This Library In The Amazon Lives On Despite COVID-19

Nonprofits around the world are being forced to adapt in the face of COVID-19. Learn from nonprofit leader Rodrigo Zanella on how his organization in the Amazon is continuing to serve its community despite challenges brought on by the pandemic.


Rodrigo Zanella

Director, Vaga Lume Association

Who He Is:

Rodrigo is an economist by trade but has found his true passion to be designing social impact for development in the Amazon. His rich experience within the region includes but is not limited to—funding scientific research to better understand the ecological dynamics, implementing one of the biggest REDD+ Programs to help small landowners get paid for protecting the forest, as well as promoting political advocacy for the inclusion of conservation in government decision making. Now, he has turned his attention to promoting education as a long-term solution for Amazon development, coming on board as the director of Vaga Lume with the hopes of boosting literacy through community-based libraries.

Q: Tell us a bit about your organization and its mission.

A: Vaga Lume is an organization that promotes literacy for children in the Amazon, impacting the lives of over 12,000 children every year. As anybody would imagine, promoting literacy means that we also build libraries to be spaces where books are stored, lent, and cultural activities take place. In this context, we are re-shaping the ways we understand our work to combat COVID-19 in the rural areas of the Amazon.

Q: What is one of the biggest challenges your community is facing during this time?

A: A quick note about Brazil’s medical infrastructure in the Amazon—there are only 0.68 intensive care unit beds for every 10,000 people (U.S. accounts for 3.5, Germany 2.9, Italy 1.3). These beds are concentrated in the biggest cities—Manaus, Belém, and Rio Branco—which means that in this vast Amazon territory (an area approximately 2/3 the size of the U.S.), there are millions of people that would need to travel many days by boat to have proper medical attention.

Q: What is one piece of advice you would have for other nonprofits operating in the time of COVID-19?

A: We need to understand our role, our limitations, and our strengths to combat this emergency.

“At Vaga Lume, the first thing we do in new situations is to listen to the people in the communities we support to learn with them how our work can be relevant and what kind of help is most useful.”

Q: How has your organization adapted to continue serving your community during a time of social distancing?

A: Our libraries are closed for activities, but reading shouldn’t stop. The libraries are lending books to children before they are actually closed. In some places, Whatsapp groups are more active now as a way to exchange ideas about reading and books.

Additionally, with the many sources of information and unreliable news, Vaga Lume has been a reliable source of information for the communities we support so individuals can learn about the dangers of this virus, the simple measures they can take to avoid being infected, and when to ask for help.

Q: What would people be surprised to know about working in the Amazon?

A: The Internet in the Amazon is more available than people usually think. In 70% of the communities we work, we have some kind of connection. Connecting our volunteers in Zoom meetings or conference calls has shown to be very good to share information about good practices in our Amazon libraries, to understand each other’s needs, and to exchange ideas about the COVID-19 emergency.

Q: Operating a nonprofit during a global pandemic is difficult! What inspires you to keep at it?

A: Empathy. When COVID-19 started spreading in São Paulo, where our main office is located, we received many calls from people in the Amazon worried and wanting to know how our team was, if we were safe and taking care of ourselves. This shows that Vaga Lume’s community is an important resource to exchange ideas and even to find comfort in this difficult time.

Although we are still looking for answers, we are moving forward to find safe ways for reading aloud or doing activities with children to provide joy in this time of quarantine in the Amazon.

Vaga Lume and hundreds of other projects around the world need your help to survive in the time of COVID-19. Discover their work today.

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Featured Photo: Provide Quality Education to 15000 Amazon Children by Vaga Lume Association

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