I recently had the chance to travel to the Brazilian Amazon to report on the beginnings of a project there by the Danish artistsgroup SUPERFLEX. SUPERFLEX had been invited by NIFCA, a São Paolo-based foundation called Extra Arte and the Amazonian government to undertake a research residency based in the town of Maués. Maués is in the central Amazon and, with a population of around 20,000, is the capital of the region of the same name, but the 100km journey from Manaus, the nearest city (famous to Europeans for its opera house, as seen in Herzog Fitzcarraldo but best known in Brazil as an economic free-zone, its huge industrial parks home to firms like Toshiba, Samsung, or Benetton and the banks of the Amazon piled high with shipping containers marked for Tokyo or Hamburg), is possible only by taking a small plane or spending 22 hours on a riverboat. Maués is known in Brazil as the home of guaraná, a fruit whose caffeine-packed seeds are a luxury health-food product in Europe but in Brazil form the basis of some the countrys most popular soft drinks. By the time I set out, SUPERFLEX had been living there for nearly three weeks, and had begun working with a cooperative of local guaraná farmers.
The complexities of travel in the region left me unexpectedly with a day to spare in Manaus, but this turned out to be for the best when João Matos, Sub-Secretary of Sustainable Development and the Environment for the Amazonas State, invited me to spend the time at the offices of a new government agency called IPAAM, the Institute for the Protection of the Amazon Environment.
The recent national elections in Brazil brought a new party into power in the federal government, the PT, or WorkersParty, led by former metalworkersunion leader Lula, the first left-wing government in Brazilian political history, while the same party also won a majority in the Amazon state administration. The federal governments economic policy is handicapped by Brazils massive foreign debt, well over $200 billion owed to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), to the extent that even arch-capitalist George Soros has suggested that the IMFs economic demands are interfering with the countrys democracy. The Amazon state is in a better position, though. Having experienced an unprecedented political transformation, its priorities have turned completely around. Instead of the corporate exploitation of the Amazons natural resources, the goal is sustainable development and self-sufficiency for the rural poor a ;green free-zone- and IPAAM is staffed by environmentalists and activists who, in their own words, had spent twenty years fighting the the government.So this was the setting in which SUPERFLEX were working.
I arrived in Maués just in time to take part in a workshop organised by SUPERFLEX, as a result of their three weeks of research, in collaboration with the newly formed cooperative, XXXXXX. The day began with a trip to a thirty-year old experimental guaraná plantation, a breeding station that has used traditional methods to greatly increase the yield and disease resistance of the plants. Guaraná is a vine, technically a woody liana, that can be persuaded to grow as a bush on open land. The fruit, a red berry, has long been harvested by the local indigenous people, the Maué-Sataré, for its medicinal and energy-giving properties, and the word guaraná means like eyes because the clusters of ripe fruit split open on the vine to reveal dark brown stones surrounded by white pith.
The promise of these new varieties of plant was, however, undercut by the reality of the situation facing the farmers. The multinational corporations that buy most of the guaraná have, through mergers and mutual agreements, formed a cartel and no longer compete for the crop. Consequently the price paid to the producers has dropped from $25/kilo to $4/kilo in four years, wrecking the local economy and the livelihoods of the farmers, while the price of the products the corporations sell has remained the same. The corporations Xxxxx, an affiliate of Dutch food giant Xxxxxxxx formed out of the merger of Brazilian drinks manufacturers Xxxxxxxxxx and Xxxxxx, and XxxxxXx, who have signed mutual distribution deal with Xxxxx have established a small plantation of their own. Nowhere near large enough to supply their needs, it functions as a veiled threat to the local producers accept the situation, or we will expand and put you out of business completely.
The workshop organised by SUPERFLEX was motivated by their discussions of this situation with XXXXXX. XXXXXX and the corporations share a mutual antagonism, and the participants raised two contradictory points. First, in order to resist the corporate monopoly on the raw material, it was necessary to find a way to produce a secondary product that could be sold in a different market, perhaps even competing directly with the corporate brands. Second, the community has no capital and no access to manufacturing equipment or distribution mechanisms to make this possible. So the workshop began to focus on ways of resolving this contradiction.
SUPERFLEX presented as a model the phenomenon of Mecca Cola- a brand of cola created by a French Moslem company that donates a percentage of profits to Palestinian charities with the slogan ‘Pas buvez stupide, buvez engagé (Dont drink stupid, drink with commitment)and also suggested that local products might be developed without the need for impossibly expensive industrial technology. Members of the cooperative presented a variety of local products for discussion, from sculptures of guaraná fruit made out of powdered guaraná to energy-hit potions for long-distance truckers and guaraná ice-cream. But the best received suggestions were a variety of chocolates and soft drinks. The workshop participants selected certain proposals for further development, and decided to reconvene later in the week once these proposals had been worked on a little more.
The intervening time was spent on journeys upriver to tiny Amazon villages and occasionally successful attempts to meet with local politicians to discuss the project. The mayor of Maués, Sidney Leite, had a good reputation with the state government as an educationalist and proactive reformer. His deputy, Jackson, was a PT member sympathetic to the cooperative but pessimistic about its future. SUPERFLEX had in fact met with Leite earlier, but without a translator no real comunication had taken place. A later interview with Jackson – who had taken part in the workshop - affirmed his support for the project, and a shift of viewpoint from sceptic to enthusiast.
The second part of the workshop was the presentation of several potential local products – as home-made prototypes - and ideas for how these could be marketed. These ranged from chocolate bars branded Maués Barsin competition with Mars Bars, and flavoured with another little-known but very tasty Amazon fruit, the cupuassu, to guaraná and ginger sweets, and soft drinks. The drinks included Amazonia as an adaptation of Xxxxxxxxxx, Xxxxxs main guaraná drink product (suggested by Paolo Levi, one of the cooperatives main organisers);Mauéscafé against Nescafé as a breakfast wake-up; and PepSim(EnergyYes in Portugese, a SUPERFLEX proposal) against Pepsi cola. These last three were interesting because they were purely conceptual, marketing suggestions, with no existing local product behind them, yet they generated a great deal of interest and positive feedback from the cooperative.
So the workshop, in itself, could be seen as very successful. The combination of the farmersexperience and the concepts introduced by SUPERFLEX produced the beginnings of an answer to the difficulties XXXXXX faces. The energy the artists brought to the situation initiated a discussion that enabled the cooperative to move from a position of powerlessness (all we have is guaraná one of the participants said at the start) to a realisation that ideas are, in the new economya form of capital and that, by organising themselves, they had already taken the most important and difficult step towards changing their situation.
The Maués workshop ended with XXXXXX planning to organise a meeting with the state government and a local NGO that funds sustainable technology called FUCAPI, and SUPERFLEX planning to research in Europe to find partners for the project there.
The Supertropical project developed quickly into an active collaboration because the artists encountered a group who were looking for outside input and saw SUPERFLEXs presence in Maués as an opportunity to address their own situation. The project is now at an interesting stage, a moment where both partners, artists and farmers, are using the material offered by the other SUPERFLEX in their presentations of the project in European artspaces, XXXXXX in their presentations to potential government and funding partners in the Amazon. What happens next depends on how these various audiences respond.
The project is initiated by NIFCA, and organised in collaboration with Extra Arte, Sao Paulo, Brazil with the support of the Government of Amazonas/Secretary of Sustainable Development, Brazil and Vogue Brazil.