A 1994 Volkswagen bus pulls off a Brazilian dirt highway and slows to a stop in front of an 8,000 square-foot community center. LSA alumnus Ethan Shirley (’10) shuts off the engine and listens to the chatter of monkeys in the nearby forest. There’s a toucan in a tree straight ahead, and a macaw flies over the building, its colorful feathers reflecting off the solar panels on the roof.

It’s May 9, 2012, and out of the bus climbs 10 young Americans, nine of whom are U-M students or recent alumni. They’ve arrived for a summer of work in the Brazilian Pantanal, the world’s largest freshwater wetland. This is the third summer that U-M students and alumni have worked to bring education, healthcare, and sustainable technologies to the rural community of Porto Jofre, Brazil.

“The people of the Pantanal are hardworking, self-sufficient, and extremely compassionate,” says Julie Bateman (’12), an LSA and engineering alumna, but the nearest school is more than 90 miles away, across 147 wooden bridges that are often submerged during the rainy season. The area’s current healthcare consists of “a sporadic boat that comes a few times a year,” she says.

With these limited resources, many local Brazilians are leaving the Pantanal for overcrowded cities. With them go the traditional, sustainable ranching, farming, and fishing practices, Bateman explained, as their land is typically sold to commercial farmers.  

To view slideshow, click here. Photos courtesy of the Pantanal Center for Education and Research.

Shirley learned about these difficulties during his teenage years, when he visited the Pantanal multiple times for ecotourism and to teach English to local residents. But it wasn’t until a 2009 study abroad trip to Uganda that Shirley thought of a way to help. In Africa, he witnessed researchers working with a local village to improve the lives of residents and simultaneously preserve wildlife and the environment. It was a model that could work in the Pantanal, he believed.

Shirley shared this idea with Bateman, a friend who lived in his U-M dormitory at the time. “It seemed to be a great idea. It didn’t matter that I didn’t speak Portuguese or have any construction experience. Suddenly I had the chance to help bring education to rural Brazil.  And I was on board for the crazy train,” Bateman said, in a TEDxUofM presentation she and Shirley gave on campus this spring.

“The only obstacle in our way was that we were both broke undergrads that knew nothing about the laws in Brazil, policies, or really how on earth to start such a project,” Shirley added during the presentation.

That didn’t matter. In 2010, the two then-students founded the Pantanal Center for Education and Research (PCER). They applied for grants, raised more than $30,000, and assembled study-abroad teams from U-M’s Colleges of LSA and Engineering. Three graduate students from U-M’s Taubman College of Architecture joined the group, which totaled 23 U-M students and an LSA English lecturer, Melinda Matice. That summer of 2010, the team built the community center, with the help of a couple local artisans. Finishing touches were applied in 2011 by study-abroad students.

Both summers, the team worked to build sustainable technologies, adding solar panels to the roof of the community center and building a bio-sand water filter to ensure access to clean water. They also constructed a bio-digester that, when finished, will transform organic waste into natural gas that can be used for cooking. Even the ’94 VW bus, which transports PCER volunteers and may soon serve as a school bus, is undergoing modifications so that it will operate more like a hybrid Toyota Prius.

“Our goal is to develop and test sustainable technologies to see which ones actually work in the field, and then spread them more widely if they do work,” Bateman says.

Now that a team is back this summer, they hope to construct a water tower that will not only store water but will also host solar panels and a cellular-based Internet system. Shirley and Bateman are enrolling students in the new public school, and engineering students and alumni are teaching four rural Brazil schools how to construct their own bio-sand water filters.

There’s a lot to accomplish before July, when Shirley will return to campus to continue his position as an LSA paleontology research assistant, and when Bateman begins her new job as a project control engineer for Bechtel Corporation.

Still, this summer may be the most rewarding yet, as Shirley and Bateman are starting to see the impact of their work. Students in the Pantanal finally have a local school to attend. With Internet access, the community center can tap into Brazil’s healthcare resources on the Web and serve as a field station for wildlife researchers.

“PCER has been what I’ve woke up thinking about for three years now,” Bateman says. “Through this project I have learned that change happens slowly. But I now see that this could be a model for other communities.”

Back in 2009, “we really didn’t know what we were getting into,” Shirley said in his TEDxUofM presentation. “But sometimes, you just kind of have to jump into the deep end and learn how to swim from experience. This was our time.”

To read more about the U-M team’s efforts in Brazil this summer, visit their blog.

Reporting by Maryanne George contributed to this article.