Thaise has developed an agrotourism model that brings new sources of income to rural families, prompts rural development, preserves local culture and community, and benefits tourists.
The New Idea
Thaise is fueling sustainable rural development through an agrotourism model designed to complement and sustain the livelihoods and cultures of family farmers in Brazil. Thaise initiates the development of agrotourism in impoverished rural communities willing to put in the effort to clean up, build infrastructure, and create new products and services, in accordance with a strict set of guidelines which allows them to become part of her recognized, quality-certified network. This preparation process empowers underserved communities to take ownership of Thaise’s idea, and benefits them both financially and by legitimizing their lifestyles.
As Thaise works with communities to transform them into local networks of small family-run tourism enterprises, she sparks profound social, economic, and environmental transformations. Communities are strengthened by working in cooperation to develop an array of tourist attractions. Rural families, especially youth and women, who previously lacked economic power, have new sources for jobs and income, countering the tide of urban migration. Infrastructure is developed and new commercial relationships are created between enterprises within and outside the community. Contact with tourists helps rural communities understand the value of their traditions and be proud to maintain their culture.
Thaise is also very attentive to the other end of the chain—the tourists. One of her goals is to create a link through tourism to conscious consumerism, allowing tourists to experience the realities of the rural communities which provide their food. Thaise also carefully markets her tourism network to minimize the negative impact of tourists on rural communities.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations there are two types of farming: patron-led, and family. In patron-led farming, management of land is separated from the work done on the land. The emphasis is on specializing and creating standards. The work is predominantly salary-based and there is the use of related technologies. In family farming, the work and management of the land are closely connected. The productive process is secured by the proprietors and there is an emphasis on diversifying, the quality of life, the durability of the resources, and on the unpredictability of the productive process. Brazil, like many other countries in Latin America, adopted the patron-led model and it has had negatively impacted the society, the environment, and the country’s economy.
According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, 75 percent of the area occupied by farming in Brazil belongs to 500,000 farmers who employ 5 million people, while 13 million rural workers occupy the rest, producing for sustainability. Rapid rural technology has contributed to the rural exodus, because with the sectors industrialization, new technologies are created with the aim of minimizing costs incurred by big farmers related to the workforce. As a result, there is a need to find alternatives which contribute to the minimization of such a migratory process, and one is the creation of new work opportunities for rural environments. Another alternative is tourism. In Brazil, rural tourism is a recent activity. The concept of rural tourism refers to aspects of the rural territory, the economic base, the natural and cultural resources, and society. According to the Ministry of Tourism, the tourism industry in Brazil has grown 15 percent a year, and this statistic reveals something important. In Brazil, rural tourism encompasses all activities developed in rural spaces, such as ecotourism, green tourism, and farm houses. Most of the time, these activities are not developed by the local population, so economic benefits are not retained in the community. The growth of the tourism sector has not seen corresponding sustainable development. It is important to understand the local context and, in the event of rural areas, how the context refers to the activities of family agriculture.
Around 94.3 percent of the 204,000 agricultural establishments in the State of Santa Catarina are classified as family farms. The most inland regions of the State, outside important routes, suffer great isolation—causing a state of abandonment. The farmers in these locations have difficulty developing their activities due to the restricted area for planting; the unleveled topography; the distance to consumer centers; the badly kept access roads; the lack of electric energy; and lack of access to telephones. These factors, in addition to the attractions of urban centers—particularly for youth—have caused these municipalities to lose a significant amount of their population.
Agrotourism is defined as “A tourist activity which takes place in the production unit of family farmers, who maintain economic activities typical of family farming, and who wish to value, respect and share their way of life, their cultural and natural assets, offering quality products and services, as well as allowing for the well-being of those involved.” Yet the link between agrotourism and sustainable rural development had not been created.
Founded in 1999, Associação Acolhida na Colônia (Association Refuge in the Colony) has successfully created access to the tourism market in 32 municipalities of the state of Santa Catarina. Thaise continues to expand her “chain of land-based tourism” through a network of “Solidarity Tourism” and through government partnerships.
To develop a new model of Agrotourism in Santa Catarina, Thaise’s first step was to motivate her community, who did not believe the region could attract visitors. But Thaise saw an untapped opportunity to generate income for the community and expose tourists to the reality of where their food comes from. In 1998, with the help of the National Program of Support to Family Farming (Pronaf), she developed an awareness campaign in five Municipalities. A group of entrepreneurs was identified in each of the Municipalities and began to diagnose each rural property with the participation of the community. At this point, each of the families decided which service it would provide. This process was essential to discuss the associative process and highlighted the need to work with tourism. Thereafter, the Acolhida na Colonia model was created and a capacity-building program was implemented with daily field courses to help farmers implement their projects. Specific materials were developed for this, using the language of family agriculture.
Acholhida built a “Book of Rules” which defined the services offered by the family farmers to the tourists. To create this notebook, several activities aimed at historical and cultural awareness (traditional recipes, cooking classes, and a book with old tales), as well as environmental preservation (a gardening contest, waste recycling, etc.) were promoted. The farmers commit to: 1) Welcome the tourists as an integral part of the farming activity; 2) The property must obey the norms of hygiene and basic sanitation; 3) Guarantee safety, clean spaces, access to the properties, and perform improvements; 4) Prices must be in line with the service provided by the farmer and a fixed price table should be displayed on the property; 5) Colonial food must be prepared with 50 percent of the products made from their own raw materials and 30 percent made with produce from other farming properties, and up to 20 percent of the products from markets; 6) Each property must be properly identified with the Acolhida na Colonia logo, with direction signs on the roads and ecological trails; 7) It is forbidden to use Genetically modified seeds; 8) The property has two years to become entirely organic; and 9) The properties must have garbage bins for the visitors to use and preferably use rustic furniture.
If the farmer agrees with the Book of Rules, they sign a Commitment Letter, where the principles of Acolhida are displayed. From the Participative Diagnosis and the signature of the Commitment Letter, the farmers undertake the necessary improvements to their properties and enter into the implementation phase of the project which includes: 1) 80 hours of courses in six themes identified in the participative diagnosis, which material is developed by Acolhida (Agrotourism Series); 2) Specialized consulting in architecture, ecotourism, and nutrition (technical orientation only); and 3) Investments for the development of projects. For this step, a rotating fund was created with donations from technicians and partners, which is used to pay for the construction and improvements made to the properties.
The implementation stage comprises the entire adaptation of the property for tourism purposes. The first alterations are made in the sanitation (100 percent of the properties without adequate sanitation now have it), improving the property visually, preserving the environment and creating services including: 1) Hospitality in the colony—a colonial farm house (independent from the farmer’s house), colonial chambers (in the farmer’s main house), and camping sites; 2) Colonial Food—colonial restaurant, colonial table (meals are served in the farmer’s house) and colonial coffee; 3) Colonial Leisure (trekking, fishing, and bathing sites); 4) Getting to know the colony (camping day, pick and pay, courses). The social, economic, and environmental impacts are observed during the entire process. The work of Acolhida assures a new source of income for the family farmers without them having to abandon traditional activities (crop and animal farming); it enables a fair distribution of costs and benefits in the community; stimulates the creation of small domestic enterprises (hospitality, guides, handmade crafts, among others), and generates jobs and income, strengthening a productive chain in the community where families have different roles. There is also an increase in their self-esteem as tourists are interested to know their enterprises; an interchange of culture among people from different backgrounds; and environmental improvements through basic sanitation and the preservation of water sources.
Thaise is also concerned with the development of a market for organic products. She has selected specific organic market places to sell the products of rural producers in her tourism network and to market the Acolhida na Colonia agrotourism network. This is an effective way to create a customized sales channel, and guarantee income generation for producers. At the same time, Thaise markets to a select group of tourists, whom she feels are less likely to have a negative impact on the rural communities. Ideally, these tourists have the potential to contribute financial or professional support to the development of different community initiatives once they have visited and bonded with community hosts. To make this happen, Thaise has created an Association of Friends of Acolhida. These friends are also key persons to promote Acolhida and to bring new tourists to visit.
The project which began in five Municipalities, and involved 20 families has gradually grown and is expanding to 32 Municipalities of Santa Catarina, involving 150 families, through partnerships with nine Regional Development Agencies in the State. They are also talking with the states of Pernambuco, Bahia, and Rio de Janeiro. This expansion process is based in two strategies: 1) To form Municipal multipliers of Acolhida’s methodology, and 2) Adapt it according to the local reality. The expansion phase includes presentations of the expansion proposal of the Acolhida Network, capacity-building workshops for Municipal multipliers recommended by the Municipalities according to Acolhida’s criteria, technical visits, evaluation seminars and interchanges. More than 430 people have participated in the first part of the expansion process.
Thaise now spends more time building the Solidarity Tourism Network in Brazil and Latin America. She has participated in and taken the experience of Acolhida to a number of events and presentations, but her plan is to foster the network to build a channel for dialogue and to pressure local governments and the Ministry of Tourism. In Santa Catarina, the work of Acolhida received important support from the state government for dissemination as a result of her placing different actors to talk and build joint local development processes. At a national level, she wants to transform the Book of Rules into a set of principles which can be adopted by different organizations working in solidarity tourism. For this reason it is important to articulate this inside the Tourism Network.
Thaise has strategic partners to develop her initiatives, among them, the Ministry of Rural Development, the Ministry of Tourism and the Environment, the State Secretariat of Culture, Tourism and Sport, the Catarinense Company of Research and Rural Extension, Municipalities, the Association of Ecological Farmers of the Serra Geral Region, and the Network of Rural Tourism for Family Farming.
Acolhida has received national recognition with a National Prize from the Ministry of Rural Development (2002); the Millennium Development Goals Award/UN (2005); and, the Top Award for Rural Businesses, promoted by the Institute of Quality Studies and Research with the support of the Ministry of Tourism (2006).
Thaise is from a middle-class family and lived in the interior of Santa Catarina until the age of 18. Against her father’s will—who had a business in town and wanted the children to look after it—Thaise’s passion for nature led her to study agronomy in Florianopolis. In 1993, she enrolled in the Federal University of Santa Catarina and dreamed of producing flowers. However, the following year, for a compulsory internship course, Thaise spent a month living with a small family of farmers in the west of the State.
During this time, she experienced the challenges of a family that bred pigs. She was marked by the poverty, the difficulties, and the terrible relationship between the farmers and the companies which sold their produce. This experience changed her way of thinking and acting and she was certain she wanted to contribute to improving the lives of these farmers. She began a process she refers to as her “life mission”, and for ten years Thaise invested her knowledge, deepened her studies, and put all her energy into working for change in the rural sector, by developing farming and tourism and improving the relationship of small farmers with the outside world.
In 1994, she took an internship at Center for the Study and Promotion of Group Farming (CAPARGO), where she participated in conceptualizing and executing the Project AgroCity, which brought family farmers to universities and promoted a number of varied activities. In addition to the activities of CEPAGRO, in 1997, Thaise got involved with the EPAGRI research project, aimed at diagnosing the importance of small rural industries for family farmers. This would be presented to government to request a number of regulation actions as well as incentives for their activities. This project offered Thaise the chance to travel throughout the State of Santa Catarina and get to know the way farmers lived, how they sold their products, their difficulties, and the existing opportunities. Thaise noted that one of the difficulties for the region to develop socially and economically was its dependence on the tobacco culture.
Thaise also became involved in a number of projects and discussions around Rural Credit Cooperatives, Small Agro Industries, and Participative Rural Planning. In 1997, CEPAGRO invited her to learn from some of the experiences in France, and during this trip she was introduced to Accueil Paysan, a French association working on rural tourism, and after returning in 1998, she proposed a new model of Agrotourism to be developed in Santa Catarina (in the Encostas of Serra Geral). CEPAGRO hired her to coordinate the Agrotourism program.
Thaise quickly became involved with the communities with Agrotourism and in 1999, together with the farmers, she founded Acolhida na Colonia. Recognizing the need for a long-term investment and more focus in consolidating the program, Thaise left CEPAGRO to work with Acolhida. To strengthen her activities and build a work model, she enrolled in a Production Engineering Masters, with a focus on environmental management, and her thesis was on systematizing the methodology developed in the Serra Geral region. She began teaching the tourism course at two universities where she had an important role in stimulating the involvement of students with rural tourism—an opportunity not generally mentioned at Universities.
With the expansion of the project to other locations in Santa Catarina, in 2005, Thaise decided to complete a Doctorate in Geography, to study the role of Agrotourism in the organization of rural territories. As she deepened her knowledge, she was able to disseminate the model to other regions. She also intends to contribute to strengthening the current public policies that prioritize the organization of communities and certain regions of cities so they can be developed systemically. Thaise is also responsible for re-energizing the TuriSol network which gathers social and community tourism projects across Brazil. Ashoka Fellows are a part of this network, including Rene Scharer, Alemberg de Souza, and Joaquim Melo.