Bridging the Income Generation Gap – a Way to Stay
Teaching English and computer literacy can make for a great project, but what do these skills really mean to an endangered culture in the middle of the Amazon rainforest?
I asked myself that question many times during my 27-month stint in Suriname as a Community Economic Development Volunteer. Now, as a “social good” entrepreneur, I think about it more broadly. My startup, Peaceful Fruits, makes fruit snacks out of wild açaí harvested by indigenous communities in the Amazon rainforest, thus creating a market that supports eco-friendly, local income generation. And I try to think more carefully than ever about what benefits different development activities offer to local communities.
For the language and computer projects that I observed in Suriname, I think they offer a way out.
Many people have wanted to get out of Suriname over the years; my site was a village descended from slaves who escaped deep into the rainforest. Today, many of the most educated and ambitious Surinamese are leaving the rainforest and other under-developed areas of the country for Paramaribo (the capitol—and only—city) or the Netherlands, Suriname’s former colonial overlord. This is brain drain of epic proportions, and I should know—I’m from Cleveland.
For these people trying to escape the subsistence cycle, modern skills like English and computer literacy are invaluable. But what about the rest?
I’m talking about the people who choose to stay and farm their family’s land—to wear a kosu (wrap skirt) or a camisa (loin cloth), though they may have a cell phone tucked in somewhere. Certainly speaking some English and knowing the basics of modern technology is absolutely useful. These people love their way of life; they don’t hate the modern world.
But projects empowering these people—the ones who want to preserve their traditions by living them—seem few and far between, at least they were in Suriname. Hustling in a grant for an arts & crafts women’s group or to set up an eco-lodge does not protect all that much, at least not in a region that sees only a trickle of tourists each month.
This was the gap that Peace Corps Suriname stepped in to fill, serving as a bridge, in many cases, between communities and private industry. Unsurprisingly, it’s also the gap I try to fill with Peaceful Fruits. (Figuratively only—I don’t recommend using fruit snacks to plug holes.)
Any NGO could drop in sewing machines, but Peace Corps Volunteers—with local contacts and local context—were able to connect the sewing group with the biggest tourist market in the country. And figure out how to actually get the goods to the shelf.
Lots of organizations were doing solar energy projects, but it was Peace Corps Volunteers who helped connect the crowd of small, local solar entrepreneurs with a regional, Inter American Development Bank-funded solar wholesaler. With both sides making money it wasn’t a project—it was a green snowball that, despite being on the equator, just kept growing.
As Peace Corps Volunteer and development workers, it’s easy to become jaded about both capitalism and aid. But there is a fuzzy place in the middle that can do a lot of good—and Peace Corps Volunteers know how to find it.
That’s why there are more and more awesome post-Peace Corps startups—and why I set out to build one.
Peaceful Fruits uses wild açaí sourced in partnership with local communities to make organic, delicious fruit snacks that people can “enjoy with peace of mind.” Our objective is to transplant the wild fruit industry that currently is thriving in Brazil over the border into Suriname.
Our goal is to help local communities harness a renewable resource that commands a premium because it can only exist in the untamed rainforest. That gives people a way to generate income, but also an incentive to preserve local lands and control.
There are so many projects offering people a way out. Our mission is to offer people a way to stay. We want to be part of sustainable economic opportunity that is respectful of traditional ways of life and uses of the land. Development that does not require disruption.
As always, there are complexities, opportunities for abuse, and nothing is perfect. But when local people are making tough decisions about how to chart their future, I think there should be more options that allow them to maintain their traditional connection to the rainforest and still be part of the modern economy.
As Peace Corps Volunteers, and also Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, we have a unique ability to spot opportunities at the intersection of respecting local community priorities and supporting progress.
Because we are neighbors, not just development workers, we have a chance to help create—for those who want to—ways to stay.