Viva Rio ready to restart social projects in Haiti

Viva Rio ready to restart social projects in Haiti

By Dialogo
January 28, 2010

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – Viva Rio started helping in the recovery of Haiti right after the earthquake devastated most of the country on Jan. 12. One day after the disaster, the non-governmental organization (NGO), which was founded in Rio de Janeiro, attended to more than 8,000 victims of the tragedy in its headquarters, which was among the 11% of buildings that weren’t brought down by the natural disaster. Viva Rio, which has been in the Haitian capital since 2004, heads numerous social projects, including garbage collection and recycling, water supply, alternative sources of energy, sports, health and conflict mediation in the neighborhood of Bel Air, one of the poorest slums in Port-au-Prince. “Viva Rio is trying to carry on their work, but we need to adapt to this new reality,” Flávio Soares, one of the nine Brazilian workers of the NGO in Haiti, says. “Now we have 1,600 people living in our headquarters,” he says. Soares has been in Haiti for more than a year and doesn’t know when he’s going home. “Each one of us is taking care of a project, including water distribution.” Viva Rio also has a team composed of 400 Bel Air residents. “What touches me the most is to see how the Haitian people are willing to fight for their happiness and for their lives, despite all their losses,” Soares says. “The most powerful word around here now is hope.” Viva Rio started its project in Haiti in response to an invitation by the United Nations (UN). They were invited to act as consultants in the MINUSTAH, a peacekeeping mission, which is under the command of the Brazilian army. Viva Rio has assisted in important conflict mediation initiatives that already have resulted in two peace agreements between leaders of rival groups. The UN chose Viva Rio above some programs in Haiti due to the NGO’s 15 years of experience dealing with gangs in Brazilian slums. The group was invited to coordinate projects financed by the governments of Canada and Norway. “It didn’t take us too long to realize that the source of the problems wasn’t only the violence,” Tião Santos, coordinator of Viva Rio, says. “There were issues such as infrastructure, especially the ones related to water supply.” The team tried to get water through wells, but it was of very poor quality. Later, the team thought of building big tanks to collect rain water. With the help of the women from the community of Bel Air, they started to collect, treat and distribute drinking water to the population, in addition to taking it to schools and government buildings. “In Haiti there is a lot of rain,” Santos says. “But the rain pours, all at once. Then, there are periods of drought. But it is possible to retain the water.” When the NGO started working in Bel Air, the neighborhood was completely overtaken by garbage, which was used for barricades during confrontations between the gangs and the army. “With the help of the army, we managed to remove the garbage from the city and create a collection and recycling project,” Santos says. Due to the increasing success of its programs, the NGO bought an abandoned factory building and remodeled it so that it could house its headquarters. That’s where all of the social projects were developed before the earthquake hit Port-au-Prince. Before the tragedy struck, Viva Rio was even building a sports center. “Haiti is a country that has a knack for sports and we dream of taking it to the 2014 World Cup, which is going to take place in Brazil,” Santos says. “Despite the tragedy, we still keep this dream alive. We actually have the support of some of the Brazilian soccer teams that plan on training players.” Lots of bathrooms with toilets, sinks and toilet paper were installed in the Viva Rio headquarters – a luxury in a country where people use ditches, which are rented, in public areas as toilets. Viva Rio also built a kitchen for the community. Then, the NGO brought a specialist who created a collection and treatment center called biodigestor. The system transforms human waste into methane gas. The energy generated by methane supplies electricity to the headquarters and generates the gas used in the community kitchen. The project is very useful in Haiti because its people still use coal as the main source of energy. “We realized that it was possible to create interesting and inexpensive things that could change those people’s lives,” Santos says. He said Haitians are charged by business owners who make money off those who use their restrooms. So does Viva Rio, but at a much lower price. “We charge just enough to cover our expenses,” Santos says. “Since our prices were very low, this caused a certain embarrassment for those who charged very high prices. We ended up making the prices go down.” The difference between the work of Viva Rio and other NGOs that are active in Haiti is that the Brazilian organization is not restricted to the UN view, as Santos explains. Viva Rio is independent and run by civilians. “According to the UN, we wouldn’t be allowed to enter the red zones (with high violence rates),” Santos says. “The projects involving gangs wouldn’t be allowed [by the UN]. We have been everywhere. We have been to the slums and talked to gang members. Nowadays, a lot of the people who work with us were once involved with gangs and now are being charitable, helping their own people.” Santos also says that the Brigada de Proteção Comunitária (community protection brigade in Portuguese) project, which trains young people to respond to natural disasters and to perform first aid, made a huge difference in Bel Air after the earthquake. The course was created to help victims of the hurricane that killed 500 in September 2008 in Haiti. “Along with the Brazilian army, we were really criticized when we started working in Haiti,” Santos says. “Some used to say that we were controlling the people and that they had to have autonomy. This kind of commentary is typical of those who don’t know the reality of this population. Now, after this tragedy, it is even clearer that our actions, as well as the army’s and other entities are very important [in Haiti].” Viva Rio started a campaign in Brazil to help victims of the earthquake. By Jan. 26, it had collected near R$650,000 (US$355,000), as well as non-perishable food, medicine, first-aid kits, water and chlorine to purify water. The NGO also is working to reunite families to prevent children from being adopted by foreigners. “They have lost their parents, but there are other family ties that remain,” Santos says. “They must have an uncle, an aunt, a cousin – someone who is related to them.”
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