Sebastião Alves
Ashoka Fellow since 2015   |   Brazil

Sebastião Alves

Sebastiao has developed a model for creating sustainable farming practices and increasing quality of life in rural sertão by combining local knowledge with modern agriculture technology. This new…
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This description of Sebastião Alves's work was prepared when Sebastião Alves was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2015.


Sebastiao has developed a model for creating sustainable farming practices and increasing quality of life in rural sertão by combining local knowledge with modern agriculture technology. This new development model is spread through Brazil’s northeastern region and can be applied anywhere in the world.

The New Idea

Sertão, the desert region in the Northeast of Brazil, is largely undervalued and underdeveloped. Its dry climate, lack of vegetation, and its inhabitants, the “Sertanejos”, are considered the opposite of what Brazil sees as development. The region’s negative stereotype is often reiterated by the Sertão inhabitants themselves. Moreover, education is imported from elsewhere and has not been adapted to local realities. Children are taught in their early years that the only way to achieve success is by seeking opportunities in the big cities, which results in rural exodus, while those that do stay in Sertão appreciate little and know less about their own region, in turn reinforcing the cycle of poverty and a disregard for the environment. However, Sebastião Alves sees something different in Sertão-- an invisible university. People who survive in such adverse conditions have accumulated a lot of knowledge not taught in traditional universities.

In order to transform this reality, Sebastião created SERTA, Service for Alternative Technologies in Sertão, with an aim to rework education and technology to value the local resources and empower farmers. Sebastião’s work is guided by the principle that development should: 1) be based on local conditions; 2) respect local knowledge; 3) take advantage of local resources. He believes that by valuing local conditions, knowledge and resources, and understanding challenges but also potentialities, sustainable development can happen successfully both in Sertão and the rest of the world. Through SERTA, Sebastião collects, adapts, and creates technologies and techniques that can improve the lives of people living in rural areas. To develop improved technologies and then scientifically validate them, Sebastião establishes partnerships with universities. At SERTA, students are motivated to collectively create solutions to their problems. SERTA works as a demonstration centre, and is visited by groups of farmers, technicians, teachers, and academics from all over the northeast, to show that it is possible to live sustainably in Sertão with basic techniques and little resources. To disseminate this work, Sebastião created “Reference Properties”, student lands that have applied SERTA’s principles and technologies and are geographically spread out. They serve as smaller demonstration centres for farmers to copy.

SERTA Ibimirim has received over 200 students from six states of the semi-arid region. Sebastião’s goal is to develop his program into one offering an undergraduate degree recognized by the Ministry of Education. Sebastião also influences public policies aimed at rural school reformations so they may offer an education that is contextualized in local conditions. He is also attempting to get the state of Pernambuco to apply its law of coexistence within the semi-arid climate while encouraging neighboring states in the Northeast region to develop laws with similar purpose. In the long-term, Sebastão envisions his principle and technologies to come to fruition as a productive model and life philosophy for the “Sertanejos”, serving as an archetype for other regions in the country and world to replicate.

The Problem

Brazil’s development paradigm is focused on economic development rather than resource scarcity and related social issues. Especially in big cities, people live in the illusion of resource abundance -- São Paulo, for example, is a city built on top of rivers, but, on the way to becoming Brazil’s economic powerhouse, its rapid growth outpaced the ability to replenish its water. Even in the middle of a serious water crisis, São Paulo’s inhabitants have barely reduced water consumption and waste. People are unaware of their environmental impact, and rarely think about the origins of their water source beyond their faucet.

Sertão, Brazil’s arid wilderness, is largely unappreciated; with its predominantly rural characteristics, dry climate, dry vegetation and shallow soil, it does not house characteristics of development. Brazil’s development model values profitable production activities and regions of abundant natural resources while standardizing good production activities, habits, and values, but excluding regional particularities. For example, people from the semiarid region have the habit of eating carrots and lettuce, even though those are crops that demand a lot of water to be grown. As a result, local crops and vegetation are neglected, reinforcing people’s impression that their land is not worth much. Even the organizations that work with agriculture and give technical support to the region’s farmers only show them standardized technologies and techniques that have not been adapted to local reality. Even though Sertão has great potential, the global standardization of agriculture suppresses the regions’ specific needs that could bring food safety and wealth.

Alongside the standardization of agriculture, educational institutions value a teaching model that focuses on urban and economic centers, but neglect local realities. “Development” is linked with the urban centers of business and areas rich in vegetation. This is evident in Sertão, where the schooling system focuses on the territory’s problems rather than its potential while the natural wealth of the ecosystem is ignored all together. The idea that this region consists of nothing more than drought and poverty is prevalent, and is shared by the perspective of local peoples.

Despite the Sertanejo’s resilience and ability to survive with little resources, they and their ecosystem are looked down on. Family-scale farming is viewed as a means of survival, and the phenomenon of droughts would never allow agricultural, economic or production development in this region. For this reason, it is the activity of the impoverished, those who are hit economically and socially by the droughts, and who will never escape this condition. Local knowledge is undervalued, and the rural farmers are seen as incapable of improving their living conditions in the dry area of the Northeast.

In this context, young people have little interest in agricultural activities and are taught from a young age that to succeed they must seek opportunities in big cities. This results in a rural exodus – along with other problems related to urban poverty. Individuals who end up staying in Sertão plant crops unsuitable for local conditions because they lack knowledge about the characteristics of their own region. The planting of such crops is encouraged by large companies who sell them. This system reinforces a cycle of poverty and a neglect of the environment. Farmers reproduce agricultural practices based on the logic of agribusiness, but do so in the exploitation of nature, without considering the importance of using natural resources sustainably.

Rural technologies are expensive and resource intensive, thus most people do not have access to them. There are solutions that combat these challenges in the form of both simple low-cost technologies and production techniques and more elaborate ones, but there lacks interest from the political leaders and groups who hold the power to change a system of inequality and subservience. Therefore, it is necessary for local inhabitants to empower themselves.

The Strategy

Sebastião bases his work on the principle that sustainable development should rely on local knowledge of conditions and resources. With this in mind, Sebastião envisions that the challenges Sertão faces – alongside every ecosystem of the world – if well studied and understood, can be transformed into opportunities. The starting point is learning of the region’s challenges and potential through the knowledge of those who live there and have developed technologies to survive. Living in the semiarid region is possible -- local families do it, so valuing and collecting their knowledge is key before good practices can be improved and shared.

Tião founded SERTA, a technical school in agroecology – an approach to agriculture from an ecology perspective - in Sertão, Pernambuco. SERTA was initially created by Ashoka Fellow, Abdalaziz Moura in Pernambuco’s rainforest area, but Sebastião envisioned that agroecology could be taken to a region with adverse conditions, where reality and misery are seen as synonyms.. SERTA is Sebastião’s vehicle to apply and disseminate his principles; and to develop techniques and technologies for sustainable development that show potential for success in an otherwise seen as unfavourable region.

Based on the principles of agroecology, SERTA teaches young adults from Sertão to take advantage of the natural wealth of the region and create sustainable agriculture to support themselves in harmony with the environment, thus breaking a previous cycle of misery. Its teaching reverses ideas of what should be valued in the semiarid region, and ensures that the local population recognizes the natural potential of Sertão. This encourages them to build production models for the countryside by creating new or adapting old technologies that are environmentally friendly, socially inclusive and economically viable to help farmers cope with the ills of the drought.

Sebastião works to create technologies and techniques that improve four areas of development: energy, water, soil nutrients and food security. His model comes from studying local realities and trying to understand the potentials of the region. For example, one of Sertão’s main challenges is sun exposure – which Sebastião sees as an enormous potential for solar energy. Even though Sertão is dry, this semiarid region has the highest abundance of rain in the world – there is water there, it just needs to be captured and well managed; the soil is rich, but in nutrients that are not valued by traditional agriculture; Sertão has nutrient-rich local cultures that are not valued by traditional gastronomy, but could guarantee food security in the region. In addition to research on the local ecosystem, Sebastião has formed a pioneering group to study a botanical vivarium of local cactuses. Sertão has unique vegetation, the caatinga, on which there has been minimal research. Goiás’ Federal Institute has partnered to research a specific cactus – mandacaru – that has no thorns. In times of drought, the mandacaru is the only plant that survives, and saves animals from starvation, but there has been no research on it and no education on how to plant them, especially those without thorns. The Federal Institute is now taking this project to research plants from the the ecosystem of the center region of Brazil known as Cerrado.

The program’s creation of technology aims to use the least amount of resources possible, sometimes even using recycled materials to build new things. More than 70 different technologies have been created, also through partnerships with universities. In the field of energy development, many technologies are focused on solar power. Since solar panels are expensive, difficult to build and require a license from the German inventor, Sebastião invented a solar panel made of cans. He is now working together with Paraíba’s Federal Institute to use this technology for boiling and purification of water. In the field of water, technology is meant to reduce water use. Examples range from cisterns to a substitute sink made of basins that managed to reduce 90% of SERTA’s dishwashing water use. In the area of nutrients, examples are biodigestors that produce fertilizers. In the area of food security, efforts are aimed towards increasing the productivity and diversity of crops planted by farmers, especially incentivizing growth of local crops with high nutrients rate.

Sebastião has created a Basic Sustainability Unit (UBS), a mini-system that is the basic necessity of what a family needs to live sustainably, all developed in a way that uses as little resources as possible. It includes a cistern, a garden, and two farm animals. The animals feed the family, generate income and produce organic matter, which turns into compost. The compost is then used in the garden, which feeds the family. The construction of cisterns has already become an official public policy in the Sertão region, and Sebastião wants to include the rest of his UBS in the policy. If successful, all houses in the semiarid region will have the minimum required for subsistence.

Sebastião transformed SERTA into a technology lab, with the objective to improve the lives of farmers. This lab gathers technologies developed by the many farmers of the region, serving as a technology hub that the students can access and help improve or adapt to their realities. Alongside this, Sebastião brought to SERTA collective problem-solving, applied transversally, in all disciplines. Students bring challenges from their local realities and are encouraged to create new techniques and technologies to address them. Additionally, solution-building needs to be adapted to the local challenges and in turn solved through local knowledge.

Apart from the agroecology course, SERTA has a demonstration center opened for visitation to show technicians, teachers, and farmers all of the techniques needed to live sustainably and coexist within the semiarid region. SERTA Ibimirim has received over 5,000 visits, mostly from farmers, who are taught Sebastião’s principles while being guided through the subsequent technologies. These farmers learn to appreciate local conditions and their own knowledge, as well as new ways of planting and living appropriately by using local resources, and simple technologies that improve coexistence, generate revenue and give their families food, water and energy security. This process encourages the farmers to test the technologies in their own communities.

Sebastião’s strategies to replicate his principles and techniques are known as “Reference Properties,” model cases in which students have applied all the techniques and technologies to their land, have shown great interest in continuing and updating this work, and have the support of their families to do so. These students are prepared and certified by SERTA as having Reference Properties that will become demonstration centers for Sebastião’s development principles and technologies, as well as proof of the concept that it is possible to live sustainably in the semiarid region, not only at an institution like SERTA, but also on the local farm lands. There are 10 such properties spread throughout the entire state of Pernambuco, and their objective is to spread SERTA’s principles throughout the entire north-eastern region to offer access to more farmers. These properties are visited by farmers, public servants and academics, and also generate revenues for families. Sebastião has developed partnerships with researchers and professors at different universities in the area such as Pernambuco’s Federal University, to scientifically validate these technologies and then take them to university classrooms. Already more than 10,000 people have visited the two research centers, SERTA Gloria do Goitá and SERTA Ibimirim. The visitors also bring information about techniques and technologies being developed by farmers in their areas based on the local challenges they face, so SERTA is always updated and can support these farmers to improve their technologies.

SERTA’s work has already been spread throughout the entire semiarid region. SERTA Ibimirim has already received over 200 students from 123 municipalities and six states in Brazil. Most of the students are trained as agroecology technicians. They are young and the majority are women. SERTA influences public policies by participating in ASA – Semiarid Articulation, where it advocates for: 1) contextualized education in rural schools, 2) the state of Pernambuco to fulfil its law of “coexistence with the Semiarid”; 3) for other states in the Northeast to create laws to support coexistence with semiarid conditions by following the example of the state of Pernambuco. Sebastião also aims to create technical networks in agro-ecology, specifically designed for living with drought, environmental preservation and valuing rural families’ knowledge. Sebastião envisions that over time his principles and innovative technologies will come to fruition as not just a model for production, but also a philosophy of life for rural communities that may be replicated by regions all over the country and the world. He believes that, by valuing the local conditions, knowledge and resources, understanding challenges but also potentialities, sustainable development is achievable in not just Sertão, but anywhere in the world.

The Person

Sebastião was born in the semiarid region in the state of Rio Grande do Norte. Sebastião learned much about the region from his grandfather, who was an illiterate farmer, but had practical knowledge about coping with the rural context in semiarid conditions. The land owned by his family was inherited by his great grandmother. She was given the driest of the land because of her status as a woman. Sebastião would help his grandfather with basic but impactful activities, such as blocking the river with stones. He did not understand the importance of such a task at the time, but years later this work would be the foundation of his innovative water solutions that made this land the most irrigated area of the region. When Sebastião entered university, he had intentions of becoming a rural technician and coming back to help his grandfather in farming their land. However, his grandfather passed away and Sebastião learned a different type of agriculture that, different from his grandfather’s practices, was not connected to the local reality.

During the drought of 1979, which lasted for 5 years and killed approximately 2 million people, Sebastião began working with Church projects that combated effects of the drought. As people had nothing to eat; the project implemented vegetable gardens and introduced the rearing of goats to communities - the goat is very resilient in areas of few resources and dry climates, and their strong milk is capable of helping people with malnutrition. Before long, this region had the largest goat-rearing culture of Brazil. Sebastião then realized that there were simple ways to guarantee a dignified life in the semiarid region; ways of learning to live with the climate and nature. He decided to commit himself to take this knowledge to the Sertão inhabitants. With resources scarce, Sebastião thought it was necessary to invent solutions for the region from recycled objects. He saw Sertão as a land full of possibilities and experiments to be tested. He spent much of his time creating inventions with the goal of making life easier for local inhabitants. One of which was a bicycle that collected well water by pedalling. He made it from scrap resources available in the region, and this transformed the reality of the north-eastern women who would walk long distances to get water – children turned this activity into a game as they rode the bike. Sebastião also realized that this simple invention could be a learning opportunity for the community. Through this technology and everyday activities, they could learn about physics, chemistry, biology, etc. in an interactive and playful way.

Sebastião then returned to university, where he studied biology, worked for a short period of time at a foundation which aimed to help drug addicts with their rehabilitation and then spent four years as Secretary of Agriculture in Recife. Tião was then called to work at SERTA, an organization founded by partners who had worked with him on the Church project (one of them was Ashoka Fellow, Abdalaziz Moura). Tião brought all his expertise in technology invention of agricultural production to SERTA. However, Tião felt that his mission was in the most neglected territory of all, Sertão. Tião therefore decided to set up a country school in Ibimirim, Pernambuco. He used the technologies he had developed to teach the inhabitants how to deal with the land on which they lived in a preventive and sustainable way, and in turn reducing the exodus to urban centres. Although Tião uses SERTA’s pedagogical content, his work is distinct and adapted to the context of Sertão, where social problems are unique and exacerbated, and their solutions are tied to understanding and utilizing local realities of the climate, soil, and resources. Sebastião envisions Sertão as a lesson that can be taught to everyone: the scorching sun can be turned into solar energy, which can be exported all over the country at low cost and without pollution. Mineral wealth is still hidden underground and may be utilized. Its animal and plant diversity makes this semiarid region a potential source to help combat the devastating problems of hunger around the world. If this neglected region was well developed, it could be a provider of food, energy and products of mineral origin for Brazil while acting as a role model for other “unfavourable” regions in the world.

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