Using sustainable technologies, José Roberto da Fonseca e Silva is recreating how remote rural communities in semi-arid regions cope with drought by tailoring a micro productive and commercialization system with high aggregate value products.

This profile below was prepared when José Roberto Silva was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2007.


Using sustainable technologies, José Roberto da Fonseca e Silva is recreating how remote rural communities in semi-arid regions cope with drought by tailoring a micro productive and commercialization system with high aggregate value products.


Through the Eco-Engenho Institute, José Roberto questions the widespread assumption of fighting against drought, and bases his work on a new paradigm where it is possible for small rural communities to draw on the potential of semi-arid regions for their socioeconomic development. He has created a model for remote rural zones in the northeast of Brazil which utilizes renewable energies and technologies appropriate for cultivating products of high aggregate value in this climate. He is also developing mechanisms for access to a fair market in which there is solidarity; guaranteeing income for these communities.

With the project H2Sol, José Roberto makes use of the abundant solar energy to amplify access to water and develop irrigation micro-systems which permit agricultural production without wasting water. This technological process is customized to each producer. With the vision that it is necessary to produce in order to generate income and not only subsistence, José Roberto stimulates production valued in the market and through Articulation of Solidarity Trade (AmercSol) supports the entire productive process and commercialization.

To guarantee sustainability, José Roberto encourages both community associative activities, to share expenses and experience, and the creation of social micro-companies by each producer that receive tax exemption (producer and buyer), thus increasing their competitiveness in the consumer market. This transforms the mentality of these communities, accustomed to assistance programs, demonstrating that it is possible to construct a dignified and productive life on rural semi-arid regions.


Brazil has one of the most unequal distributions of wealth in the world. According to Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, the northeast region of Brazil, which is 1/5 of national territory, holds 47 million people (almost 1/3 of the population), and has one of the highest concentrations of poverty in the western hemisphere; with 50 percent of the population living below the poverty line. The situation is more critical in the semi-arid region where the majority of the population lives with the problems of drought and hunger and is precariously assisted by public policies related to education, health, basic sanitation, housing, employment, and income. This all serves to aggravate quality of life and human development indicators and favors a rural exodus.

Of the 1,000 cities with the lowest Human Development Index—Municipal (HDI-M), 715 are affected by desertification. Of the 1,482 municipalities located in regions classified as semi-arid, 915 show life conditions worse than African countries, such as Namibia (0,627). Only five countries have indicators the same or above Brazil’s index (0,766). The State of Alagoas, which concentrates 53 percent of the areas affected by desertification, has 77 cities with the lowest human development indexes (PNUD, April 2006).

The semi-arid region of Brazil has a dry climate with extensive periods of drought. Natural deposits of water in significant quantities are rare and the subterranean waters are lightly salted, serving only animal consumption, but seldom for human consumption and rarely for irrigation. The infrastructure for the accumulation, distribution, and management of water is deficient and the traditional cultivations are limited and only for subsistence (corn, beans, and manioc). Many programs to “combat drought” have come to the region with a historically top-down approach, which reinforces the accumulation of power that benefits a few traditional farmers and politicians’ enterprises, but does not address those most in need.

The construction of water tanks, for example, is a line of action (by Febraban) to construct 10,000 tanks, in 11 states of northeast Brazil (with the support of the program P1MC, 1 Million Tanks Program; 833 were installed in the state of Alagoas in 2005). Another enormous government project is the transposition of the Sao Francisco river (the major river in this area) that will benefit agro-business (foreseeing the growth of sugar cane culture), instead of small producers. However, little has been done to help people “live with the drought”, thinking of work and production models which manage the lack of water in a micro scale focusing on the poorest of the poor. A further problem is that government programs are generally implemented, but not monitored, which results in an inefficient utilization of resources and contributes to peoples’ lack of belief in the program’s credibility.

Additionally, a large contingent of the population wait for Federal Government social programs (e.g. family, education, and food grants) and other isolated and non-sustainable actions from social organizations. In the state of Alagoas, there are 105,322 beneficiaries of the Food Grant (Bolsa Alimentacao) program to better nutrition; the municipality of Sao Joao da Tapera was the pilot city. In spite of the program, the precarious situation of families has increased—this type of benefit is inefficient to structurally change social and economic conditions.

In this context, local development, as well as empowering the population, significantly depends on its economic independence from government and farmers. This is directly linked to growth in income, which remains low due to the predominance of the subsistence economy and a lack of tailored government programs for remote and poor communities. All small farmers cultivate the same basic products (manioc, beans) and sell the excess, which in turn has a low aggregate value, at a low price, due to the large amounts on offer and the lack of access to formal markets.

The market does not function in a fair and efficient manner and there are few government incentives to change this situation, including the lack of infrastructure. Competition is great and there are no tax incentive laws that could help small rural producers and stimulate potential buyers. Today, there are more than 900,000 producers in the northeast.


José Roberto begins by identifying the remote semi-arid communities with low HDI. Initially, he wants to create a new way of thinking about living with aridity and seeks opportunities that work with the local climate and soil conditions on a small scale for the most poor. José Roberto believes an efficient technological process is appropriate to its proposes, so he created H2Sol, a micro productive and commercialization system based on renewable energy, solidarity exchanges, and little water to cultivate products of a high aggregate value that rapidly promotes significant changes.

Initially, the community is organized together to discuss what they intend to produce without government contribution. (The government plays an important role at another moment of the process when the program is established, successful and ready to gain scale, avoiding their old and traditional intervention.) Subsistence products are usually considered first, but it’s important to introduce other possibilities that involve technologies for micro-irrigation systems that can significantly increase families’ incomes. Since many do not have land, the goal is to take a small space (2.5 acres) to collectively cultivate products of a high aggregate value for the market, such as, chili peppers, medicinal plants and endives.

For the pilot project in the community of Baixas, the technological set was designed to cultivate a variety of chili peppers by utilizing a hybrid hydroponics system and a sprinkler micro-irrigation system; the driving force being solar energy. This solution promotes better management of water and contributes to reducing environmental impact. The community has gradually assimilated these new irrigation models and combined permaculture techniques to develop organic agriculture with the use of energy generated by bio-digestors, improving the production environmental sustainability.   

After developing the model of production, the Eco-Engenho Institute stimulates the creation of a local association with its administration manager—the link between production and commercialization. The associative model is appropriate because individual producers retain their own production. Moreover, the producers join together to have more force in the market, sharing technical assistance, freight, production costs, and distribution channels. The association is also the point of convergence to seek public policies that serve the small producer. Since most associates are illiterate the administration manager is essential. Generally, this is someone who knows the community well, but does not necessarily live in it. He/she is eager to learn about the solar technology utilized, communicates well with local public authorities, and is responsible for external relations.

Along with the Association, the Eco-Engenho Institute stimulates the creation of other programs—the Seed Bank and the Mutual Help Group (Grupo de Ajuda Mutua-GAM)—towards community empowerment and sustainability. The former stimulates the production and stocking of seeds so that planting and harvest can be done throughout the year. This changes the current reality where planting occurs only during the rainy period—making dependency on government assistance great. The Mutual Help Group-GAM is a microcredit model that consists of women helping each other with common necessities. Each woman contributes R$5 per month and one is trained as the “banker” to open a savings account and manage resources. This represents a significant and historical shift in women’s’ role in rural communities. In Alagoas state there are currently five GAMs in five different communities where the Eco-Engenho Institute works.

Knowing the market is one of the biggest obstacles to small producers, the Eco-Engenho Institute plays a significant role in creating a model of product commercialization. It created AmercSol (Articulacao do Mercado Solidario) with the intention to build the market so that a product’s differential could be valued. AmercSol distributes and sells products primarily to restaurants and small supermarkets in Maceio under its own label. To guarantee efficiency, a fund was established, initially with resources from the LaGuardia Foundation, but has gradually become self-sustainable. Each association of producers contributes with a fixed tax of 15 percent of their gross income and AmercSol commits to the commercialization of the products, while offering resources for maintenance and technical production assistance. In this way, everyone wins: The producers are able to concentrate on production with the guarantee of a final sale and functioning equipment, and AmercSol gains economies of scale and resources that enable an increase in the number of associations in the network.

To encourage the purchase and sale of products, José Roberto is breaking the enormous tax barriers that are detrimental to small producers. Taking advantage of a state law that had not been used before, the Eco-Engenho Institute validates the right to a differentiated tax system, which is simplified for and favors small scale production. This law guarantees that gross revenues of R$48,000 (profit of R$8,000 per year) are exempted from paying ICMS (a state product tax), since the goods circulate only within the state of Alagoas. So, for each jar of chili peppers commercialized at R$4, the producer receives R$2.35, i.e., a margin of 59 percent. José Roberto is able to secure an increase in income and ensure the punctual repayment of the investment in micro-irrigation and other technologies; obtaining a net margin of R$1.21 per unit.

This law benefits the producer, and also offers incentives to the buyer as the government gives a credit of 17 percent (above the total value) to large companies that buy products from small-scale farmers. This encourages larger companies to buy from socially oriented micro-companies and, in the case of small-scale agricultural producers, the sale can be done simply by registering as an individual tax payer—averting the necessity for an open company. José Roberto believes this is a great incentive to promote the commercialization of products in Alagoas State and has already entered into dialogue with the government of Paraiba to implement the same model. This completely changes the form of commercialization for these products in the Brazilian market. When the whole micro system of production and commercialization has been implemented, the government is invited to contribute through the application of new laws that benefit small-scale producers, infrastructure, and replicating the program.

The Eco-Engenho Institute is active in sixteen communities in ten cities in Alagoas State and one city of Paraíba State, and this methodology that has the potential to be adapted to any region, not only semi-arid zones. In the north of the state, the Institute has begun to work with settlers producing passion fruit (maracuja). Instead of focusing only on its pulp (used to make juice), José Roberto uses technologies to dry the skin of the fruit and extract its flour; this product has high aggregate value and commercialization in the pharmaceutical market. In conjunction with these activities, the Institute is also disseminating its model through the Social Technology Network and Renove, and has initiated a discussion with the Portuguese government about taking this methodology to Cabo Verde. José Roberto had been working intensely to consolidate his model in the poorest and remote community of Alagoas. In 2008 he sees H2Sol in 100 family micro-companies in twenty communities with a 100 percent increase every year.


Grandson of one of the first doctors in Brazil, José Roberto was always interested in the biological sciences. However, it was his adventurous spirit, passion for nature, and curiosity that led him to enter the first class in Fishing Engineering in the country, at the Federal University of Pernambuco. The courses covered diverse subjects such as, the environment, engineering, navigation, and oceanography, Jose Roberto realized that Fishing Engineering encompassed so many distinct areas. When he graduated in 1975, he took an exam in marine biology at the Federal University of Alagoas, with the intention to develop a project on cultivating oysters—predatory at that time, and resulting in a series of problems for the region’s mangroves.

During this time José Roberto took various specialization courses in different areas and came across another problem, related to sugar cane, one of the most important resources in the state of Alagoas. In the 1980s there was strong incentive to produce ethanol, but the cane production plants were not prepared to work in this area, which requires further environmental protections. Legislation to protect the environment did not exist and there were no instructions on how to work without causing pollution. In 1978 José Roberto went to work in the coordination of environmental protection for Alagoas, in the State Secretary of Planning. He constructed the state environmental policy and established the first legal milestones in environmental protection. In addition, he created a system of state licensing for polluting activities (which fined the activities of companies) and the State Council of Environmental Protection and the Environment Institute of Alagoas became responsible for enforcing the environmental policy. José Roberto built relationships with social movements and the media to create a support network for the activities he developed within the government.
In recognition of the work he developed in Alagoas, José Roberto was elected President of the Brazilian Association of Environmental Non-Governmental Organizations. With the founding of the New Republic, President Tancredo Neves invited all states in Brazil to present environmental models of work to be adopted by the new government. He also proposed the creation of a Special Secretariat for the Environment that could intervene in other ministries. Before Tancredo’s death, his idea was widely accepted and was later implemented during the following administration. José Roberto was also nominated as a member of the National Environment Council.

José Roberto spent ten years working for the government and believes it was an important phase in the construction and implementation of his ideas. For him, it was impossible to construct concrete conservation and development projects without the existence of the basic required conditions. On the other hand, he felt it necessary to see many things, barred or postponed by the government, become concrete. In 1990 he set up a consulting company, MAPPA, to work on studies and reports about environmental impact in the northeast region. The consultancy was sought out by diverse companies that required help in implementing environmental preservation projects. He did two important projects for the Inter-American Development Bank—one concerning the revitalization of local fishing and the other on photovoltaic solar energy. The latter, developed with the Teotônio Vilela Foundation, was largely responsible for the change in José Roberto’s life.

Project Sunlight’s objective was to take photovoltaic solar energy to the rural zone of northeast Brazil and was supported by a North American company, which supplied the photovoltaic modules, and by the Northeast Bank (Banco Nordeste), which financed the projects implementation. Ninety micro-companies were created that rented photovoltaic systems and administrated condominiums, with up to thirty users. In total 2,700 families benefited, not only from having electricity, but by having access to finance and learning to work with the banking system. José Roberto realized that development model in rural areas of extreme poverty must involve different actors, and for this reason, with two colleagues from MAPPA, he created the Eco-Engenho Institute.