December 5, 2019

How Education Creates Opportunities in Coffee-Producing Regions


Social programmes, such as arts initiatives, are working to offer young people in coffee-producing communities better education and better work opportunities as they move into adulthood. 

Arts programs–mixed media studio arts, music, orchestral performance, theater, puppetry, dance, chorus, gallery installations, and costume arts–offer both skill-building and healing benefits, integrating education with human expression to provide a multi-faceted approach to common challenges faced by rural communities. Integrated arts are an incredibly powerful way to teach patience, planning, teamwork, and other skills that carry over to all fields of future employment, entrepreneurship, or professional careers in the arts.

Lee este artículo en español Cómo la Educación Crea Oportunidades en Las Regiones Cafetaleras

Art made by the children at Realizando Sonhos in Buritizeiro, Brazil. Credit: Realizando Sonhos

Why Aren’t There More Schools Near Coffee Farms?

There are many differences between urban areas and rural regions where agricultural activities, such as coffee production, take place. Education is one area where the difference is particularly visible. “[In big Brazilian cities], we have very, very good schools,” explains Patricia Fonseca, Executive Director of Instituto Café Solidário, a charity that runs social projects. It is a part of Grupo Montesanto Tavares, the parent company of Ally Coffee

“In many ways, Brazil is very different from other Latin American coffee producing origins given its scale, history, and landscape” notes Rachel Northrop, content manager for Ally Coffee. “In other ways, the challenges its agricultural sector experiences are similar to difficulties in rural locations the world over: poverty, drug abuse, and limited access to education. Looking just at those universal challenges, what makes Instituto Café Solidário/Realizando Sonhos different from other social projects in producing communities supported by the coffee industry is its focus on the arts. “

Fonseca compares urban areas to Buritizeiro, a town surrounded by large coffee plantations in northern Minas Gerais, Brazil. Minas Gerais produces 50% of Brazil’s coffee – or one-sixth of what is consumed globally. “In this location,” she says, “the teachers are not very qualified and they try to do their best, but it’s not enough.” 

Rural economies are also often weaker than urban economies and offer fewer opportunities for social mobility. This helps explain why agriculture is the main provider of jobs for rural youth globally. Patricia sees this with the parents of the children in Buritizeiro. “The parents, some of them work on the farms around the city…” she says, “not just coffee farms, sugar cane [farms].” 

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Mosaic art created by children at Realizando Sonhos. Credit: Realizando Sonhos

Crime Rates Reduce Attendance & Opportunities

On top of lower-quality teaching, rural schools tend to have lower rates of attendance. Not only are older children often needed on the farm, but getting to school can be challenging. Public transport is often relatively costly. 

In  Minas Gerais, Brazil, the lack of socio-economic opportunities increases the prevalence of drug violence. Patricia tells me, “[Last month, a] kid that was in our project was very sad. Very sad. We asked him, ‘What happened?’ And he told us that ‘my brother was killed by the drug dealers’.”

The elder brother had unfortunately been too old to join Instituto Café Solidário’s project in the area. Patricia tells me, “They don’t feel they have a future out of [drug] trafficking, some of them.” Arts programs, with their inherent focus on mastery and the goal-setting necessary for preparing for performance and presentation, offer active alternatives to the violence of the drug trade.

Insituto Café Solidário runs Realizando Sonhos, an educational centre for 154 low-income children in Buritizeiro. The children receive regular meals and spend at least four hours a day on cultural projects. Patricia says that keeping them in a safe educational system means they are less likely to spend time on the streets and get swept into the illegal drug trade.

Part of the challenge stems from the fact that the Brazilian public school system teaches children for half the day, either in the morning or the afternoon. “That’s why we are so necessary,” Patricia tells me. “If we had school full time it will be easier to keep them safe.”

Children paint artwork at Realizando Sonhos. Credit: Realizando Sonhos

Arts Education Creates Opportunities

Education can empower youths with choice: the choice to work on the coffee fields, in other agribusinesses, or in other businesses entirely. 

“I don’t know now what [the children at Realizando Sonhos] are thinking about their future,” Patricia tells me, “but I’m trying to give them the path to choose what they want… We are setting this new program that teaches them about math, financial math, a lot of Portuguese because they [have] very poor language [skills].” 

She stresses that she wants them to have the possibility to work in skilled professions. “I don’t want them to work in the field,” she says. “I want them to [operate] the machines of the field, be in the offices, in the best place that they can reach.”

Rachel, who worked as a teacher before entering the coffee industry, also notes that, “both performing and studio arts help young people build confidence and imagine a world greater than their present circumstances. The logistics of the program–meals, classes, teachers, materials, facility–offer a safe space in which that confidence and future-visioning can be developed. Physical safety combined with the belief that things can change is the invaluable power of an arts program in a rural setting.”

Evidence of empowering rural youth through artistic programmes extends beyond Brazil. In 2006, Ecuador’s government rolled out Buen Vivir, a government-sponsored programme that used circus arts as a sociocultural intervention to promote inclusivity, trust, and creative expression amongst vulnerable communities. Various studies point to the character-building benefits of these interventions, along with increased cohesiveness in communities affected by drug abuse.

This approach is also adopted by Realizando Sonhos. “I think art, it’s a huge development of [people’s] minds,” Patricia tells me. “I want to show them the world. I put many things inside their heads, show that their world is big, that they can do whatever they want.” 

At Realizando Sonhos, children express themselves through workshops ranging from painting and embroidery to capoeira and theatre. “We’ve been seeing a lot of children revealing themselves as very good artists,” Patricia says. 

A number of them have also developed careers as professional musicians, a rare outcome for children from coffee-growing communities. 

Cultural workshops also support children as they learn more technical skills in school. “If you know music very well,” Patricia suggests, “it helps you with math.” 

An almost-finished piece of mosaic art created by children at Realizando Sonhos. Credit: Realizando Sonhos

Many parents aspire to offer their children greater opportunities than they themselves have experienced. Access to education and the arts is just one part of this, but it is a part that can benefit the whole community. 

Youths with access to good education can learn to do more technical or office-based work on farms, from working with innovative machinery to effectively marketing the farm’s coffee and negotiating better rates. Alternatively, they could choose to work off the farm, in what are often better-paid jobs, and contribute to a strong and diverse economy. They can support their families, and in turn, their children to then access better education and better jobs. 

Social support for youths in coffee-growing communities can be time intensive but the results are apparent in the talent, creativity, determination, ingenuity, and joy displayed by both participating students and the whole community. In 2019 alone the youth of Buritizeiro put on theatrical concert performances, sent a band to the Belo Horizonte carnival parade, installed sculptures and mosaic tilings, and hosted cultural festivals where the art, costumes, music, and dance were all made by the young participants.The value these programs brings is tangible and lasts a lifetime – if not longer.

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Please note: This article has been sponsored by Ally Coffee.  

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