Verónica Torassa has developed an integrated approach to rural development that focuses on improved education, health, women’s empowerment, and youth involvement, all done in close collaboration with the public and private sector. This integrated approach has strengthened rural identity, promotes a more sustainable rural development and, as a consequence, avoids rural exodus to major cities.
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Verónica implements programs in which everyone works together to address the most challenging problems in rural communities on a step by step basis, which leads to a cycle of growth, progress, and strengthens feelings of belonging. For example, to address the terrible condition of schools (many rural schools have a single room school with fifteen kids of all ages and grades), Verónica created an education model that recovers the adhesive role of schools in rural communities, by uniting schools that have low levels of enrolment through the creation of educational circuits. These circuits improve the quality of education of the participating schools in terms of academic content, socialization, diversity, and accessibility. To address the feelings of isolation and disempowerment among women, Verónica brought the mothers to school, started sewing classes and discussion groups, and the women began earning an income. To address that the only medical care available is at the hospitals of the county capital, Verónica convinced the hospital to send out medical teams on a rotating basis throughout the county along the educational circuits.
Soon teachers and mothers feel they are making a difference, doctors and nurses are getting out into the communities, and small progress leads to bigger steps involving more people in the communities. In this way, gradually, but methodically, Verónica first develops a local community network that helps residents of rural communities fundamentally break out of a cycle of apathy and isolation and transforms them into agents of change and leaders of their own development.
As Verónica’s grassroots approach attracts more people and achieves more success in ways that are real and tangible to the community, businesses and government take notice and she begins to build the final, most important ingredient to her approach—forming a second network that includes local government agencies, the private sector, universities, and foundations to support these initiatives which work and have popular support, so that these groups gradually take the lead to continue and expand their integrated programs to other rural areas. Once Verónica has been the catalyst on a pilot basis and shows this new, improved reality on a small scale, she allows this second, external network to replicate and take credit for their part of the integrated program on a much broader scale and with the resources needed for success depending on the real possibilities of interaction in other rural areas.
Life in rural communities has continually deteriorated in the last twenty years, suffering from emigration to cities and rural desertification. The disappearance of train tracks in the 1990s exasperated the isolation of rural towns. Roads to the countryside also continue to deteriorate, decreasing the mobility of rural residents.
In terms of education, the decrease of the rural population resulted in a decrease in the number of students enrolled in school, forcing many schools to close. Today, most rural schools have less than 15 students and only teach classes such as math and language, which are taught by a single teacher to students of all ages. Children that go to rural schools do not have access to classes such as art, physical education and foreign languages. The decrease in enrollment has also resulted in limited recreational activities with their classmates, which has a devastating effect on the process of socialization.
The poor quality in the rural education system causes many students to drop out. Both the students and their parents have lowered their expectations of education and the usefulness of the tools that it offers for their development. In Azul County there is currently no agrarian high school, which would provide students with an education specific to their needs.
With such deteriorating quality, schools have lost their former role as central and adhesive agents in rural communities. Teachers and faculty are also stuck in a situation of isolation and apathy—they have become accustomed to the current system and lack motivation to enact change.
The isolation of rural regions is also apparent through the inaccessibility of health care. The few positions for nurses that used to exist were eliminated with the increasing depopulation of rural areas, and the remaining inhabitants are forced to travel to the nearest city in order to access health necessities, such as vaccines, check-ups, and dental care. However, accessibility to cities is limited due to the poor conditions and scarceness of roads as well as the long distances due to the vast territory of the Buenos Aires province (307.571 km²). The electricity infrastructure is also insufficient and there are vast areas without light or electricity. All of these factors contribute to apathy and resignation among the rural population.
In addition, women play a fundamental role in rural areas that has gone unnoticed. While they collaborate with their husbands in a variety of tasks related to the production of crops and cattle, for example, they are only given credit for attending to their husbands and raising their children. They are not seen as equals nor are they given their own space or recognition for their role in society, and their social life is essentially based on serving their families.
Many families move to nearby cities in search of better educational and work opportunities, where they often face another series of challenges. The remaining rural population, used to being ignored by the government, public policies and authorities in general, resigns itself to accepting these problems.
Through her initiative, Azul Solidarity, Verónica addresses the most pressing rural problems on a step by step basis, building methodically from small success toward broader success, by having the community work together. First she builds a local community network and achieves tangible success; then she brings in key external actors such as government agencies, businesses, universities, and foundations to work on bigger projects which the community cannot tackle alone. Verónica then encourages those external networks to expand her integrated program to other rural areas, with the help of local community change agents from her network who have ties to other rural areas as well.
Verónica starts with local elementary schools. To address the problem of few students working in isolation, she has created eight educational circuits that connect twenty schools throughout Azul County in the center of the Buenos Aires province, providing students in rural areas with access to the same quality and diversity of curricular content that children residing in cities receive. She talked businesses into giving computers to each school, then got local teen youth university groups to teach computer skills to the elementary kids; with the help of local educational councils and rural producers Verónica then convinced the Ministry of Education to bring Internet to the schools (which was in the budget, but would have been spent on other priorities). Now, these formerly isolated schools also serve as Internet cafes for the community, during school hours they have weekly joint projects like studying Don Quixote in Cervantes while linked to partner schools in Spain, and they offer school competitions for best project.
These schools have recovered their vitality and are being transformed into attractive spaces for children and their families. In this way, Verónica has been able to combat rural isolation: Today, the schools that are part of her program benefit from new collaborative projects and from the participation of parents in the schools’ activities.
To pay for her programs, Verónica began raising awareness about the inequality and lack of opportunities in rural sectors and, through a municipal decree, was able to receive part of the rural tax fund (a tax that rural landowners pay per hectare of land) that is usually allotted to issues related to plagues and road maintenance. She has also received the support of the Ministry of Education, which approved the model of academic circuits and declared the program as serving the educational interest at a national level.
After demonstrating the revitalization of schools, culture, and the new and growing social spaces on a local basis, Verónica then activates the external network to bring about bigger and broader changes. By incorporating staff from the Ministry of Education from a regional level into her networks, they facilitated the reopening of two new primary schools and five preschools, fighting against the pattern of closing schools and the impoverishment of rural education.
Verónica then galvanized support for the first agrarian high school, which trains youth to be experts in areas specific to their environment and its demands. The school opened in March 2011 with significant support from her external network. Technological Institute of Argentina (INTA), the Agronomy Faculty of Azul, and the Society of Rural Argentina supported the project by providing economic resources, accompanying the design of curricula, and the management of the school. Better prepared students become more knowledgeable employees to help modernize farming while revitalizing the county and recreating pride in its rural identity.
Education and health activities were also initiated in the educational circuits in collaboration with the Municipality’s Secretary of Health and the Women and Children’s Hospital of Azul. Medical professionals visit all of the schools in these circuits twice a year and offer general medical attention with an emphasis on nutrition and oral hygiene. Youth groups are involved to prevent rural diseases such as Hidatidosis, the construction of sanitary wells, and even youth-led classes in HIV prevention. The external network pays for these activities as Verónica and local hospitals, working together, convinced the Pan American Health Organization and UNICEF to support these health initiatives which have deep community involvement.
Moving to the plight of rural women, Verónica recognized that because of the long distances between the schools and homes and the poor conditions of the roads, mothers often wait for their children outside of the school while they study. In order to take advantage of the time as well as help them regain a sense of agency in their lives, Verónica encouraged them to develop productive activities that are typical of rural areas and enable them to socialize and make good use of their time. As a result, they formed a spinning and weaving workshop, using wool donated by sheep farmers. The workshop began in one school but has since extended to the full educational circuit. The women have been increasingly enthusiastic about this activity and have begun to raise sheep to produce their own wool. They are currently in the process of organizing a group to sell sheep’s wool and handmade knitting products. They plan to produce wool products for sale in Spain via the Cervantes and school connections.
The enthusiasm this event inspired helped Verónica organize a celebration for the International Day of Rural Women. Three years later, more than 150 rural women are celebrated and recognized in the city of Azul for their integral role as individuals, not as servants. In the beginning, women did not attend because they did not know with whom to leave their children. Now, women leave their children with their husbands, and attend celebrations in the city and in their homes.
Conscious of the need to stay relevant and keep improving, Verónica hosts two annual events to evaluate the project and invites all of the people involved in the local community network, as well as the external network. They spend time reviewing what is working, what needs to be improved, while building confidence that by working together, they can improve these pressing rural problems.
Verónica intends to spread this model to various rural areas in need of revitalization. School district supervisors from Azul, though once skeptical, have become increasingly more enthusiastic in their support. They have adopted Verónica’s model and have begun a dialogue with her about implementing it in rural areas such as Tapalqué, Olavarría, and Bolívar, using its educational focus as a starting point. The Sociedad Rural of Azul, Ministry of Education of the province support her model and are key partners in expanding its reach to other rural areas throughout the country.
Verónica’s model is sustainable in all aspects, including the diversity of its sources of funding and donation of services. Funding for her project, which in 2009, became formalized into a registered organization comes from both private sources (24 percent of total budget) such as individuals, businesses, embassies, and rural producers, and from different government sources, such as the municipal tax, the Management of Culture and Education, the Faculty of Agronomy, and the Women and Children’s Hospital (76 percent of total budget).
Soon after graduating from university in Buenos Aires with a degree in sociology, Verónica moved to rural Azul, where she became a renowned intrapreneur, changing and revitalizing various public agencies in which she worked. In the Women and Children’s Hospital of Azul, she founded the first programs for “responsible procreation” and the first project for primary care for infants in Azul. As part of her work to promote health while still respecting the culture of rural residents, she talked with traditional healers, who attend to the medical needs of the rural communities, about the best ways to encourage women to come to health centers for check-ups related to sexual and reproductive health.
As Municipal Director of Childhood and Adolescence, she collaborated on the creation of the first HIV Prevention Program, called Conciencia Joven (Youth Conscience) and the creation of a weekly magazine focused on youth, which has continued to be successful fifteen years after its first publication. She worked as a member of the Dirección Técnica Criminológica of Sierra Chica prison doing criminological studies ordered by a judge so inmates could have access to regular outings or parole but did not do any coordination with the educational system from the penitentiary. In 2005 Verónica retired from the public sector and set out to use all she had learned in this long and productive apprenticeship to bring about bigger and more integrated change to rural areas. She saw the enormous potential for change by bringing people together to work on the area’s most challenging problems and then bringing in government agencies and businesses to support these already successful local community projects.
Verónica’s project was recognized by the Legislature of the Province of Buenos Aires in 2006, and in 2008 the State Secretary of Modernization awarded Verónica the First Prize of Innovation in Rural Public Management. Verónica has dedicated her life to transforming the reality of rural Argentina, and is spreading her integrated approach via her local and external networks, which now work with as much passion and persistence as Verónica. She also received the Diploma of Honor as a candidate for the prize to innovative women granted by the Senate of Buenos Aires province in 2006 and in 2010 a recognition for outstanding community work as part of the Bicentenary year granted by the House of the Province of Buenos Aires on International Women’s Day.