College student Lilliana Brandão on her Summer Internship Program experience in Brazil

October 29, 2019

By Lilliana Brandão (AB '22), participant of the 2019 Summer Internship Program (SIP) in Brazil

As a child I had many aspirations, such as exploring a rainforest, living in Brazil, and working on a farm. This past Summer I had the opportunity to do all three of these in one internship,
DRCLAS’s Summer Internship Program (SIP). I spent eight weeks working at Sinal do Vale, an NGO based in the state of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I was specifically drawn to the organization for their focus on environmental regeneration, and was also charmed by the beautiful photos featured on their website. A Google search of “Sinal do Vale” produces many photos of lush green jungle, sparkling ponds, a circular organic garden, and a mysterious forest of bamboo. While I wasn’t entirely sure what such an internship entailed, a Summer in the Brazilian Atlantic Rainforest did seem to be an experience that I would not want to miss.

I have been to Brazil many times before because my father is from São Paulo, and we would often visit his family when I was growing up. However, the part of Brazil where I spent this past Summer was worlds apart from the metropolis of São Paulo. I found myself in the middle of the forest, eating organic, plant based food, and feeding chickens on the daily. It’s difficult to describe precisely what working at Sinal was like, because over the course of the Summer I found myself doing a diverse array of tasks and projects (in my activities log I counted well over 20!). On any given day I could be found creating informational posters, working in the greenhouse, or giving English lessons to Portuguese speakers. Everything I did had a purpose in our little community, and I learned so much from each job.

Lilliana and her partners working with jackfruit 

One of my biggest takeaways from the internship was that food processing, especially when done using organic methods, is extremely time consuming, yet worthwhile. Most of us go about our daily lives not thinking much about where our food comes from or how it gets processed into what we eat. I spent a lot of time working in the garden, spraying plants with biofertilizer or watering the medicinal herbs. The tomatoes required special attention, and I cared for them in the greenhouse from the time they were up to my ankle until they reached well above my head and were producing large fruit. I also worked processing foods after they were harvested, including coconut, turmeric, banana, jackfruit, and cacao. Some days I would spend hours in the kitchen, and, though it was a lot of work, it was amazing to see how I was able to transform raw produce from its just-harvested state to table-ready food for our nutritious meals.

Regarding the projects I took part in, one of the most memorable was the construction of a new plant nursery, called  “viveiro” in Portuguese. Sinal do Vale does a lot of work in reforestation, developing prototypes for the regeneration of deforested lands, so a space for seedlings to grow is essential. I spent two weeks building the “viveiro”, from painting the metal structure to sewing the sun blocking fabric onto it with fishing wire. Once it was done, seeds were planted inside, and I was overjoyed to see seedlings of native trees peeking up from the dirt within a couple weeks.

Besides the place itself and the daily activities, one of the best things about my time at Sinal was all of the incredible people I met and all the new friends I made. People come from all corners of the world to work at Sinal, so I was able to know a diverse group of people with a diverse set of experiences. I worked with local people from the town where Sinal is located, fellow college students from across the world, and a recent Harvard grad, among others. Though not everyone spoke the same languages, we all connected and became good friends through a shared love of music and a drive to protect the forest we called our home.

When I got back to the city, I realized things that I hadn’t noticed before. I no longer fell asleep listening to a symphony of life; in the forest I could hear crickets, birds, and other animals, and the sound of the plants blowing in the wind. The city, a place which had always seemed to be bustling with infinite life, now felt dead in a way. I left Brazil with a deeper appreciation for the natural world, and a greater sense of urgency for the cause of environmental sustainability. Being back at Harvard, I’m planning my course of study to focus on protection and regeneration of the world. Though I’m not sure which specific area of sustainability I’d like to work in yet, I know that I want to improve the state of our environment so that places like Sinal do Vale remain to be shared with all people.
                                                                                                                                                             Lilliana planting a tree at Sinal do Vale

More about Sinal do Vale
By Katie Weintraub (Class of 2014), Partnerships and Programs Coordinator at Sinal do Vale 

The Instituto Sinal do Vale is a center for the regeneration of ecosystems, communities, and individuals and a steward of 173 hectares of land in a forested valley located between the urban sprawl of Rio de Janeiro and some of the last protected areas in the Atlantic Forest. Sinal prototypes and teaches solutions for the regeneration of forests, soils, and food systems that can be replicated and scaled in the low-income communities of this critical region. Sinal is certified as an Advanced Post of the Atlantic Forest Biosphere Reserve by Unesco and a Global Ecosphere Retreat by the Long Run Initiative, making it one of 17 in the world.

Sinal do Vale was founded by Harvard Kennedy School MPA graduate and known Brazilian social innovator, Thais Corral, whose 30 years of experience with sustainability, gender equality, and entrepreneurship have culminated in the creation of Sinal, where she envisioned a place for young people to be trained as leaders for tomorrow.

Sinal do Vale is a campus for change agents where emerging leaders learn through practical experiences how to expand their capacity for transformation in their own communities. More than 400 young people from 6 continents have passed through Sinal as volunteers, interns, students and residents. Sinal is also a retreat and event center, hosting organizations and institutions from around the world who also believe that the places in which we meet affect the quality and impact of our conversations.

I arrived at Sinal do Vale in September 2014, after graduating in Government with a secondary in Global Health and Health Policy at Harvard College, with the intention of having a brief volunteer experience in sustainable agriculture in Brazil. However, after falling in love with the country, the Atlantic Forest, and the diverse community and impactful work of Sinal, I have stayed as a resident and the Partnerships and Programs Coordinator of the institute. I am now simultaneously doing a Masters at the Universidade Federal Rural de Rio de Janeiro in sustainable development practice, researching how environmental and food security public policy in Brazil can be better implemented and integrated through social entrepreneurship. I love receiving undergrads at Sinal do Vale as Summer interns, like Lilliana, and I believe that practical and integrated experiences in sustainability are essential for Harvard students.