The last few weeks have really brought home to me the vulnerability of subsistence farmers across the world to unpredictable weather.
I have had an allotment for thirty years and it is a very useful supplement to family food supplies with plenty of fresh fruit and veg in season. But of course I don’t rely on it to eat every day, nor is it a vital source of income. Nonetheless in a good year I reckon it provides 30% of the family vegetables and 10-15 % of fruit.
Not this year. Months of torrential rain have wrought absolute havoc. It is mid July and I have lost about 80% of my expected crops this year. The allotment is completely flooded, so that crops have either rotted in the water before being ready to harvest, or they have failed to germinate because the ground has been so water logged, and those that have germinated have been eaten by snails and slugs. Even the few plants like tomatoes that were planted out before the weather turned so bad and the ground became water logged, have failed to grow and are now so far behind that even if they do flower and set, any fruit will never get to any size, let alone ripen.
It is very disheartening and very off-putting for all those people in the UK who have recently taken to a bit of ‘growing their own’ in the current economic circumstances. Hours of physical effort, the costs of seeds and tools – and almost nothing to show for it.
Back in 2007 the Stern Report warned of the future costs of climate change. But it looks like its happening now. News reports of freak storms and forest fires in the USA, repeated floods in the UK, unseasonable fatal avalanches in the Alps, and yet the impact on subsistence farmers in other parts of the world has barely been reported, let alone counted.
Meanwhile as I salvage as many (small) potatoes as I can, I give thanks that its not my only food supply.
I have recently taken on a new role at Practical Action; Project Assistant. I will be helping our energy and climate change campaigners over the next few months, working on various projects and campaigns. Prior to this role, I worked specifically on energy access and so the concept of working on climate change was a bit daunting…what do I know about climate change? Apparently more than I thought…
I start my blog with a question: what’s your favourite fruit??
A lychee from China?
An ugli from Jamaica?
A baobab from Africa?
Before today, I might have said pineapples or strawberries…however, for the first time (in all of my 23 years), I tried a mango:
I can now safely say that my favourite is the mango from India. With its sunshine yellow flesh and deliciously juicy taste, it is easy to see why it is often referred to as the “King of Fruits” and indeed, my new favourite.
With my new found love for this fruit, I decided to do a bit of a research – where/when can I get my hands on a mango?!
But to my dismay, I found out that all is not well on the mango front…
The Alphonso Mangos are the most expensive fruits imported from India. The best and most exclusive are grown on the small Natwarlal plantation in Ratnagiri, and are hand-harvested.
Alphonso production in Maharashtra’s Sindhudurg and Ratnagiri district has been dropping at a steady pace since 2008 and in March this year (the start of the mango season); farmers accepted the harsh reality of yet another disappointing crop.
“But why won’t the mango grow?!” I hear you ask…
The problem is the changing weather conditions. Alphonso mangos need a very special mix of weather and the perfect soil. This year, due to unexpectedly colder and longer winters, harvests have been low. This unfortunately translates into a huge loss in fruit and trade for the farmers.
Climate change can – and often already is, as demonstrated by the Alphonso mango farmers – affecting the lives of millions of people.
Although not working directly with mango farmers, Practical Action has been working for more than 40 years with some of the poorest communities around the world that heavily rely on natural resources for their livelihoods. The experience we’ve gained shows that even slight alterations in the weather can drastically impact people’s lives.
However, declaring the problem does not help. We need solutions.
Practical Action recognises that small-scale technologies can make a difference, and around the world, we’re working with millions of people to help them adapt to climate change.
I hope that in some small way, my new campaigning role at Practical Action will ensure that my new love affair with the ‘king of fruit’ won’t be fleeting.
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Half of Sudan’s population live in acute poverty.
This means that for millions of women, men and children, each day is a struggle to survive.
It is a country blighted by civil unrest, (so many people I have met have lost loved ones to the fighting), devastating droughts, and recurrent food shortages. Nowhere is the impact of these factors felt more sharply than across the rural areas of Sudan, which are home to a majority of the population.
For these families, an unsafe living environment, poor nutrition and few ways to earn an income have, lamentably, become a way of life.
Practical Action always focuses on the poorest of the poor, helping the most vulnerable, the most marginalised, those who live on the very fringes of society, to transform their lives. So we are operating in the rural areas of Kassala, Blue Nile and Darfur to reach out to those communities whose survival is no more certain than the balancing of a diamond upon a blade of grass.
Our work in Kassala is particularly impressive. This project represents an ongoing programme which aims to strengthen the self-reliance of its traditional farmers. By providing access to innovative technologies and training, the project is directly improving the lives of 99,760 people in rural communities! It’s a huge number – just slightly larger than the population of my hometown of Rugby. This project has helped to strengthen livelihoods and sustain and improve their traditional methods of production. As a result of Practical Action’s skill-sharing, communities can now grow enough food to both eat and sell at market, and are more resilient to poverty.
Before my arrival in Sudan, I was optimistic that I might be able to travel to Kassala to see the work first-hand. But after the expulsion of foreign staff from the area, it has been impossible for me to make this journey.
So today, four people from Kassala - Samera, Siham, Mohamed, Abubker - come to Khartoum to meet me at the Practical Action offices. This journey takes seven hours by bus, and across terrible roads in the oppresive heat, I am sure it is neither a comfortable or enjoyable experience. For Siham and Abubker, the visit today is the first time they have ever travelled to their capital city. I feel so incredibly humbled that my presence here is the reason for their trip.
Aged 65 years, Mohamed Mohamed Musa is the oldest of the group. He was born in 1947 (it is significant and rather moving that he knows his birth year, as so many people do not). He is a tall man, but so thin that his collar bones protrude sharply. He wears a ‘jalabya’, a simple long white gown, and an ‘eimma’, a turban. This is traditional clothing for a Sudanese man, and to complete the look he sports a pair of Ray Ban style sunglasses. It is a strange combination of the ancient and the new. I am fascinated by his face. He is toothless and lined, and just so animated. His face seems to tell a story of its own.
My questions for Mohamed are endless – I think he gets rather fed up with my unceasing curiosity in his life. He has two wives, for instance. The first marriage was arranged, the second one took place so he could take care of the daughter of a cousin after her parents died. He has many, many children. He can read and write – and he left school aged 12.
But most importantly, he is passionate about seeds – and about Practical Action.
Practical Action introduced Mohamed to a new type of sorghum seed. These seeds do not need as much rain to grow as the old variety, and as there is now less rain due to climate change, this is essential. The seeds also yield more crops – so when Mohamed harvests them, he has more to take to market. The new variety of sorghum weighs more too, which means Mohamed’s crops fetch a better price. The seeds – and the new hand tools and new terracing techniques that Mohamed now has - are transformational.
“In the past, we were always hungry. I was always worrying about the future, fighting for tomorrow. But I couldn’t give up, otherwise I would not have been able to care for my family.
I was a poor man, but now I am rich – not rich with money, but rich with knowledge. I’m proud I have knowledge because I can share it with my children and all the other poor families in my village. Other farmers come to me and ask me for my skills . We are so happy to have worked with Practical Action, but we will know what to do long after Practical Action goes. Practical Action is like our mother and we are like her children. There is not enough time to talk about all the good works that Practical Action does.”
I could write Mohamed’s words for the whole evening. He is so effusive about Practical Action. And he is so passionate about his new seeds that at one point he reaches within his jalabya and plucks out a handful of seeds. He has brought them all the way from Kassala to show me. He knows I am meeting farmers from Darfur this weekend, and he wants to tell me about these seeds, so I, in turn, can pass on his knowledge to other people in need. Mohamed is like hope embodied – he believes so vehemently in the power of these tiny seeds.
But juxtaposed against these stories of hope were tales of uncountable tragedy. While listening to 21 year old Siham recall her childhood and talk about the day soldiers came to her village with guns to bomb hundreds of innocent people – including her best friend – it takes as much self-control as I can muster to stop myself from crying.
It has been an overwhelming day. I am reminded of one of my favourite George Eliot quotations:
“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.”
And I think maybe this explains why so many of us turn our backs in the face of suffering. I do not want to turn away. I want to listen to that roar. And then I want to write about it.2 Comments » | Add your comment
Barnaby Peacocke, one of my colleagues, is just back from Sudan and gave an update at our ‘stand up’, staff meeting yesterday.
The fighting along the border between Sudan and Southern Sudan continues. This is impacting our work in the Blue Nile and the EU funded project is temporarily on hold. The likelihood is that this state of armed unrest will sadly continue.
We need to work out how in this new reality our work can continue. Our commitment is undiminished.
Listening to Barney I felt particularly moved as when I visited the Blue Nile area, two years ago now, people were talking about their hope following the end of the conflict with the South, they talked of the impact of the war, how some had been forced to fight, others had lost family members, all had struggled to get food, vital medicine, etc. Life had been very, very tough but now there was the hope of a better life and they were ambitious for peace and development.
Now things have changed and we have to continue, increase our work but do things differently.
Thankfully we have a ‘model’, ie.development speak for experience that shows us how it can be done.
In Darfur we’ve worked throughout the conflict; improving peoples farming techniques and yields, access to and quality of water, improving stoves so that they used less fuel – requiring women to make fewer dangerous journeys in search of wood or other fuel, helped people market their crops so that they had money for vital items such as medicine, helped communities preserve foods through techniques such as pickling etc.
After the kidnap of several of our staff and the attempted kidnap of others (thankfully eventually everyone was freed safely, but scared and their vehicles stolen or burned), we decided we had to find a different way of working. All our staff are local and so know the situation in detail – where ever it was reasonable safe for us and the communities we would continue our work directly (sometimes this changed day by day). Where it wasn’t safe for Practical Action people to travel or community gatherings could attract violence we worked with a brave group of people who so valued Practical Actions support they were willing to take extraordinary action.
Village Development Committees and the Women’s Development Associations. Networks we helped established to expand and continue our work. From each village one or two people travelling together, often using unusual paths or routes could get safely through to places no-one else could.
How it worked was that people from these groups would travel to a safe point, coming together they would meet with Practical Action staff. They would be trained in stove making, learn how to grow a new crop, receive seeds, be trained in water conservation, or other support. Help that on a day to day basis would improve their and their communities lives. They would then travel back to their villages and share their learning and/or support with their family, friends and community. Through these networks we were able to continue our work, throughout the conflict, even in some of the most difficult to reach parts of Darfur.
We worked with hugely courageous, brave people in Darfur – speaking to them when I visited their villages I was moved particularly the bravery of the women.
Having met the communities we’ve been working with in the Blue Nile, I believe we will find brave people there, too.
The conflict in the Blue Nile is dire and needs to be stopped. But, if as news reports say, it’s likely to continue for at least the next two years – we have to do all we can to help people caught up in this continue to build their lives.
Our commitment remains undiminished.
Im sorry for the ramble – Ive just dashed this off – but I didnt want to forget how moved I was by Barneys words thinking about the people I met and shared with in Sudan.1 Comment » | Add your comment
….there was a little girl who loved stories. As a little slip of a thing, she used to stand and swing on the garden gate, waving to passers-by in the hope that she could chat to them and ask them questions to find out their stories (she was a very curious little girl). A few years later, her very patient, very wonderful mother would read her favourite Maurice Sendak stories Outside Over There and Where The Wild Things Are to her every night. When she was at school, she’d set her alarm super early so she could wake up and read Enid Blyton books before going to lessons. English was always her favourite subject, and characters such as Elizabeth Bennett, Scout Finch, Jo March and Scarlett O’Hara were as familiar to her as her oldest friends. And then she studied the art of telling a story – for it is an art – during an English Literature degree at university.
Now that little girl (who’s not so little anymore) works for Practical Action.
I am that girl. And I work at Practical Action because I want to change the world. But my passion is storytelling: both discovering a good story, and then telling it in the best possible way. But how do you change the world with a story?
Well, this week, we at Practical Action launched our next five year strategy. It is bold and ambitious and exciting – but challenging too. The targets, both in terms of fundraising and impact at scale, are high.
But that’s because there are huge problems to solve. Right now 1.3 billion people across the world don’t have clean, safe water. 1 billion people don’t have enough food to eat. 2.6 billion people don’t have adequate sanitation. And 1.6 billion people don’t have access to modern energy. Too many people live in abject poverty. It is a world of great technology injustice.
There is no question that this needs to change. So over the next five years we will work towards four universal goals:
- Sustainable access to modern energy service for all by 2030
- Systems which provide food security and livelihoods for people in rural areas
- Improved access to drinking water, sanitation and waste services for people living in towns and cities
- Reduced risk of disasters for marginalised communities
And by the end of this next strategy period, in 2017, we will have transformed the lives of 6 million people.
That is an exhilarating prospect for me.
Because 6 million people = 6 million stories to find and tell.
Each of those 6 million is not just a ‘project beneficiary’ but a living, feeling, thinking human being with their own unique life story. And those 6 million life stories are 6 million more reasons to support Practical Action, today and for the future.
I can’t wait to get started.
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One of the greatest joys of working in fundraising is meeting lots of amazing people who want to do something to change the world – whether that’s donating loose change, or running 10km and asking for sponsorship, or organising a cake sale, or setting up a charitable trust to give away larger sums of money, or climbing mountains , as some of our student supporters are doing.
Last night I was very honoured to be a guest speaker at a women only fundraising dinner in Yorkshire which was both celebrating women, and raising money for Practical Action’s work in Sudan. The room was full of over 200 women, all intelligent, funny, charming, wonderful people. Last night alone raised in excess of £7,000! And it’s all going towards a food project in rural Kassala which is helping nearly 100,000 people – some of the poorest on the planet – to make a better living from farming by giving them the tools, knowledge and skills they need to move to a life beyond poverty . The generosity in that room was tangible. And it’s amazing to experience it. All too often it seems we’re living in the worst of times – great economic austerity, a seemingly endless war against terrorism, a government that cuts benefits from the most vulnerable while simultaneously allowing the rich to prosper. It can easy to be cynical, unmotivated, to think the worst and do absolutely nothing about it.
But the dinner last night was a perfect reminder that people are, for the most part, pretty wonderful. Tell a room of women that there are 4.2 million people in Sudan starving, and they will dig deep and donate, in the hope of making tomorrow brighter than today.
Today is also Sport Relief – and I know that millions of people up and down the country will be compelled to do something about the injustice of global poverty – whether that’s texting a donation while watching tonight’s TV show, or running the Sport Relief mile on Sunday.
Gandhi once said “be the change you wish to see in the world.” Thank God there are so many wonderful people who live their lives true to that mantra. Today my heart is full of joy because of them – thank you. Happy Friday everyone!No Comments » | Add your comment
This International Women’s Day is all about empowering women to end hunger and poverty. Women play a vital role in food production in developing countries. In fact, 43% of the agricultural workforce are women. Yet they have very limited access to resources such as land, credit and agricultural training and information compared to men.
I was therefore happy to attend an event in parliament on the 7th March on ‘Effective Solutions for Agricultural Development through Empowered African Women Scientists’. The event concentrated on getting women into leadership positions within science and technology and building their skills and confidence within the agricultural sector. It also places the spotlight on the need for research into aspects of agriculture that are important and helpful to women farmers.
I listened to the stories of two African women scientists, Dr Sheila Ommeh from the International Livestock Research Institute in Kenya and Christine Mukantwali a senior scientist from Rwanada. Both women are AWARD (African Women in Agricultural Research and Development) fellows. Both women have invested considerable time in researching sustainable agricultural solutions to help their communities and have acted as role models for girls in local schools, encouraging them to get interested in science.
It was great to hear about the importance of getting more women into science. However, this got me thinking about the wider topic of women and technology.
Technology is a vital element for any community. It plays a significant role in food security, agriculture and small scale production. Women use technical skills and knowledge in their daily activities; they continually innovate and adapt technologies in response to things they face in their everyday lives. However, their role and technical skills are often overlooked and undervalued.
There are four main reasons why women are less visible in the application of technology than men:
- Firstly, much of women’s work is unpaid. Women have responsibilities for child care and subsistence tasks and this means it is less visible in national statistics.
- Secondly, is the cultural perception of what constitutes ‘technology’. Women carry out a considerable number of technical activities every day. For example, they farm, process crops, weave, sew, collect wood and water, tend to small livestock, fish and look after children. These activities are mostly domestic , small scale and considered un-technical.
- Thirdly, the perception of what comprises technology is mostly in the realm of ‘hard’ technology- that of equipment, like computers or machinery, but ‘soft’ technology is usually overlooked. Soft technology comprises the skills, concepts and knowledge needed to use the ‘hard’ technology. Women often have a lot of skill but use less complex equipment (e.g. in food processing).
- Fourthly, the fact that few women are involved in agricultural extension work, research and development or technical development planning has meant there has been little challenging of assumptions made about the nature of productive roles and responsibilities and assumptions that have undermined women’s roles and technical capacities.
The spotlight on women in science should open up and include the empowerment of those women that use technology day in and day out. Practical Action’s ‘Discovering Technologists’ training guidelines is aimed at increasing the skills of those involved in technology development, working in the agricultural development sector. The training is an empowering process whereby women can realize that their knowledge is not only technical but also valuable, and this realisation leads to women themselves consciously exploring, strengthening and sharing the expertise that they have.No Comments » | Add your comment
To celebrate International Women’s Day we have two stories from Peru which demonstrate how Practical Action’s work helps to empower women in the developing world.
The Chilihua community in Cusco, has a new ‘kamayoq’. This term is an ancient Inca word for an extension worker who advises a community on agricultural practice.
42 year-old Rebelina Tijeras Salas undertook a year of studies at Practical Action’s kamayoq school along with 44 other women from the region. At the end of year fair she stood in her booth preparing to receive her guests and explain to them how to control diseases in their alpaca herds.
From a young age Rebelina (whose name means ‘rebellion’) had been taught everything she needed to know to become a good daughter, wife, mother and alpaca farmer. But her rebellious spirit helped her also to become a leader within a culture in which women are still not valued the same as men.
“I had the chance to move on from being a simple alpaca-breeder to assuming a role that required more dedication, better techniques and implied much more knowledge”, she pointed out. She knew from her ancestors that becoming a kamayoq implied being a teaching authority. From a common alpaca-breeder she would become a leading alpaca-raising technician.
“My second husband never wanted me to be a kamayoq, but this was a commitment I had made to myself and I am determined to fulfill it”, she recalled cheerfully.
“My purpose in life is to be more than a mother and a wife. I want to share my knowledge of development with my community to achieve general progress instead of being the only one to benefit from this opportunity.”
Whilst she was speaking, six year-old Paul, her fourth child, stood next to her. He is accustomed to listening to her talk that way because he accompanied her to the kamayoq school thanks to the nursery available at every monthly meeting.
Yolanda Barrientos is the 24 year-old teacher in charge of the nursery. Some of the lessons she uses with the children include alpacas as the protagonists, so that they feel they are learning the same thing as their mothers. More than 80% of the participants have children between 1 and 5 years of age, which can be an excuse for not attending workshops. This was a determining factor for Rebelina, as she was able to take Paul with her at all times.
After so many months of studying, Rebelina is taking advantage of her experience. “It has been a great change for both my family and my sector. This has helped me develop, to feel more inclined to participate and to be valued not only for who I am but for what I know”, she remarked.
Her next goal is to specialize in leadership in addition to animal health. “Previously, my alpaca herds would be attacked by disease without my realizing it, but now I know the technical names and how to prevent them. Look at everything that has happened to me, but yet I have succeeded”, she added. “Nothing is impossible in life when you want it badly enough and in this case, achieving it has not only made me happy, but benefits my whole community.”
Rebelina’s farewell smile softened the hard look she has acquired over time. She continued explaining about the medication she must apply to her alpacas, with the self-confidence acquired as a result of the training she received at Kamayoq school.No Comments » | Add your comment
After an intensive year of studying at Practical Action’s Kamayoq School, one of the 45 women will make a presentation about what they were taught in their course for Alpaca farmers in Toxaccota, Cusco, Peru.
July Quispe Quincho is full of enthusiasm, nervous but excited about speaking in public. A year ago she found out that her mother would be joining the school and she wished with all her might that she too could do so, although she was only fifteen. “I was waiting for an opportunity to develop my love for animals.,” she recalls, “But I was told that the minimum age was 25.”
Because of her passion for animals, she gained the confidence of her community who proposed that she should become a Kamayoq alongside her mother Vistación Quinco. So July became the youngest Kamayoq student.
July and Vistación feel that the alpaca-raising classes they attended at the Kamayoq school went beyond the limits of a simple learning experience. In the Peruvian highlands, farming and livestock-raising are the main source of income for families like theirs. Moreover, it is the women in the households who carry out those chores. That is why learning to improve their production and market their wool has made them feel much more secure in their role in the household and in the community.
“This has been the greatest challenge of my life”, said July, as she stood in the midst of the alpacas that will be her own within a few years. The bright colours of her clothing and the sparkle in her eyes still show the innocence of a child. But her determination to educate herself conveys a sense of self-confidence that makes her stand out among the other girls of her age.
Her mother, 36 year-old Vistación, is very proud of July. She is the eldest of her three children and although she had her doubts when July suggested going to the Kamayoq School with her, she now has the utmost confidence in her. “To see my daughter learning from such a young age is very satisfying. I only completed grade three of primary school,” said Vistacion, who had to leave her studies when she was very young to bring up her family.
Many households in the so-called “puna” – the highest region in the Peruvian highlands – have preserved many of their ancestors’ customs. Initially, July’s father was not at all pleased at the idea of his wife and daughter leaving home for five days a month and it was difficult for Vistación to convince him. Now, as she listens to July talking confidently about the shearing process or how the women should act in their communities, she knows that supporting her daughter was right. “My husband has also understood this and now he stays home taking care of the alpacas when we go to the school for training”, she explained.
July’s father talks to her about the alpacas that she will soon manage on her own. “It is the inheritance my parents will leave me and I must look after them in the best possible way”, she confirmed. She began talking about the beautiful sweaters she could make.
July’s success is replicated at school. She is in the third year of secondary school and is the new leader of her classroom. “My friends have noticed something different in me” she added with a broad smile. “I have explained that they must obtain the support of their community, but they are eager to learn more about the alpacas”, she continued. She has promised them that she will teach them about mating techniques, business management and handicrafts, three of the subjects that have most attracted her attention during her year of studies.
“I already feel like a Kamayoq and I am proud to have been part of this course. I could live in the “puna” forever, alongside my animals, as long as I am a professional” she ended. That is her goal in life and she will always consider the Kamayoq school as the first step towards her preparation for the future.No Comments » | Add your comment
I’d done lots of reading and my conversations with local staff had painted in some detail. But I was utterly unprepared.
It takes 9 hours to drive from Colombo to Kilinochchi.
Colombo is the prosperous-looking capital of Sri Lanka, a middle income country. I’d chatted to a man working at my hotel in Colombo. He described to me how Sri Lanka is working for the Big People. But for him – a family man with two kids working 18 hour shifts as attendant and earning less in a month than the rate of my hotel room (a big overstatement, for certain, but we all understand his point) – life is difficult. High inflation of prices for essentials is just making it harder. He was describing a common predicament – large gap between rich and poor in middle income countries – and I felt for him.
But the road up to Kilinochchi is a journey into a different, more complex world. Not simply the inequitable one that I have seen before.
At first, from Puttalam to Anuradhapura, the evidence of conflict is not what you might expect. We’re in the heart of elephant country. A recent ‘census’ counted over 7,000 wild elephants in Sri Lanka. Human-elephant country is a serious problem. Government policies yo-yo between discouraging settlement in elephant passes to intentional development in the areas. I see houses abandoned. The patchwork of rice fields remains untended.
After Anuradhapura we begin to pass garrison after garrison of government troops: A silent, ominous, quickening drum roll. A war occurred here.
Buddhist Sinhalese and Hindu Tamils have lived side by side on the Island for over 2000 years. Mostly they have been able to find peaceful co-existence. Throughout history however Sri Lanka has suffered invasions from India. These have periodically stoked popular resentment amongst the Sinhalese towards the Tamils, who share deep ties with populations in India, Tamil Nadu in particular. Tamils have been treated as outsiders. There have been times when large numbers of Tamils have evacuated or been expelled to India.
The British colonial period threw toxic yeast into the mix. In an account that so echoes what I understand of Rwanda, my colleague Rane puts me straight. When the British took control of the island in 1815 they sought to take the power away from ‘trouble-making’ Sinhalese leaders by eroding the institutions on which their statuses were founded. They abolished slavery and replaced in kind servitude with salaried labour. The British promoted the minority Tamils into a ruling class, appointing them to all the leadership roles of public office. They invested in their education, already at a higher level than the Sinhalese, in so doing entrenching this divide and rule order. When Sri Lankan Tamils were not malleable to the plan, the British brought in Indians to do the job. By the time Sri Lanka (which was called Ceylon at the time) achieved independence in 1948 the British had transformed the economy (tea anyone?), turned the structures of power in the country on their heads, and created an environment ripe for ethnic conflict.
Support for Buddhist-Nationalism grew strong. When in power populist leaders took increasingly steps to reaffirm the Sinhalese at the centre of culture and Buddhism as the dominating religion. In 1972 the number of Tamil places in universities was capped and Buddhism was written into new legislation as holding the “foremost place” amongst the island’s religions. Widespread unrest ensued and groups of young Tamils, including The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), called for an independent Tamil state in the north and the east. They established jungle guerrilla bases.
Boiling point hit in 1983 when the Tamil Tigers ambushed and massacred an army patrol in the Jaffna region. The Sinhalese retaliated with a month of killing and looting, now known as Black July. As many as two thousand people were slaughtered, and whole areas were levelled.
The war lasted 26 years. The war had its ebbs, including an unstable ceasefire from 2002 to 2005. But its crests were horrific. Upwards of 100,000 women, men and children, a large proportion of them civilians, were killed. Over 1 million people were displaced. War crimes were almost certainly perpetrated by both sides, but with no independent observers allowed into the war zones, nothing can be confirmed.
Kilinochchi town was the base of the Tamil Tigers, the symbolic capital of their Eelam. The district was the place of the Tamil Tigers’ last stand to the Sri Lanka Army’s massive offensive in 2008. By the time President Rajapakse declared the final victory of the Sri Lanka Army in May 2009, and a conclusive end to the war, Kilinochchi had been utterly flattened.
Kilinochchi is where I am heading. (This blog was written in October 2011).
I’m on assignment to provide technical support for pro-poor market development as part of Practical Action’s one-year rehabilitation and recovery project here. I’m delivering training to our staff and a number of other agencies working in the conflict affected north and east – CARE, Oxfam, Worldvision and UNDP. I am the first Practical Action head office staff to go there.
It was as we passed Vuvuniya, after the army checkpoint, that my stomach started turning.
On the final 70 km stretch to Kilinochchi there are more bunkers than other buildings put together. Hardly a single building from three years ago remains. The buildings that stand are mostly the result of the UN’s Refugee Agency: corrugated iron shacks covered with waterproof sheets, and occasionally, newly built ‘permanent resettlements’. There are far more soldiers than civilians. Every road, bridge and irrigation channel has been blown up.
It’s dark by now. On the insignificant upside, there is so little around that there’s no light pollution. As the driver, Bandara, and I take a cheeky pee on the side of the road, I can see the Milky Way.
In the two and a half years since the end of the war, reconstruction and rehabilitation has started apace. Road building, bridge repair, irrigation rehabilitation. De-mining programmes abound. Large scale programmes to return internally displaced persons have made swift, safe and effective progress. ‘Return’ often proves to be a misleading word though, many ‘returnees’ have been resettled in new locations, bringing both challenges and opportunities. All work is led or closely monitored by the government, and financed by the international humanitarian and development industries. Faith-based groups (especially Christian) tend to be at the forefront of putting civil society roots back in the ground.
The private sector is patchy. The biggest companies who are kitted out to cope with high risk have re-established themselves. Cargill’s national supermarket chain, for example, has set-up a new supermarket even before the road leading to it is completely finished. Individual entrepreneurship is also strong. This is a consequence of many not having access to natural resources; traditional occupations on which they used to depend difficult to return to. This entrepreneurship comes in every flavour: Small shops selling small goods; tractor rental; basic eateries; and also prostitution, largely serving the humanitarian expats. My colleague Sampath tells me that in Batticola, another conflict-affected district, as much as 40 % of women who have lost their husbands in the war have entered into prostitution. There’s also a missing middle to the business environment: small and medium enterprises do not have the skills and resources to understand the risks and opportunities of this post-conflict world.
Practical Action’s project here is called A New Beginning – Rehabilitating Irrigation Infrastructure and Initialising Market Development. It is funded by the United States government Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA).
The team here is working with recent returnees and government engineers to rebuild traditional water tanks in two locations. The tanks are little more than natural bowls, each around half a kilometre in length and width. The natural edges of the bowls are raised with soil covered in grass, and strategic channels and gates are installed to allow locals to control the flow of water. Maintenance of the banks and the irrigation gates is traditionally carried out by the communities living around the tanks. Rain water is captured and stored during the monsoon and channelled into fields in the torrid dry season. The bowls also raise the surrounding water table, keeping wells filled higher and for longer and create an oasis for wildlife. To me this is a perfect example of indigenous, intermediate technology.
With Kilinochchi in the heart of the conflict zone for the most of the 26-year war, these communities have had to flee their homes and lives, sometimes on a number of occasions and often for years at a time. Families are now returning, but empty handed and often penniless, they do not have the resources to maintain the tanks as they had done in the past.
To get the tanks back into good shape the project uses a common humanitarian approach – ‘cash-for-work’ – offering incomes to returning locals by hiring them to do the work.
As Suganthan, the project’s technical officer tells me, this approach is much harder to use effectively and not necessarily desirable.
Most other humanitarian cash-for-work programs around here are really just trying to shift cash to returnees, and use cash-for-work as a guise to argue that they are not creating aid dependency. In practice though these programmes hardly judge their performance on getting the ‘work’ that is carried out, and care little whether those hired actually work or not. Often they don’t. Workers sit under trees all day and they still collect the cash in the evening. The work doesn’t get done, is it is done poorly and no-one cares. Aid dependency still festers.
The approach in this project is different. We really want the work to be done. The completion of the tank rehabilitation in time for the end-of-year rains will determine whether the returnees can grow anything in the dry season in the new year. So Suganthan calls Practical Action’s approach ‘work-for-cash’. If locals want to work, they can, and they’ll earn something, he explains. “If this doesn’t happen, we hire local construction companies to get the work done.”
In reality around 60 % of the work is carried out by the poor. Poor people spend some time working on the tanks and spend the rest of their time rebuilding their homes and preparing their fields.
(written a few months later) Now in March, with tanks full, irrigation systems ready and the dry season arriving, the project now helps the locals around the tanks to recommence vegetable or fruit production. These are crops that can bring in income, what these people say they really need most.
Many other livelihood support programmes around here and elsewhere focus entirely on agricultural production and end up panicking when the project ‘beneficiaries’ produce a glut of produce no-one wants to buy. Again Practical Action’s team is taking a different approach.
We are working with the farmers and other people who work in agriculture to think about the demand for crops in the end markets: local ones, those in Jaffna up north, and those down south and identify what can be done to meet this demand. The team is facilitating a process that enables poor returnees to produce in-demand fruit and vegetables in an environmentally sustainable way and sell them for reliable prices into the markets that want them.
To make agriculture work again for those most in need, the team realises that production needs to be demand-driven and the market system as a whole needs to work well. The team therefore works not just with the poor farmers but also with other actors in the whole supply chain that takes produce from the field to the kitchen table and the fruit bowl. These actors include traders, buyers and retailers. We also work with the people who provide important services for the farmers such as agricultural advice and inputs. Many of these actors face their own huge challenges in this post-conflict situation: they feel the risks and cost of doing business here are too high, they are ill-equipped and have poor skills. The networks and relationships their occupations depend on are non-existent or hostile, as a result of the war and the displacement it caused. If their problems are not addressed alongside those of the farmers, then the returnees’ produce will not find reasonable and reliable prices.
In this way the project is demonstrating the potential of the area and its farmers, encouraging the government and others take seriously the opportunities that exist here and begin to reinvest in small farmers.No Comments » | Add your comment