“I know that a single piece of fruit will not end hunger. But the idea is to help move towards that balance... Often times, people underestimate young people’s projects in the initial phases, but they are starting to wake up. For me, the coolest part of my story is that other young people around me are getting inspired and starting to create their own projects.”
Luan was always a bit, as he says, “out of the box.”
“As a kid, I was always doing business and creating new things. I’d put on circuses and samba parades on my street, bringing all the kids together… I’d buy DVDs and rent them out for a profit so I could buy new DVDs.” Luan is from São Bento do Una, a remote town of 58,000 inhabitants in the Brazilian Sertão, the drylands in the country’s northeast.
As he approached high school and started taking philosophy classes, he began to question his reality and put his entrepreneurial spirit toward solving problems in his community. First, he noticed the pollution in the river he passed by every day on his walk to school.
“I asked myself, ‘Why isn’t anyone doing anything about it? Can I do something?’ I began looking for organizations or projects that were tackling the issue, but unfortunately there were none in my city. The only solution was to gather up my friends and create one. This is a principle I always carry with me ‘if you don’t have something you need, make it yourself.’’’
Luan and his friends created the NGO CASA (Center for Social and Environmental Support). Their first project was Mutirão de Limpeza (“clean-up crew”). But they quickly realized that cleaning up the river was only a “short-term solution,” since people would soon throw more trash. That’s why they came up with a second project: Environmental Education Workshops. Luan and his team at CASA regularly visit public preschools and elementaries with the aim of “planting awareness” at an age in which people are “still open to receiving information.”
“I remember how enamored I used to get when I was a little kid and guest speakers came to my school. So, from this perspective, I understood that early childhood is the easiest time to sow self-awareness and empathy in kids. CASA’s work is to show kids the impact we are having on the environment and easy ways to reduce it, so we can get as close as possible to a balance, which is what we seek.”
Today, in addition to Mutirão de Limpeza and Environmental Education Workshops, CASA has two more projects that also grew in response to community needs: Projeto Arbo and Projeto Roda de Conversa. The latter is a monthly “conversation circle” centered around the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, which gives teens a space to talk, develop their own perspectives, and be heard. The former, Projeto Arbo, is a seed that was planted at the LALA Bootcamp last December and has been growing vibrantly since.
“Projeto Arbo is my xodó. It’s what I most want to expand right now. When I arrived at the LALA Bootcamp, I had just the little seed of this project. There, I started getting tons of ideas and said to myself, ‘alright, now is the time!’” Luan applied the principles he learned at the Bootcamp to cultivate Projeto Arbo into what it is today. He connected with his Story of Self, Story of Us, and Story of Now to identify the core issue for him in his community: food security. “The main objective of Projeto Arbo is to reduce hunger by planting fruit trees.” Taking a Strengths Based Approach, Luan first mapped out all the existing fruit trees in his community and turned that into an app showing the location, species and productive season of each tree. In order to care for the existing fruit trees and plant new ones, he used Appreciative Inquiry to forge relationships with community members.
“When we do the planting process, we have a whole conversation with the residents, precisely to make them aware of the project and make sure they are okay with folks coming around to harvest. Besides that, we engage them in caring for this tree seedling so that it grows faster. In our community, we have a problem with water scarcity. Sometimes it takes up to 6 months for water to arrive in our pipes. It’s really serious.” Each resident has their own water storage tank, and Luan figured out that, if residents work together, taking turns to water the seedlings each week, then they can care for the trees without overburdening anyone’s water supply.
This sort of co-responsibility is reflected not only in watering the fruit trees of Projeto Arbo, but in the way all of CASA functions. That’s how Luan has “organically” grown the organization to a body of 40 youth volunteers, including Agroecology students from the local high school and Environmental Management students from the university. “People have different abilities. A technique I use that LALA taught me is to let each person do what they are best at doing and to make them feel like they are a fundamental part of the operation… like ‘if YOU weren’t here doing this, CASA would end.’ That’s how we keep everyone engaged and motivated to act. Each person does what they are good at and feel called to do.”
Luan is a mastermind of dynamic steering - leadership that is shared and responsive to emerging needs. “The entire process of creating projects has stemmed from a need of the moment. It’s all about being in the moment and listening to people. Not all the ideas that arise are mine. I always say to the group that ‘everyone has an equal voice.’ In the same way that I have the voice to share an idea for a project, anybody at CASA has that voice too. Inside here, we don’t have a hierarchy that says ‘you are more powerful than others.’ Everyone is equal. I think that’s what makes CASA continue to survive. There are tons of NGOs which, even with funding, don’t make it. Meanwhile we, with nothing (we’ve never had sponsorship), are still here, strong and steady.”
This year, Luan became an Ashoka Lead Young ambassador, an opportunity that is providing him mentorship and higher visibility in the media. CASA has partnered with the municipal government of São Bento do Una and aims to expand its educational model to all the states in the northeastern region of Brazil, where hunger and climate change are critical issues. Yet, two of their greatest challenges remain: scheduling conflicts - “most of us are high school students, so we have to miss class when we go give workshops” - and lack of financial sponsorship - “right now, we need to fundraise to purchase seedlings.”
Among Luan’s future goals are creating an institutional home for CASA that can serve as a school for Permaculture; planting one million trees; studying architecture and bioconstruction; and “doing one of those crazy backpacking trips… the really roots kind, you know?” In February 2020, Luan will be attending the LALA pilot Academy in Medellín to develop several of these goals.