Co-Designing in the Amazon: A travel & work journal

Diego Nicolas at Boa Vista organic farm community during IDDS Amazon.

By Diego Nicolas, Melton Fellow

Diego was selected to participate at IDDS Amazon, a two-week permaculture-themed summit that brought together 40 participants from all over the world to co-create innovative solutions with local community members of fishing and farming communities along the river banks of the Amazon River in northern Brazil. This is his journal from that trip.

Last July, I left behind vineyards, a wine cellar, and a very cold winter in the Chilean farms where I used to work for the warm and humid climate of Boa Vista do Acara in Para State, in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest — a wonderful feeling!

After a two-hour boat ride and a one-hour hike through the Amazonian jungle, we arrived at the organic farm community Boa Vista. As we talked and shared a nice meal with local ingredients, I could feel the capoeira running in my veins: it’s so amazing how Brazilians can smile and laugh so easily!

For breakfast, we ate incredible açaí bowls — a dark purple, slightly bitter fruit from a palm tree, which is served as a creamy liquid — mixed with Mandioca (also known as cassava), which is the most common roots in the Amazon region, and covered by sliced bananas. During our first breakfast, I remember saying, “Oh my gosh, it’s Nutella!” rather loudly. Absolutely wrong…

Açaí paste wrapped in leaves.

Permaculture & Co-Creation

When I first got to the community, I had absolutely no idea what I would see and work on. Later on, I realized that the main idea was exactly that: to learn from the community and co-create with them, depending on local necessities.

We had several courses learning about permaculture and understanding its processes. Some of its principles included “Fair Trade”, “People Care” and “Earth Care”, which can be detailed as:

  • Produce no waste
  • Capture and store energy
  • Design from Pattern to detail
  • Small and slow solutions
  • Observe and interact
  • Value renewable resources
  • Seek and accept feedback
  • Value diversity
  • Value the borders/marginals
  • Integrate instead of segregate
  • Obtain a yield
  • Answer creatively to change

I realized I came in with the wrong concept of permaculture. As you can see, this approach is not only useful for agricultural practices: you can integrate and put them in practice in other subjects as well.

We shared a lot with local farmers, understanding their needs and what they where looking for. But, after talking and doing collaborative work, my group came to the conclusion that what they where looking for was not exactly the real need, and that understanding this “need” would help solve their problem.

. . .

A morning circle where participants shared their learnings from the previous day (Source: IDDS Amazon)

Every morning, we faced the sun, danced or did some physical movements. One rule was mandatory: every single movement must involve touch. So we gave each other massages, handshakes and hugs.

One of my favorite parts of the day was the lunch break. One of the volunteers is a chef, so you can imagine a mixture of flavors from black beans with papaya, potatoes with avocado and bananas, rice with passion fruit — wow. After that, I usually took a little nap by the lagarape (little warm lagoons), surrounded by colorful caterpillars and big red, yellow and blue butterflies.

The fruits of our labor

My group was in charge of fruit production. The main idea of the locals was how to extract the pulp of the native fruits, mainly cupuaçu, to sell in local markets. We chose cupuaçu because it grows naturally in the forest, has a lot of “meat”, and farmers could sell it very easily — but its round shell is very hard and the seeds and the pulp are hard to extract.

A fruit and vegetable market near Boa Vista

We found out that the local farmers could supply all the demand of the fruit, so we designed a business model for them. We discovered many uses for cupuaçu: you can do some tasty chocolate, use the shell as a package, we found gourmet restaurants and chefs who cook with it, we made jam and identified all of the stakeholders of the production chain.

What is next? Having a follow-up session about how the markets behave, let local farmers decide whether they like the project, and to see if it is possible to implement some fruit management in this fruit forest — which is actually my personal project.

. . .

Because of the heavy heat, we were forced every night to make some fires, dancing with drums, singing music with African roots and drink plenty of beers, which, I have to admit, was almost water.