Michael B. Keegan Traveling Fellowship
Brazil: Not so "Third World" after all
February 5, 2008
From all I had heard in my travels, I was not expecting to particularly enjoy São Paolo—my last stop in South America—but I had a flight from there, so I decided to give it a shot. Word had it that the city has more problems with crime and pollution than Los Angeles (it should, its metropolitan population is twice that of LA) and that it would not be a safe place for me to go alone. However, the city that my hosts showed me was a complex, cultural and passionate city full of a quality of life and a positive energy missing entirely in my experiences of Los Angeles. My first night in the city my Servas host, Marina, took me to see a community musical performance called Samba da Vela, in which a group of songwriters gathers around a table with a candle to share their samba writings. People from the community are given the lyrics and join in singing and (if there is space) dancing. For hours, everyone sang and laughed and enjoyed themselves, while most people in Los Angeles were likely still sitting and groaning in rush hour traffic.
My first day in São Paolo, I fought the traffic (not as bad as LA, happy to report) and rain, to meet with Alessandra Araujo, a sustainability consultant, and an architect working to promoting sustainable architecture, Marcelo Todescan. Marcelo began his career working largely on commercial work for clients like McDonalds, but after a course through GAIA Education in 2000, has begun to focus more on promoting sustainable design, and is even working to design the first “green” McDonalds in South America! Marcelo is currently working on a project for an urban ecovillage that would be interdependent with the urban fabric, as opposed to auto-sufficient like the Gaia community near Buenos Aires. However, he is coming across problems with finding accessible and affordable real estate in a city where everything is getting bigger and taller, which means he is focusing a lot on education as his first step. He has also recently completed a project for a private residence called Casa da Granja, which was constructed almost entirely with sustainable materials and incorporates sustainable technologies such as rainwater collection and a biodigestor that produces gas for cooking from the waste the home generates! And looking at the house, a simple and colorful design for a yoga instructor influenced by Asian design and culture, you could not tell it was alternative. Marcelo is very involved in exhibition projects as well that will bring sustainable design to greater attention in São Paolo.
Alessandra proved to be a wonderful host throughout my stay, discussing other projects for sustainable change in the city and abroad, taking me all around the city, sharing her thoughts on sustainable design and the future of Brazil, and introducing me to friends like Magu, a young architect who graduated from Colombia and now works on her own in São Paolo. Magu and I share similar ideas and passions and joke around about working together on an exotic international project one day…it could happen! Alessandra told me about a new code in São Paolo that all houses with four or more bedrooms must install solar hot water heating! We discussed the right of ‘Third World’ countries—whether China, Brazil or Africa—to develop and seek a greater quality of life, and that the only thing that other countries can really do is to help provide the tools to do that in a more efficient and sustainable manner. Through her work, she is involved with many innovative Brazilian NGOs that work on culturally effective communication and community change.
The next day I went to visit an engineering design and technology firm, SuperGreen, where I met with Luis Alexandre Mucerino and his engineering associate, a jolly 6’-9” former Idaho basketball recruit, Airton Dudzevich. After traveling to the United States with his architect partner in the firm to take the LEED accreditation exam (his partner was the first LEED AP in South America), Mucerino decided that their firm had to focus more on sustainable design, and began specializing in water and energy technologies. Airton shared many of their technologies and projects with me, but took a true interest in my project as well, which I enjoyed sharing. Their firm took the initial risk in promoting alternatives to a city rich in energy resources and lacking the perspective to appreciate change, but they are beginning to see a demand. Like Marcelo, they have done some exhibition projects and made some investments themselves, banking on the insider’s knowledge that this is the future of design. I cannot wait to see this turn out to be the case.
Despite all of the signs of progress, development and innovation, there are still very poor urban and rural communities in Brazil that I did not have the chance to visit on this trip. My hosts at SuperGreen gave me a book about one group of indigenous people and told me that I had to learn Portugese and come back so they could take me to see more. As a firm they have invested in some projects combining social and technological sustainability, including electrification of a small isolated fishing village and a community experiment in Pardinho, two hours from the city. There they are in the phase of educating the community before implementing an integrated energy and water system there. Marcelo Todescan’s firm also has a strong connection with the indigenous people in the hills around the city, the Guarani, and is working on design projects for communities forced to relocate (to make way for a new freeway, lovely) or needing to reconnect with their traditional cultures. He shared some of his designs and inspirations, though bad weather unfortunately prevented accessibility to the communities this trip…another reason to come back!
I have just arrived in Tanzania a few days ago, and I am settling into the rhythm of life here in Dar Es Salaam. I have already begun to make wonderful contacts here. It is so nice to not have a departure scheduled and be able to be flexible with my contacts and take time to explore. My only problem at the moment is that President Bush is following me here and is scheduled to arrive next Tuesday, virtually shutting down the city in order to drive through with the fleet of black SUVs he is flying in for his arrival. And we wonder why no one likes us anymore…We (US) have a lot to learn!