Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Liz MacIntyre: Making the desert - and lives - bloom

An aid worker travelling to projects must steel herself for tears - not open sobs but sometimes, quietly in the evening or in the shelter of a vehicle, it's necessary to have a weep over the cruelty of circumstances.

So I was prepared for India, for Dahod, in the western corner of Gujarat state, where the poorest tribes, the Bhil tribal people, eke out an existence in a hostile and arid desert.

Or at least it was, until World Vision began development work there some 16 years ago, which is the approximate life span of a development project. The initial two years, the "seed period", are to set up the project, build relationships with the people, analyse needs, prepare for child sponsorship and ensure the villagers in the area establish the necessary Village Development Committees which are vital to keep the programmes on track and accountable.

So it was with some trepidation that I approached Dahod, knowing the project would soon end, and wondering whether it was ready to stand on its collective feet?

New Zealanders have been totally funding this Area Development Programme (ADP) for some 16 years, through sponsoring 2400 children in the area. ADPs are large - Dahod has 120,000 people living in 42 villages.

Samy Satvedi, the ADP manager, was very chipper as he explained what we would see the next day. He even described the scenery as "beautiful". Sure enough, as we drove through the rolling-hill country of barren brown dunes, we could see swathes of green - the desert was blooming!

We stopped at village after village, where water had made a huge difference. Check dams (concrete dams to "check" water runoff), earth dams such as we often see on New Zealand farms, deep wells and diesel pumps to siphon the water up to the crops, have all made a huge difference in the lives of these formerly impoverished farmers.

Kanu Gohil, in the village of Divaniyavad, is now an agricultural entrepreneur, enthused at what he is able to do, and his dreams for the future.

He is planting bamboo and amla (gooseberry) and has thousands of saplings ready to be planted before the monsoon rains. His daughter, Manisha, 11, who is sponsored by a New Zealand family, has the task of watering them after school. If it wasn't for the project, Manisha wouldn't be in school, and Kanu and his family would be nomadic, migrating to the cities to find work. Before he just didn't have the water to irrigate the 8ha he farms with his five brothers.

In winter, they grow wheat and mustard and Kanu is experimenting with local wheat and American wheat, which has more grain and seems plumper. They use organic manure and wormcast, and have just started experimenting with roses, which had their first flowering in January. Floriculture is a smart industry to get into in India where flowers are such an important part of life. Kanu also has small mango and banana plantations.

"If the wheat shines in the sun, I am happy," he says, beaming. It's a sign of good moisture and plumpness, and sure enough, the hectares of wheat do shine in the sun. He is now getting four crops a year, where he used to get one.

As we ate freshly roasted chickpeas from the fire, chatting under the shade of the trees, I asked Kanu what the programme had meant to him and his extended family. "Not only my family but my brothers' families have come up in life. We have diversified a lot. It started with the well, lift irrigation, then we were able to establish the nursery, horticulture, floriculture. My income has grown by five times."

And what would Manisha's life be like, I ask him. "She would have to walk 2km to fetch water. She would be in the same state we were in five years ago. We would have to migrate to find work every year, and she wouldn't be in school. Our income would be poor, so she would work to help us survive."

The kind of work Manisha would be involved in is pretty grim for a girl, and a very vulnerable one. I saw them in Dahod city, clothed in saris and shalwar kameez, doing back-breaking work, carting rubble in big platters on their heads.

It's not something Manisha has to worry about as she lives in the comfort and security of her own village, attending school, playing with her friends and holding hopes of becoming a teacher when she grows up.

In the same village I met a group of women who belong to one of the Self Help Groups - there are three in the village. For most it's the first time they've ever handled money, dealt with banks or made any financial decisions on their own. They clutch books that detail their individual and group savings.

"Before the water came to the village we didn't have any savings," explains one of them. "Now that we have water we can grown vegetables and crops and sell them at the markets." Their pride in their progress is palpable.

The Village Development Committee has applied to the Indian Government as a charity, establishing themselves as a private trust, and they will now be able to access government funds. This positions them very well for the end of the project in three years' time.

The New Zealand Government has, for the past three years, been matching donations given from New Zealand on a two-to-one basis, specifically for soil and water conservation in 20 of the project villages in Dahod. This is important additional funding which allows extra check dams to be built, agricultural training workshops for farmers, and land development and soil conservation programmes in the villages.

In Paniya Village the milk is flowing freely - at the rate of 200 litres a day - and not from cows, but from buffalo. The local milk co-op part-funded 34 buffalo for the village - they contribute 50 per cent, the aid agency contributes 25 per cent and the villagers contribute 25 per cent.

The villagers explain that a milk tanker comes from the dairy factory 12km away, twice a day to pick up the milk - a familiar scene for any New Zealander brought up on a dairy farm. The butterfat content is measured and, as in New Zealand, the farmers are paid on the fat content of the milk, which is measured on pick up.

If it weren't for the well, dug 10 years ago, and the lift irrigation, this milk project would not be possible: no money to purchase buffalo, no food for the animals.

Sonal Damor, a serious 15-year-old and an elected Child Forum leader, says the milk project has made a big difference to their lives. "Change has come," she says. "The fields have improved."

Children take an active part in village activities under the child sponsorship programme, and Sonal takes her duties seriously, sitting in on village development meetings, and keeping an eye on other sponsored children.

She's about to sit her "Class 10s" in April - a very important exam for Indian schoolchildren and necessary for them to pass in order to proceed to senior high school.

She wants to be a teacher in a village when she qualifies.

In one village where vivid red roses grow among the fluffy cotton plants (crops never attempted before), the villagers told me that they used to be known as thieves and robbers - that was the only way they could survive in the drought.

Now they're hard-working citizens delighted with the aid they've been given to stand on their own feet. So, no tears for Dahod.

* Liz MacIntyre is communications manager for World Vision New Zealand.

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