiatives like this to flourish without technology and special skills. The abilities to design a project, find funding and give ongoing technical and organizational support are also required. The Faith and Joy Foundation, a non-governmental organization promoted by the Jesuits, has been able to provide for these needs.

The second enterprise we visit is a bakery in a small converted building. In the back there are two electric ovens and a kneading machine; in front there is a small counter to serve customers. Smiling young people show us the fragrant results of their work. Using a van provided by the foundation, the bakery’s products are distributed daily to nearby villages. This is a small luxury — unthinkable just a short time ago.

A young engineer from Recife, Pedro Adolfo, who works closely with Fr. Rubens, provides technical and organizational skills for the work at Vazantes. Recently he worked on the construction of a new social center, a simple one-story building that will house a library, a meeting room and a computer room. When money is found to buy equipment, young people here will be able to become citizens of the Internet world. Outside there will be a community kitchen garden, where the local people will learn valuable horticultural skills that are presently scarce.

Adolfo, a civil servant and father of two, participates in the Economy of Communion (see Living City, July 2009). Here in Ceará the EoC demonstrates an economic life oriented toward the development of the whole person. Cooperation and sharing ideas and experiences with other civil and ecclesial organizations are intrinsic to their operation.

One of these organizations is Shalom, a vigorous spiritual movement that started less than 30 years ago in Fortaleza. Some of its members are promoting “a human economy of reciprocity” through work, increasing social awareness and responsibility. The group sets up businesses that create income and employment for the poorest people. Shalom has drawn on the ideas and experience of the Economy of Communion (and vice-versa).

The foundation’s commitment has convinced authorities not to close the school at Vazantes, which would have been another severe blow to the village’s future. The inadequacy of public services contributes to keeping large numbers of Brazilians in poverty, as does the unresolved question of land ownership being concentrated in the hands of just a few. It is significant that in Quixada, a city two hours away from Vazantes, both the hospital and the university were established through the initiative of an enterprising bishop rather than of the public authorities.

A report from the World Bank on the state of Ceará praises the notable steps achieved over the last 20 years concerning the living conditions of the poorest people. Infant mortality has been reduced from a tragic 15% to 5%. The report credits these advances to improvements in the management of local government.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the Vazantes project has been small initiatives sustained by volunteers. Among them are: a lending program for used toys, a craft shop where young people can make handmade toys, various music groups, a school for learning sign language, a rock band and a folkloric dance group.

I reflected on the work of Amartya Sen, Nobel Prize winner in economics for his studies on the characteristics and meaning of development. Sen emphasizes that the well-being of a community is not measured by per capita output nor the value of goods acquired and consumed, but by how well community members are able to provide for their food and educational needs, defend themselves against curable diseases and engage in sports, hobbies and similar activities.

While admiring the heartfelt singing of young people, resplendent in their colorful costumes, I asked myself what each of their families could have obtained with a bit more purchasing power —perhaps an item of household equipment or something advertised on television, but certainly not a collective experience of this caliber where young people themselves are the main players.
The opportunity to act and not just consume is a key concept in Sen’s vision of well-being. I also thought about studies I’ve read that conclude that happiness does not depend primarily on having material goods, rather on the meaning people give to their activities and being part of a network of positive interpersonal relationships.

Benedetto Gui is professor and dean of the department of Economics at the University of Padua, Italy, and member of the international Economy of Communion commission.

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