www.ebbf.orgINSPIREissue 16EBBF Profile 

Neissan Alessandro Besharati: Flowing Together--Sustainability, Interconnectedness and Income-generation in the Amazon

Neissan in an 'igapo' (flooded jungle) of the Amazon

Interview by EBBF journalist Karim Beers

The first question I have for Neissan Alessandro Besharati is if he’s ever been to North America because I know he’s been everywhere else. His biography reads like an exotic travel itinerary—born in Transkei, South Africa, adolescence in Sardinia and the Czech Republic, and in Greece, Albania, Australia, London, Kosovo, India, Afghanistan, travels, work stations and studies. But unlike the shallow skips of a stone across the water’s surface, in each one of these places Neissan has managed to go deep, to make each place his home, and strive to contribute to its advancement. A few examples: in Kosovo he helped start the Global Perspective Development Center working with youth in peace building projects with a strong arts component, and in Afghanistan with the UN with youth and housing. And now he is immersed in the waters of the great Amazon river in Brazil working to empower rural communities to contribute to their own autochthonous development. He talked to EBBF about this latest work and shared some personal reflections on the role of values in development.

 
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EBBF: So what brought you here to Brazil?

Neissan: As you know I work in the development industry and in post-conflict recovery, usually with NGOs, Governments and UN agencies, in different parts of the world. When I have some time, like now when I am off-contract, I try to offer some services to communities and agencies in different countries, where I can contribute a bit of my experience and at the same time learn new things from each particular social reality.

At the moment I am in the rural Amazon supporting the work of a small but very innovative Bahá’í-inspired community-based organization called Associacao para o Avanco da Cidadania no Campo or AACC. This group is made up mostly of former students and staff, who come from rural indigenous background and who live on the river-banks and derive their livelihoods from its ecosystem. [IPRAM/ADCAM was a Bahá’í-inspired experimental rural school functioning in the 80s, which combined agricultural training with SAT, Ruhi and other curricula to assist rural Amazonian youth to become active agents of social change in their communities]

With lots of ingenuity and courage and notwithstanding their scant resources and experience, the members of AACC have come up with two very interesting income-generating projects, both with a strong social dimension, which I think can serve as great examples to other like-minded colleagues in the industrialized world who are endeavoring to apply spiritual principles to economics.

AACC Member Laudisea Making Popsicles

EBBF: Can you say a little bit more about these two initiatives?

Neissan: The first is a yogurt business. Popsicles made out of frozen yogurt flavoured with local tropical fruits are produced in homes and then sold to small shops in poor urban and rural areas. The idea behind the frozen yogurt is to provide street children with a healthier product than the traditional popsicles which are usually made using untreated water. Furthermore, this yogurt-based snack, which I personally find very tasty and refreshing, also provides children with important nutritional supplements often missing in their diet. The income derived from this activity goes to support the other activities of the association, but mostly provides the means for the people working on the project to finance their university studies. For example, thanks to this activity, two colleagues of mine—Laudisea, the main producer and packager, and Edema, the main salesman—are able to pay for their studies in Pedagogy and Business Administration, respectively.

The other main activity of AACC is the development of inter-cultural ecological expeditions into the Amazon. The concept was inspired by the Green Light Expedition and the love that Madame Rabbani (Amatu'l-Bahá Ruhíyyih Khanum) had for the environment and for the indigenous people. AACC in collaboration with their partner organization WCDS (World Citizenship Development Services) facilitates groups of people (mostly youth, students and junior youth) from the western world, to come for one or two weeks to the Amazon, travel through the rivers, the rainforest, the villages, and experience all aspects of life in this remarkable corner of the planet. The network of local teachers and students and their families who live in different villages on the rivers’ banks take turns to host the foreign visitors, take them through the various natural attractions of the area and share with them the different aspects of their daily life. While the visitors stay in the different communities, they learn how to operate in the natural habitat of the forest and the river, participate in the local activities such as fishing, hunting, canoeing, learn the different arts and crafts, cook and eat the foods of the area, and enjoy the leisure activities (including sports, music and dance) of the indigenous people.

EBBF: Can you say a little more about what your role in all of this is?

Neissan: I was invited by AACC to come in as a consultant and assist them on a number of various fronts, such as organizational development, training of community members, marketing strategy and production of audio-visual materials such as a promotional video, photo archive, website, reports, etc. The project I am most involved in is the inter-cultural ecological expeditions. I am assisting AACC to enhance the program of these expeditions and to make them more attractive and effective for foreign and local youth. I also support the organization with networking and establishing linkages with schools, associations and agents worldwide. What I like about serving in small organizations like AACC is you get to do a bit of everything and most of the time your work is very hands-on—in fact I have enjoyed learning and being at times a jungle guide, a translator, a farmer, and even a boat rower/gondolier!

German tourists with host family

EBBF: You mentioned before that these projects apply “spiritual principles to the field of economics”. Could you explain what you mean by this? And in general, how do you see values influencing both the work that AACC does as well as your particular contribution to these organizations?

Neissan: Well, to start with we all acknowledge that we live in a new global civilization where the lives of the inhabitants of our planet are more and more interconnected. In order to promote justice, global prosperity and take leadership in the affairs of the world, the future generations need to become true world citizens and their attitudes, values and priorities need to be shaped accordingly. This inter-cultural exchange which occurs in AACC’s Amazon expeditions becomes extremely enriching for both the foreign visitors as well as the local communities. It provides young people from affluent countries with the opportunity to experience the life of more poor and materially disadvantaged people, helps bridge the gap between the urban and the rural populations, encourages the preservation of indigenous cultures, and allows the appreciation of the diversity which exists in our planet.

When we look at our collective future, we need to reflect on how we are using or abusing our planet’s resources and look at how we interact with the natural environment around us. Once again the project allows both foreign and local participants to raise their consciousness of the importance of the ecosystem and take an active role in environmental conservation. When the foreign groups come here they learn about the precious natural resources of the Amazon, the thousands of species of plants and animals which live here and the important role the rainforest and the rivers play in the ecology of the planet. At the same time, ‘when local people are involved in an ecosystem as an industry’, as renowned Harvard Professor E.O. Wilson noted, ‘they become the best environmental protectors’. Therefore such an experimental eco-tourism initiative in the Amazon can offer a very interesting contribution to the complex debate around sustainable development.  

And yet the project stimulates even more attitude changes among the peoples involved. Just like in most places of the world, here too in Brazil the indigenous populations and the rural farmers and fishermen are usually looked down upon by the urban populations. Through this intercultural expedition project, however, foreign visitors take great interest in learning about the activities, life and culture of these people and the precious knowledge and skills they have acquired living on the river. This reversal of traditional roles enhances the self-esteem and empowerment of the rural indigenous communities, which discover more value in the type of life they lead and the resources they have around them.

Last but not least, I think the project has strong merits in contributing to poverty alleviation and alternative income-generating mechanism for Amazonian communities. This project in fact encourages entrepreneurship among rural populations and presents them with new forms of industries aside from agro-fishing. It facilitates the development of new potential rural businesses based on hospitality services. The Amazon inter-cultural expedition program is set up in away that entire families and communities are engaged in the hosting of the visitors; therefore the profits are shared equitably among the different members of the villages. Almost all the money the tourist pays for the expedition goes straight to the families who help with the boats and transportation, or to those who offer accommodation, meals and activities. This money often also assists families and communities to enhance their health, education, infrastructure and living conditions.

Neissan (on right) with some AACC board members

EBBF: Can you share any lessons you’ve learned in the last few months that shed light on the ideas of translating these principles into effective actions that contribute to positive change?

Neissan: Working with the environment, with indigenous people and with rural development was a fairly new experience for me so I am glad I had this opportunity and I have indeed learned a lot in these last few months in the Amazon. Here, as well as in all the other social realities I have worked in, it becomes evident that development requires always integrated approaches, balance between the spiritual and the material, and a variety of interventions need to occur parallel whether they be educational, economical, environmental or technical. It was nice to see also with AACC, how a group of fairly simple people have integrated social action in their everyday life and have come up with modest but very innovative and effective initiatives for the development of their locality. For success the key words are always the same: small, local, sustainable, organic growth, learning attitude!

 

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To get a clearer picture of what Neissan is doing, check out these videos:
1st part - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rzMTnn1wOLE
2nd part - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vMYDB4VI-To

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