Mara Ferreira, a former geographer, urban planner, and systems analyst for the city of Rio de Janeiro, has taken her skills and training to the countryside. She has developed a comprehensive systems approach that grassroots rural communities can readily use.
The New Idea
Modern sectors of society and the economy have developed the institutional capacity to step back and systematically analyze every aspect of their work. In many ways this questioning, measuring, adjusting, and reforming process explains the competitiveness and vitality of these sectors and of the organizations within them. The intellectual tools developed over this century to serve this process convey great advantages to those who can use them.Systems analysis, one of the most important of these tools, provides the ability to think through how many interconnected pieces in motion over time might respond to the changes a manager or policy maker may wish to consider.These tools are routinely available to city managers and executives in oil companies. They are not within the reach of small pig farmers.Mara's contribution is in serving as a bridge between these divergent worlds. She has learned how to work in rural areas using the analytical skills of modern, urban Brazil.She is now planning to show how these analytical skills can be used to help small farmers systematically improve how they raise pigs or grow bananas. She will map out their entire value-added chain and then seek out, test, and refine ways of improving it. Where is the best place for a pig pen? How should it be designed? What about fencing? Feed? Shade? Breeding? What should the owners do at different stages in an animal's life? What are the possible marketing channels?Analysis alone will not work. That is as true among small farmers as it is in city offices. The second half of Mara's bridge building is human and cultural. She has got to make the analysis become the farmers' analysis if its conclusions are ever to make sense and lead to real change.
As the modern sectors accelerate, they draw further and further away from the poor countryside. For lagging rural areas, this growing gap has been demoralizing. Bright young people have fled to the emerging urban sectors, and a feeling of inferiority has settled over the countryside.Analytic capacity that did exist in rural regions tended to be utilized by controlling elites in communities with larger production capabilities. The small farmer fell further and further behind.
Over the last several years of work at Paracambi (a rural area in Rio de Janeiro State), Mara has demonstrated how a marriage of participative community development techniques and systematic analysis can produce far-reaching, lasting reforms. Among other results, her approach there produced a new type of community school specifically designed by and for rural children and their parents. The subjects, for example, build on what these families know, and the homework is designed to reinforce parent-child respect rather than inadvertently drive a wedge between them.Mara now feels she is ready to carry her analytic approach further--further than Paracambi. To do so, she has decided to apply her initiative to two important elements of small scale farming: pig raising and growing bananas. She and groups of small farmers can analyze and "value engineer" all the steps in this process in a number of different communities. The farmers offer insights and ideas that eventually can be brought together in a model set of improvements that can form the basis for a host of farmers' benefits.If this approach succeeds, it will have produced a model that will be important to far more pig farmers. If this sort of systematic analysis in the hands of small farmers can revolutionize pig farming, why not apply the same technique to any other farm activity?Mara is now talking with nine rural municipalities near Paracambi about launching the next phase of her work there.
Mara was raised in the city of Rio de Janeiro, but spent her summers in the country. These summers left a deep impression on her, and their memory (helped by the election of an able friend as mayor of Paracambi) was a significant factor in her decision to commit herself to the rural areas.Trained in the broad-minded discipline of geography, Mara worked for most of her career in Rio de Janeiro. She practiced some of her analytic techniques while working for Rio's city government.