Sebastião Alves

Ashoka Fellow


This profile was prepared when Sebastião Alves was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in .
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
The Strategy
The Person

More For You