Exploring Uruguay with our Founder & Director Jaci Braga
Exploring Uruguay for a possible NGO expansion
Uruguay seemed like it might be an optimal place for a possible NGO expansion for several reasons. First and foremost were the two amazing volunteers that came from Uruguay to volunteer with ETIV do Brasil. Both of these women were honest, caring, hardworking and an incredible inspiration to me as well as a fantastic asset to the NGO.
The other thing that attracted me was the strong democracy, equality and peace that exists there, as well as the fact that most of the people from Uruguay seem to care about each other, the environment and things that matter in the world. In fact, many Uruguayans have even expressed deep concerns regarding politics and governance in Brazil and the United States right now, as well as a true concern and consciousness to care for our planet. Meanwhile, the agreements between Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina are so strong, that it would be very easy for a Brazilian citizen to receive a permanent work visa, which would allow us to easily expand the NGO here.
Despite a turbulent past that included a military coup and a harsh dictatorship that lasted over a decade with many disappeared and imprisoned citizens, Uruguay regained its democracy in the mid 80’s and has since been ranked #1 in Latin America for peace, democracy, government and perceptions of low corruption.
Meanwhile, almost 95% of Uruguay’s electricity comes from renewable energy and Uruguay is a founding member of the United Nations, the Organization of American States, and the Union of South American Nations. The Economist even named Uruguay “Country of the Year” several years ago, after they legalized the production, consumption and sale of cannabis. At a lovely little vegetarian restaurant in Punta del Diablo, we even discovered this cannabis plant growing decoratively on the wall.
One of Uruguay’s most famous literary, José Enrique Rodó, is the author of the book “Ariel”, which focuses on the need to uphold spiritual values while dealing with business or seeking material or technological advances. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if more students had to learn these types of values before graduating from business, politics, or law school!
After arriving into Uruguay, the sense of peace and organization was very notable, especially in comparison to most of the Latin American countries I’ve visited. The people here are very friendly - they will make you feel welcome and they will go out of their way to be helpful and caring. Meanwhile, all of the dogs and cats I got to meet seemed so happy and well cared for, which was also a very pleasant surprise.
However, I was shocked by the lack of diversity in Uruguay. After asking around about some of the lower income towns and villages with more people of color, I was told that almost all of the native people living here were murdered during colonization.
After googling it, I then discovered that while many native people died from the infectious diseases the colonizers brought with them, those who didn’t were wiped out soon after independence, when Uruguay’s first president ordered a massive genocide of the indigenous Charrua people.
Not only is this history heartbreaking (not that this hasn’t happened elsewhere), but it makes Uruguay a less realistic place for an NGO whose vision is focused on greater equality and opportunities for everyone. As a means of accomplishing this vision, we at ETIV definitely want to focus our resources and programs to support low income communities of color.
Meanwhile, I discovered that nearly 90% of the population in Uruguay claim European decent. Although the people in Uruguay are lovely and there is so much to appreciate about this country, it started to become clear that perhaps it is not a good place for an NGO expansion after all.
In addition to the lack of diversity, Uruguay is also a very expensive country. In fact, it’s one of the most expensive countries in all of South America! A mistake I made before going to Uruguay was to assume that it would be affordable, rather than research the cost of living in Uruguay and cost comparisons. Below you can find the cost comparison between Brazil and Uruguay based on numbeo.com statistics:
Consumer Prices in Uruguay are 39.26% higher than in Brazil
Consumer Prices Including Rent in Uruguay are 41.03% higher than in Brazil
Rent Prices in Uruguay are 48.33% higher than in Brazil
Restaurant Prices in Uruguay are 61.58% higher than in Brazil
Groceries Prices in Uruguay are 51.91% higher than in Brazil
Local Purchasing Power in Uruguay is 18.02% higher than in Brazil
Meanwhile, ETIV is located in the state of Bahia, which is one of the least expensive states in Brasil, while I was visiting the towns and cities on the coast of Uruguay, which are the most expensive areas. A coastal town would be important for the expansion of the NGO, because these are the places that would most likely attract volunteers to support our work.
However, it is also quite difficult to find lower income communities by the coast. For example, when I went to the beautiful town of La Barra, just past Punta del Este, I was told that there was a very poor neighborhood just behind it. However, that entire neighborhood was relocated!
The Uruguayan woman I spoke with was quite certain that they had been offered much nicer housing in a different area of the country, but it was shocking to realize that there aren’t many poor communities near the coast, in part because some of the wealthy people have moved them out! Realizing this, made expansion opportunities even less viable for our NGO. However, Uruguay does have many beautiful cities and towns along the coast and one of the most notable places I had the opportunity to visit is called Cabo Polonio.
It is a nature reserve on the coast of Uruguay, and unless you hire a boat or want to do some serious hiking, the only legal way to get in and out is by taking a ride on one of the governments contracted trucks pictured below. The photo depicts the truck just as it is exiting the reserve, but inside the reserve you do indeed need a truck with big tires that can get through the deep sandy trails that weave into the coast.
Cabo Polonio does not have any electricity except for some power lines that were brought in to run the iconic light house, that is often the trademark of the town.
No homes, restaurants or hotels/hostels/pousadas are supposed to be here, because the land is owned by the government. However, Cabo Polonio is also a village and home to a whole community of folks (including many hippies), that live completely off the beaten track. Consequently, all of these people had to sneak their building materials into the town, and they have to produce their own energy, usually using wind and solar power.
The majority of homes in Cabo are white and look similar to some of the homes you will find in Santorini, but much smaller and simpler. Also, many of the homes are also not up to code, like this old house that looks like it might just fall over, as pictured above.
Meanwhile, Cabo Polonio is also home to one of the largest communities of sea lions or “lobos marinos”, which is one of the most exciting attractions for nature lovers, like myself.
Another highlight of my Uruguay trip was meeting a young woman named Virginia from Piriapolis. She invited me to stay at her house for a couple of days and took me to the nature reserve where she worked. She drove me into the reserve on her scooter, and since it was a cold and rainy day, we had to bundle!
The reserve is called the “Reserva Pan de Azucar” although it also had several caged animals and seemed more like a cross between a reserve and a zoo. Many of the animals had a lot of space to roam around and they seemed very happy. These guys below – called Capybara’s came over to check me out while I was talking to a bird with a hurt wing. It was so funny to turn around and see them all looking at me with intrigue. :D
However, I was upset about all of the mountain cats and a couple of cougars that were placed all alone in small cages. Meanwhile, there were several birds in cages that seemed like they would be able to survive perfectly fine if they were set free. My friend explained that the officials at the park said that all of the cats are older and would not be able to live on their own, while they are also in the process of improving and expanding the areas for the cats, so I really hope that it’s true and that it happens soon!
While meeting with several friends and former volunteers in Uruguay, they had voiced several concerns about the direction Uruguay is going now, and were thrilled about the idea of having an NGO there, especially one that would focus on environmental issues. One issue that came up several times is the fact that Uruguay recently began making big deals with Monsanto and is now growing large amounts of soy. Meanwhile, all of the fertilizers and chemicals being dumped onto these soy fields ended up leaching into the water after a lot of rain and wind this year.
As a result, all of these extra nutrients and chemicals caused toxic algae blooms to grow, and it’s gotten so bad that people weren’t even allowed to get into the water while I was in Montevideo. The moment I saw the algae blooms, I knew something was very wrong. The algae is such a bright green color, that it even looks toxic!
Also, most of the Uruguayans I met were not very thrilled to see a new Trump tower going up in Punta del Este, and one woman even expressed concerns that the current president and many people in government now care more about big money than they care about the people and the environment. The amazing thing here is that this seems fairly new to Uruguay, which has enjoyed such a strong democracy for several decades now.
While on the bus, I caught a glimpse of the tower and was able to snap a quick pic. If you look closely, you can even see the big “TRUMP” letters across the front of the building, next to the number 6. What Trump obviously doesn’t realize, is that many people here are actually ashamed of this tower!
Every country does have its setbacks however, some much more than others. It does seem evident though that with such a large group of educated and caring people, Uruguayans should be able to use their voice within a strong democracy to get the country back on track to conserving the environment and offering better education and services to the people.
While an NGO expansion may not be ideal for ETIV, a well-established, environmental NGO with greater financial reserves could most definitely help to mobilize the people in ways that would allow Uruguay to remain a leader in environmental conservation and human rights protections that could have profound impacts throughout all of South America and possibly even the world.
May the people rise up and re-claim their values and their country to see this through!
Words and pictures by: Jaci Braga