Last February, when Lisa Baldinger arrived in Belém, a city of 2 million people on Brazil’s north coast, she didn’t speak a word of Portuguese. “I didn’t even know how to say ‘hello,’” she says. Baldinger had gone to Brazil to learn about grassroots environmental management in the Amazon rainforest. She came home with a deeper, more personal view of the people whose lives are at stake in those threatened ecosystems.
The senior in Oregon State University’s Natural Resources Program took intensive language lessons, lived with a host family and planned a research project with Leonardo Sena, a professor at the Federal University of Pará in Belém. She even journeyed to a remote rainforest village, Vila Gorete, on the Arapiuns River, which flows into an Amazon tributary. There, she learned how women earn a living by weaving colorful baskets, purses, hats and other items from native reeds. More importantly, she saw how they carefully tend plants, roots and seed pods in the forest to maintain a livelihood that they will hand down to their daughters.
“These crafts have been in their community for ages,” says Baldinger, “but now they are learning how to do them sustainably and for economic gain.”
Baldinger was the only Oregon college student who participated last spring in a Brazilian expedition organized by Student International Training (SIT), a nonprofit foundation in Brattleboro, Vermont. She learned about the organization through OSU’s International Degree and Education Abroad (IDEA) program, which links Oregon State students with more than 200 approved study-abroad groups.
“SIT is special because they include directed research in their program,” says LeAnn Adam, education abroad adviser with IDEA. “That’s a great help for students in the University Honors College or International Degree program and for graduate school applications.”
Up a Lazy River
Once in Brazil, Baldinger connected with a nonprofit community development group, Saude e Alegria (Health and Happiness). The group made arrangements for her to visit Artisans of the Forest, the women’s craft cooperative in Vila Gorete. Getting there, however, meant an eight-hour adventure by riverboat from Santarém, a city at the confluence of the Amazon and the Tapajós rivers.
The International Degree and Education Abroad program assists students in finding a great fit for an international experience.
“I took a plane to Santarém and walked down to the river. I looked at the big boats and then at the medium sized boats. I’m still not finding the name,” says Baldinger. “And then I came to these little family boats and finally see the name. I walked on, and the caption smiled at me. And I asked in Portuguese if this is the boat to Vila Gorete, and he says ‘Yes, yes, I’ve been expecting you, American.’”
The boat looked like it could hold about 10 people, she says, but during the journey, as many as 30 were onboard, some swaying in hammocks hung along the sides as the vessel worked its way up the broad, tree-lined reaches of the Tapajós. It also picked up and dropped off cargo such as food, appliances and local crafts bound for urban markets.
Life in Vila Gorete
Few Americans visit Vila Gorete, Baldinger learned. One day, as she and a group of kids were motoring upstream, one boy stroked her arm. “He asked me why I am so white,” she says. “Then another boy chimed in: ‘Most of the Americans are white, but they have a black president.’”
When she first arrived, members of the women’s cooperative, the weavers whose practices she wanted to study, were hesitant to talk to her. But she soon found a way into their hearts.
Baldinger is adept at doing handstands, a skill that is particularly useful in a popular Brazilian game known as capoeira. It didn’t take long for Baldinger to be playing and laughing with the kids. And it didn’t hurt that she had a stash of candy to share. When the weavers saw that the American had been accepted by their children, they welcomed her as well.
One morning, the artisans invited Baldinger for a breakfast of coffee and deep-fried tapioca donuts and then taught her their weaving techniques. That afternoon, one of the women took Baldinger to meet the weavers in their homes. They showed her the tall bamboo-like plants from which they split the reeds, the plant whose roots they dig to create their brilliant yellow dye and the seed pods that yield red dye.
“Their technique is a simple weave,” she says, “but they have the most amazing dyes, and they do really intricate designs.”
With help from Saude e Alegria, Artisans of the Forest sells weavings in the cities (Santarém, Belém and São Paolo), but they don’t want to expand. They prefer, she says, to sell their products locally, within the limits of their resources.
“Saving” the Amazon
As a student in the College of Forestry’s Natural Resources Program, Baldinger has chosen to focus on the human dimensions option. “I think of it as the sociology of the environment,” she says. So during her experience in Brazil, she thought hard about how the women and children in this small village used the forest. She also saw that community was struggling to survive. The young adults had left for the cities, and the men were away working in the mines. And she saw how the artisans were using their natural resources to make a living for their families.
Meeting people and understanding their lives are prerequisites, she says, to developing policies for natural resource conservation. Although biodiversity is important, there’s more to forest management than just preserving habitat.
As a child growing up in Benicia, California, and even as a college student, Baldinger had viewed the Amazon rainforest as a place to be “saved.” By the time she was ready to fly home three months later, her views had changed. In Vila Gorete, she saw people using the forest with respect, and she met cattle ranchers who eked out livelihoods on land that had been cleared for crops and pasture.
One comment from a villager still haunts her. “I heard this person say, ‘You’re an American. You don’t own the Amazon.’ They see it as, we messed up our resources and now we want theirs. They want to harvest their resources. I think it’s important that we compare notes and listen to each other. I don’t things will change through bitter remarks.”