What causes community disintegration? Anyone working in community transformation or, indeed, those living in communities in distress will tell you that just as there is no one symptom, there is no one cause.
EFICOR, an Indian Christian organisation, has run projects with thousands of poor and marginalised communities over its 47 years, many of them supported by TEAR Australia. Their community-based agriculture projects have trained farmers across the country, enabling them to make the most from their land. But only in the last few years have they been forced to introduce a new element to their work – climate change adaptation.
TEAR Australia supports one such project working with 70 villages in Chitrakoot, one of India’s poorest and least serviced rural regions. Most people here are from the “scheduled castes”, sometimes known as “untouchables”. Most are farmers but the land is poor, unirrigated, and deteriorating. Over the past few years, drought and debt have brought many families to the brink of starvation. More than 500 farmers each year have committed suicide.1
This region typically experiences an extreme climate. Temperatures range from 52ºC to OºC. Droughts and floods are common, but adaptation techniques (like irrigation) are rare. Once heavily forested, the region has been depleted of trees, the top soil has washed away and the rains are no longer predictable.
It’s a complex situation. A quick glance over EFICOR’s analysis on poverty in the region (see pdf) shows a web of interconnecting causes and effects. Take a closer look, and the complexity of EFICOR’s work becomes apparent. Changes to the local weather patterns are one extra burden for this community to bear. And it’s a significant one.
Chunbad and Manju with four of their five children: Raju (15), Nisa (9), Manisha (7) and Rachha (2).
In its initial report to TEAR Australia, EFICOR staff wrote:
“Negative impacts of climate change have been visible as the area experiences increased frequency of extreme weather events raising vulnerability and risk among the poor and marginalized families. There are several manifestations of drought like late arrival of rains, early withdrawal, long break in between, lack of sufficient water in reservoirs and drying up of wells leading to crop failure and un-sowing of the crops which ultimately curtail livelihood opportunities and lead to migration.”
Add this to the mix of social pressures the region also experiences, and you have a volatile mix. Families marginalised by caste are less likely to send their children to school or be able to access health facilities, and men are more likely to migrate to find paid employment. Many of the women left behind are burdened by child-rearing and farm work. Many of the men feel ashamed that they can’t grow food and guilty for leaving their families.
To address the situation, EFICOR is working to increase the capacity of the communities. They’ve brought enthusiastic villagers together to form three levels of groups: Village Development Committees which will work to lobby government for better resources and help households work together; Farmer’s Groups through which specific agricultural training and resources can flow; and Self-Help Groups to support income generation as well as improve savings and credit opportunities. Often, these groups are the only ways for local people to share their concerns, discover and develop solutions to local problems, and find their voice to lobby for change. These groups help individuals unlock their potential to change their own communities and overcome the pressures that hinder them from transforming their land, their income, their families and their communities.
EFICOR also provides some physical inputs: tens of thousands of tree seedlings to improve the soil and provide fodder, water harvesting infrastructure to improve water storage and irrigation, and demonstration farms to showcase and teach the new agricultural techniques. And there is now a seed bank in every village, to help mitigate the risk of crop failure.
Across the villages, EFICOR is spreading the word that the local climate is changing, and that farmers can adapt by changing the way they farm. They even run events for school children, the next generation of farmers.
They will grow up knowing what “climate change” is. And they will know that their parents worked hard, learning new farming methods, so they could feed their families. And they will have to continue to transform farming, watching the weather so they can adapt to the changes yet to come.
Chunbad and Manju, and their 5 children live in a small village in Chitrakoot. Their involvement with EFICOR’s project is an extraordinary tale of courage, transformation and hope. It’s brought them out of a dire, yet typical, situation.
Chunbad’s family have been here for generations, as subsistence farmers who toiled the land and gleaned from the thick forest. Today, the forest is all but gone and the land produces little. Some in the village blame the Lord Rama, who, they believe, sends rain on those for whom he has compassion. And so, believing they are not blessed, the men, including Chunbad, leave in search of paid employment.
The following interview is by Naomi Chua and Rachel Colbourne-Hoffman.
“When I went away I was very alone. I would eat food there but my entire mind and soul was at home. I would worry how my children were living, how my wife was doing, whether they were eating or not… That’s the kind of situation I was in for two years. Eight months I would stay there, and four months back at home.
After two years, we decided to go together (with Manju and the children) to Punjab. We worked in a bricks factory for three years. While we were at work we had to leave the children in the house. We had a small hut and the children would stay there until we came back in the evening.
I have seen a lot of miserable, miserable life. A lot of sadness.
One day, EFICOR came to my village and right here under the tree they had a meeting. I was part of the meeting and they enquired as to whether there were any groups functioning or any development work here. There was nothing. They asked if someone could lend land for them to start a demonstration farm.
We were very hesitant to loan our land, as we only have 2 bigha (1.2acres). They wanted one bigha. I was not sure what was going to happen. Then, we as a family discussed it. I consulted my soul, and then lent land to EFICOR for the demonstration. And then EFICOR invested money on my land and showed me how to plant things. We were also working as a family (on the land) and we have seen the results. We are able to see the fruit.
Now the second crop is coming. It is sustainable now because not only do we have a good first crop, but a second one too. This is the first time in my life that I am cultivating vegetables, and then selling in the market; and I gain so much.”
“We were dependent on agriculture but the rains did not come on time. Whatever rain came, it was very little and the yield was low. Then the rains were too heavy and a lot of the crops were getting spoilt. That’s why my husband had to go far away. In the third year, I went with him as I was not getting any work here.
When he went away, we had a problem with food. I had to borrow 15 kilos of wheat from my relatives to feed my children.
When my husband went away, looking after the children was a big responsibility. We had no money.
I know that the experience impacted the education of my children. When he went away, the children did not go to school. To admit them into school cost money, but if I paid that amount we would not have had money for food, so we did not send the children to school. This will affect their marriage (prospects). If a child has a little bit of study, they have more opportunities for the marriage.
Chunbad is part of a Farmer’s Group, and Manju belongs to a women’s Self-Help Group. Their willingness to try a new way of farming is helping others in the community to see the benefits of adapting to climate change.
Almost every family goes through the same situation as our family. They all migrate. The women say: ‘Why did god curse us such that our husbands are not with us?’ In my community, many people go through the same situation.
When EFICOR came, I had a lot of doubt. But many people came and said: ‘You know, let us try, let us try.’ Like that. There was one girl, Pooja, who works with EFICOR, she is a local lady. She advised me and said: ‘Something good is going to happen, let us try it out.’ Then they convinced us and we gave the land. And then we started seeing the way the plants were growing. I had never seen it before in vegetable season. This was the first time I had seen growth like this.
There was a hope that started in our minds. We started selling the fruit in the market. Then we could buy other things, and more food. We realised it was good to go for the new variety of crops. We used to have so many pests in the soil and the yield was not that much. But now we use organic pesticide and biochar which is made up of coal. This was introduced by EFICOR and has led to very good yield.
Now, because EFICOR is doing demonstration farming, we can adapt to the new environment. It has helped us grow some vegetables which were not part of our life here before. We are able to get some money, and so we are living here and not migrating.
Now my husband is in one place so we can send the children to school.”
This project has received funding from the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), responsible for Australia's overseas aid program.
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