Candomblé priestess and environmental activist, Valdina Pinto, helped organize a remarkable environmental education program in the city of Salvador, Bahia in northeastern Brazil. The program, called Memorial Pirajá, is based in several poor and working-class neighborhoods surrounding a large nature reserve and combines leadership development, anti-racist pedagogy, citizenship education and environmental preservation.

Operated by the Centro Educacional Ambiental São Bartolomeu (CEASB, the Saint Bartholomew Center for Environmental Education), the program teaches environmental awareness through an integrated focus on the well-being of the park, the surrounding neighborhoods and the people who live there.

The culture and history of the communities surrounding the park – the stories people tell, the games children play, the herbs harvested from the woods, as well as the condition of the communities’ roads and sewage systems – are as much a part of the environment of the area as the rivers, and waterfalls and old-growth trees in the park itself. Valdina and her colleagues in Memorial Pirajá, devised a variety of activities to help residents of all ages become more actively involved in protecting, interpreting and developing the resources of the park and the neighborhoods in a sustainable and respectful way.

st-bartholomeu-parkThe Pirajá Municipal Park, also known as the Saint Bartholomew Park, is a wooded area of about 1500 hectares on the outskirts of the city of Salvador, Bahia. It is part of the Mata Atlantica (a forested eco-system along the edge of the Atlantic ocean), and is distinguished by great bio-diversity, including extraordinarily beautiful waterfalls. It is also a place of historical significance. In the 16th century, Tupinambá Indians lived in the area and the first Jesuit mission villages were established there. During slavery, fugitive slaves created quilombos (maroon communities) on these lands; and in the 19th century, Pirajá was also the site of decisive battles for Brazilian independence from Portugal. More recently the park has been a sacred site utilized by devotees of Afro-Brazilian religions who – especially in the middle years of the 20th century – harvested ritual plants and conducted ceremonies of baptism and initiation within its boundaries.

The neighborhoods surrounding the park are strongly affected by the petrochemical and railroad industries in the area which have polluted the ground and water. Also, new settlements (invasões) have developed in some formerly uninhabited areas of the park where the city’s most economically marginalized people construct makeshift houses that often lack electricity and running water. Furthermore, in recent years, problems of violence and drugs have beset the communities surrounding the park, adding to the overall lack of environmental “wellness”.

waterfall-in-parkThe environmental education project actually emerged from a local neighborhood organizing effort – The Movement in Defense of the Park – spearheaded by a nucleus of educators, mother’s organizations, neighborhood associations and leaders of Candomblé temples. These local residents were concerned about the deteriorating state of the park (and the surrounding communities) and organized themselves to try to address the problem. They were eventually joined by professional environmentalists, activists, artists and specialists in curriculum development for the work.

One of the early elements of the environmental education project was called “Guides and Guardians” of the park. These were teenagers who organized themselves to protect and preserve the park and to interpret its history and meaning. Their curriculum was called “Reading the Territory” and included: the first comprehensive mapping of the park; guided tours for visiting groups; and interviews with older neighborhood residents about their memories of the park, important historical events, uses of space and uses of plants. Another element of the curriculum was “Self Knowledge/Local Knowledge” — a discussion series that helped young people understand and explore their personal identities in the context of their experience as residents of the park neighborhoods.

Other activities designed by CEASB included a youth-run newspaper; plays developed and performed by youth based on the history, culture and geography of the park; small gardens; greenhouses; beekeeping; and the “Saturdays in the Park” programs providing tours and recreational activities to groups of children and adolescents.

Eventually, with assistance from the local city government and the Center for Afro-Asian Studies of the Federal University of Bahia, CEASB helped train teachers in implementing an anti-racist environmental education pedagogy designed to value the local cultural/historical memory of the Park and to use this memory as a teaching and organizing resource.

Parents and other relatives of school children who had never before felt comfortable visiting the local public schools were now being invited to speak to classes about their historical memories of the Park. They taught children games they used to play when they were young  and helped lead workshops in making toys and instruments out of found materials.

Children researched the names of local plants in the park and interviewed Candomblé elders about the uses of the herbs for medicine and ritual purposes. Then they compiled a book cataloging the plants by their scientific, Portuguese, Yoruba and Kikongo names. Important lessons in citizenship education and leadership development were built into the learning process as teachers and students mapped the neighborhoods surrounding the park with particular attention to the environmental “health” of the area. They noted the presence or absence of paved streets and the number of trees in residential areas. They also examined traffic patterns, the condition of water and sewage systems, trash and trash collection, electricity, telephone service, public transportation and other elements of the local environment. The classes also examined the health status of local community members – interviewing friends and relatives about the most common physical illnesses suffered by neighborhood residents, the most common treatments and even indicators of mental illness and depression.

With the help of collaborating organizations, CEASB sponsored a neighborhood library; intergenerational recreation programs that emphasize passing on the lore and fun of traditional games; gardening and oral history projects; and removal of trash from local streets and from within the park itself.

The project was extensive and comprehensive. The results of the research encouraged neighborhood residents, led by the schoolchildren, to recognize problems of environmental racism as a major threat to the health of the park and its surrounding communities. Some of the youth had their first experiences of advocacy and organizing in taking the concerns of the community to city officials. And as they began to look at the environmental health and well-being of the park through the larger lens of the well-being of the entire community (of which the park is a part), they found themselves asking creative and informed questions about the kinds of economic and political inequities that ultimately result in imbalances in both physical and social environments.

In her workshops and public lectures, Valdina Pinto teaches that human beings are part of the environment – just as much as trees, plants, rivers, animals and all other elements of the natural world. Ecological imbalances are not unrelated to economic and racial injustice. And attention to one requires attention to the other. She reminds us that in the Afro-Brazilian religion, Candomblé, human beings and the natural world have a responsibility to care for each other – and are deeply dependent on each other. “The stones that are hundreds of years old, the trees, the grasses, the ground that has been here since before there were people walking on it, these are all our ancestors. And they are still here taking care of us.” The environmental education model she and her colleagues at CEASB created reflects this philosophy and although it was defunded by subsequent city administrations,  the Memorial Pirajá project remains a replicable example of how the local knowledge, history and cultural traditions of grassroots communities can inform rich and creative experience of environmental consciousness and a deeper understanding of environmental justice.