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Collective intelligence for well-being in a tropical watershed ecosystem

We interview Paulo Barreiro, winner of the Stone Soup Award on Research in Social Innovation 2023
Continue Reading Collective intelligence for well-being in a tropical watershed ecosystem

Collective intelligence for well-being in a tropical watershed ecosystem

January 23rd 2024
By Amanda Rubio, Stone Soup Consultant
Interview to Paulo Sanjines Barreiro, winner of the Stone Soup Award on Research in Social Innovation 2023


Congratulations Paulo for winning the Stone Soup Award on Research in Social Innovation 2023! 

Before we dive in, we’d love to know more about you. What is your background and how did you get interested in this research topic?

I was born in Brazil and raised in Bolivia, living close to nature. Both my mom and dad, at different times, went to Brazil to flee dictatorships. So, the sense of social justice has been with me since before I was born. I have a background in ecosystem governance and in policy analysis. Since 2009 I’ve dedicated myself to share, study and work with indigenous peoples, family farmers and peripheral urban communities and their relationship to natural systems, learning how their collective decision-making and action emerge and evolve toward well-being.  

In 2012 I moved to Southern Bahia, Brazil, and collaborated with environmental NGOs and activists in restoration and environmental education projects until 2016. Then I met Joselita Machado, better known as Dona Jô, an experienced grassroots militant who co-founded the Bairro Novo Neighbour’s Association (ASMOBAN) in 2012. Dona Jô is a mentor and a friend, with whom I learn about and practice collective action in the peripheral neighbourhood of Bairro Novo. 

Since 2017 I have been collaborating with ASMOBAN in their community-based tourism and agroecology-based initiatives. Daily practice and respectful interaction with the elders and the community led me to recognize how collective intelligence naturally emerged, adapted, and responded to local environmental and complex social issues. My professional background motivated me to become a researcher within the association, to register the evolving intelligence and reveal its inner workings in hopes of nurturing the collective action. 

Could you explain what your research is about and how it relates to this year’s theme of the award “Collective action to solve complex social problems”?

ASMOBAN is interested in the re-education for and protection of a healthy relationship with our environment and with those in the community. The Bairro Novo community was formed by residents of the rural area forcefully displaced by the implementation of the Conduru Ridge State Park (PESC), an internationally recognized area for its high biodiversity of vascular plants and many endemic species. In addition to other people from the Cacau Coast microregion who, fleeing the poverty resulting from the economic crisis of cocoa in the region in 1990, ended up living in the neighbourhood. This process of marginalization led the community to suffer from unequal socio-environmental, economic and political rights. 

Dedicated to this community effort, ASMOBAN has established initiatives working with solidarity economy, agroecological principles, and a strong women-based leadership. 

Each initiative acts based on dialogue, problematization, decision making, and organized collective action. The emerging collective intelligence is recognized but rarely registered or evaluated in terms of its evolution, results, and impacts. I want to use the policy analysis tool to reveal how our association and its action governance processes emerge and evolve, what elements are in place, finally, using the ecosystem services and the biodiversity conservation economy, understand how the decisions and actions taken by the association are impacting community development in the micro-basin territory, and how these results potentially shape the view of the stakeholders of their environment and their community.

What are the kinds of initiatives that ASMOBAN has created since 2012? Who were the beneficiaries and what outcomes did you achieve?

ASMOBAN follows three kinds of strategic lines of action: Economic solidarity, Environmental Education towards food sovereignty and Community Based Tourism.  

The weekly community fair benefits 17 women who produce and sell their goods as well as organize it and develop the rules and processes. Indirectly the fair benefits local artists who give presentations during the fair and a couple of local businesses.  

Community based tourism, even with the toll taken by the pandemic, received the support of dedicated volunteers over the past years and is currently entering a steady collaboration with national and international agencies who bring tourism. This allowed us to keep improving our financial administration, cultural and nature tourism experience design and realization, four day-tours offered all-year round, as well as having eight solidarity community houses for lodging. 

Finally, environmental educational activities for children in a community vegetable garden currently benefits 8 to 12 children and their families. The initiative has now evolved towards establishing a vegetable garden network. In its first two-year stage the vegetable garden network was designed and is establishing four vegetable gardens in the backyards of four neighbourhood families, all following agroecological principles.

What are the specific challenges for people living in a ‘watershed’ landscape?

A watershed is an ecosystem unit. People living in it must first see themselves as part of it. This is the first challenge to overcome. Gaining knowledge of the biophysical characteristics of our watershed, its biodiversity, the actions and impacts of stakeholders upstream and downstream from us, all of it is important for us to make better decisions along the way. Our neighbourhood is located on a two-kilometre stretch of the Pancadinha river. Which is 15-20 kilometres in total.  

There are stakeholders upstream and downstream, and we ought to expand our view of the landscape to be effective in our goal of securing ecosystem service provision. See as part of a landscape and potential agents of change. This should be proposed in our local education for children as well as in the decision-making platforms for the youth and adults.  

Then comes the second challenge: ecosystem governance. How does the collective establish processes that support healthy community-ecosystem interactions while promoting economic, social, and cultural health. For this to occur, we need a level dialogue platform.  

The research aims to collaborate with the association to tap into the collective intelligence and find best trajectories to overcome these challenges, setting up a monitoring and evaluation system that gives us an active and well-informed memory of how our actions increase or decrease ecosystem health and the way in which these impact well-being. 

According to you, what role should collective action hold in societal change to solve complex social issues?

Collective action, when considering community development in a natural ecosystem is the resulting interaction between the group’s common interests, myths, relations, and values with their resources and the systems in place. These resources and systems can be natural or institutional. 

Collective action’s role in societal change, then, is proportional to its ability to adapt to its social and environmental environment to uphold equal access to the base values: Power, Respect, Rectitude, Skill, Affection, Wealth, Wellbeing and Enlightenment. These base values are at the core of the policy analysis framework but are also easily understood without much technical explanation. 

In other words, I believe that collective action should hold a role of an apprentice of its natural environment and its social processes, while adapting to its dynamic new reality following inclusive leadership that aims to cultivate the base values. As an apprentice of Nature the collective learns to work with socio-ecological principles and can promote well-being based on biodiversity conservation. This we can learn with traditional cultures or peoples where community development is interwoven with the respect and reciprocity cultivated with mother nature as the provider of goods to society. 


Register to Paulo Barreiro’s open webinar “Collective intelligence for community well-being. The case of a watershed ecosystem”. March 13th 2024, 3.30pm CET. 


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