Visioning Sustainability in Rio Claro, Brazil by 2020

Saurabh Biswas in Rio Claro, Brazil Saurabh Biswas, a PhD student in Sustainability, spent his summer visioning sustainability in Rio Claro, an agricultural village of the Delfim Moreira municipality, in Minas Gerais, Brazil as part of the United States Agency for International Development’s Global Development Research (USAID-GDR) Fellowship. The project, Sustainable Rio Claro: Vision 2020, encompassed multiple partners working together from June to August 2016 to build a sustainable vision for the Rio Claro community by 2020. Stakeholders came together to study and analyze the unique sustainability challenges of Rio Claro and explore possible solutions. These partners included:
  • USAID-Global Development Research Lab and First Solar – USAID-GDR administered the fellowship for international development, and First Solar provided the financial support towards the fellowship.
  • ONG Conscienca Limpa – an Itajuba, Brazil-based NGO, which was the host agency for the internship and the administrative partner for the Rio Claro project.
  • Rio Claro residents’ association – the primary stakeholder in the sustainable transformation project.
  • University students from Rio Claro – four individuals from Rio Claro, students at the University in the nearby cities who are taking the lead in one or more project area as coordinators and bringing their innovative ability to create local solutions.
This project brought together the capabilities and experiences of all stakeholders including local knowledge of the community, project experiences of ONG Consciencia Limpa, and crucial project planning, monitoring and verification processes of USAID-GDR. The goal of the Global Development Research fellowship is to produce breakthrough development innovations and to accelerate the transformation of the development enterprise. It stresses on the importance of inclusivity, partnership, and harnessing the power of science and technology for sustainable outcomes. The goals for the Rio Claro project reflected these values and focused on creating sustainable change by partnering individuals and agencies in their effort to develop technology and social programs for positive change. Additionally, ASU supported the work through the assistance of multiple staff and faculty. Saurabh states, “Professor Arnim Wiek played an important role in the development of the strategy and approach to the project, and findings from the sustainable solutions framework were put to work in this project. Professor Clark Miller helped analyze the social dynamics and the approaches on measurement and survey processes. The fellowship was facilitated by Dean Chris Boone and Professor Candice Carr Kelman. Their contribution is especially noteworthy because this was a first for any international student in the School of Sustainability. Mohamed Abdallah, USAID coordinator at ASU, was crucial with his support at all stages.” The project offered a wide variety of learning opportunities and challenges for Saurabh, some unexpected. “The language and cultural learning curve was huge,” he said. “Being my first time in Latin America and in a culture of which I knew little about (from readings only), it was crucial to identify with the social perspective of my partners. Further, Rio Claro being a rural community is different in many ways from urban Brazil. Participating in their social celebrations, sharing meals and interacting with the student population helped in maneuvering that curve.” He also had to learn new ways to navigate through the city. “Access and transportation was another challenge. I was based in the city of Itajuba, 50 km away from Rio Claro. However, with public transport to and from being poor and infrequent, last mile connectivity was difficult. I had to figure out bus schedules (since I was not driving) and plan way ahead in time for my travel.” Saurabh learned about the social dynamics in facilitating community discussion and “making the sustainability dialogue inclusive and participative. Stratified social structures (occupation, education and social position taken together) creates classes and levels of social interaction and authority in the community. Overcoming it to make the dialogue process inclusive was necessary to ensure every point of view was incorporated. Multiple levels of engagement (association meetings, door-to-door surveys, one-on-one conversations, etc.) helped to mitigate this to an extent. Scope exists to broaden the net and the residents’ association is making an effort to improve this.” The larger outcome of the project was the creation of a small movement in Rio Claro towards the sustainable transformation of the community in the near future. It began with the identification of the location followed by intense discussions to understand and represent the case for everyone to understand the need for it. Once there was a general agreement, stakeholders began working through the details of setting goals and strategies to achieve them. Ultimately, stakeholders formed teams and coordinated the successful adoption of a vision 2020 document by the community that lays out the visualization and plan of a sustainable community by the year 2020. It identifies the present and future risks to this vision and lists out six project areas with preliminary strategies for achieving the vision. Saurabh identified key areas where the project provided him with resume experience and knowledge he can apply in future work. “The insights gained while developing the concept are crucial learnings for any co-creation project. The collaborations and partnerships turned out to be the singularly most powerful driver of this project. That experience is invaluable for future projects. Sustainability is a highly context specific and local idea at the operational level. Thus, it is essential that the pursuit of sustainable outcomes is bottom-up and collective. Although every project is unique in nature, this experience has added richness to my understanding of the local context, appreciation of the importance local partners and linking seemingly unrelated dimensions in a grand idea of sustainability. This gives me a framework to approach any future work.” We asked what piece of advice Saurabh would give to a student considering taking on a solutions-focused project like this. “It will be useful to approach initially with a learning approach and not let biases cloud the learning process. Also, using a simplified lexicon gets you farther in communicating your ideas effectively when you are in such settings. It is crucial to make the distinction between an academic and non-academic audience.”