Students Building Sustainable Systems for Rural Brazilians
Deep in the Pantanal wetlands of Brazil, U-M students are conducting an investigation in social engineering. The question: Can a rural exodus of Brazilians from their native homes to the big cities be prevented by making the region more self-sustainable?
"They leave for very simple things – no formal education, limited healthcare, and few opportunities," said Julie Bateman, who set out to solve those problems by co-founding the Pantanal Partnership with fellow alum Ethan Shirley. Bateman, a recent civil and environmental engineering graduate, and Shirley, an anthropology and zoology alum, began their work three years ago while students at the University, and continue their efforts today.
The team, who leaves May 7 for another summer of work in the area, is in the process of developing technologies that can power and sustain a rural community center, and can be adapted to other buildings in the region. Among these sustainable technologies is a new model for creating clean water with bio-sand filters and bio-digesters that turn cow manure into propane for cooking. They also plan to customize a VW Bus to run on solar energy and install a solar-powered water and internet tower. (Watch the video below about their filter test run)
"From an engineering standpoint, it's a playground for sustainable systems and technology down there. It's like a blank canvas for engineers," said the student organization President Greg Ewing, a civil and environmental engineering senior. Ewing says students who join the group learn about the challenges in the Pantanal and select the technologies they believe can be implemented across the region and beyond.
The Pantanal Partnership started out as the brainchild of Shirley, who spent his summers teaching English in the Pantanal after visiting the area when he was a teenager. But it quickly blossomed into a multi-disciplinary organization, and now involves six Michigan Engineering students as well as students from the Taubman College of Architecture, the English Language Institute, the School of Art and Design and the College of Literature, Science and the Arts Honors Program (where the group originated).
The project is centered around the town of Porto Jofre in a region of Brazil known as the Pantanal, which is the world's largest wetland and home to a number of endangered species. Residents of the Pantanal are primarily fisherman and cattle ranchers, many of whom are illiterate and have limited access to education and healthcare. Currently, residents must travel 150 kilometers down the dirt highway known as the "Transpantaneira" to the nearest city of Poconé.
"I wanted to prevent people pushing away from their own cultural heritage and help them stay in the land that is historically theirs," said Shirley, who says he has seen a change throughout the eight years he's been traveling to the Pantanal.
As one of the most biologically diverse wetlands in the world, the Pantanal is a center for eco-tourism and research. However, residents are often not the ones hired to guide foreigners through the wetlands, primarily due to communication barriers. Shirley and his team hope that providing resources for the Brazilians to become more educated and self-sustainable will allow them to not only stay in their homes, but also gain access to more employment opportunities.
To combat the current lack of resources, Shirley and Bateman launched the Pantanal Partnership in 2009 with the creation of a new site: the Pantanal Center for Education and Research (PCER). The center will serve many functions, including acting as a physical space for elementary and adult education classes and a base for outreach and research projects. It is set to begin offering classes within the next nine months.
PCER was constructed in the summer of 2010 by a team of 22 U-M students, who toiled with dirt, mud and raw materials to build the center. They scraped the site by hand with hoes, laid the foundation and piping and even rolled enormous tree trunks from the wilderness to turn into lumber.
In 2011, the team returned to the Pantanal to put the finishing touches on the school and begin construction of the bio-sand water filter and bio-digester. This summer, the team is returning with plans to build a solar-powered water and internet tower, as well as begin transporting their new technologies to other schools in the region.
"PCER is really a template for the other schools in the area, and we hope to implement the technology throughout the school district," said Ewing, who will be part of the team that travels to other schools in the Pantanal this summer to teach them how to build and install their own filters, as well as educate them about the relationship between unsanitary water and disease. His hope is that these students will take the molds and create more throughout their community.
To this end, the water systems team set out to design a new, more sustainable mold out of wood. Traditionally, bio-sand water filters are created from a metal mold, which is costly and prohibits the technology from being easily implemented in rural areas.
Working with floodlights in a dusty, dark basement on North Campus, the team has been toiling for months to design their mold. They also recently conducted a successful trial run with students at Slauson Middle School to test the technology before trying to teach its use in Portuguese.
"The great thing about this group is that you get to make mistakes," said Bateman, who fondly remembers a moment during construction of the PCER site when she was struggling with the materials.
"There was this one guy in the Pantanal who just knew how to fix anything – boats, motors, whatever. And one day he looked at me and said 'You are so smart, but you're so stupid with your hands!'"
Bateman and Shirley think that's one of the best things about their project – the hands-on, cultural experience that you don't get in a classroom. They believe their group can be used as a model for future social engineering projects.
"I think for students who want to be more engaged, this is the perfect opportunity. The technologies that we establish in the Pantanal can be applied to other rural areas as well," said Bateman. "It's really a global issue.