Saturday, July 3, 2010

Straw Huts to Brick Buildings (Sikkavalam Village)

The day began with two. A good friend of mine from American University has family in India had decided to spend a portion of her summer working with the DAAN Foundation, an organization looking at many of the same issues that LAFTI addresses. As part of her field work, she was assigned to work and stay in an area just a few kilometers away from Kuthur. After exchanging our Indian numbers via email a few weeks in to both our travels, we were able to meet up for one weekend in early July. She arrived on a Friday, and we spent the afternoon not doing much more then enjoying each other’s company, in English. I can’t even say that I remember anything specific about our conversation that night, only that it didn’t demand nearly as much of our efforts with regards to communication because both of us were speaking our first language. Although It may appear of little significance to anyone else, after spending the last 3 weeks around people who only speak Tamil and myself not understanding more than a few simple words of this South Indian language, it is safe to say that we were both more than happy to see one another for this English-speaking reason alone.

Because both LAFTI and DAAN’s work involve land, agriculture, and housing, we decided that we should find a way to make our weekend into a little more than meaningless English conversation. Around 8am on Saturday, my friend and I got into the LAFTI Jeep and were driven to Sikkavalam village several kilometers away. Although I had visited this village the previous weekend to take photos of particular LAFTI projects, both my friend and I were going with the intent of actually conversing (with Gandhi as our translator) with those who live there. Primarily a Hindu community, this village consisted of about eight or nine houses in the visible area. In terms of LAFTI’s work in this locality, there are several of the organization’s beneficiaries who have commuted the small distance from this village to Kuthur to take part in the brick-making process, and who then spent the following months actually building the houses they now live in. It seems that for most families, after transporting the approximately 11,000 bricks required to construct each home, it took two to four months to complete one house depending on the given circumstances (season, number of family members contributing, etc). I did not need an in-depth conversation with any of the villagers to understand the true transformation that has taken place in this neighborhood over the last few years. Next to every 11,000-brick house was a straw hut. Although some of the families still use their old houses, their huts, to give home to the family’s cattle, the bigger and much brighter smiles present on these villager’s faces when they are standing beside their “LAFTI houses” need no further explanation.

Because we had arrived to the Sikkavalam area just before the people in the village were beginning their day, it was suggested that go to another section of the village and get more information just a few miles away. This other part of the village although not so relevant in terms of LAFTI housing projects, holds great importance when it comes to the world of farming and agriculture. After arriving in the area, we were invited onto the porch of a middle-age couple’s house to discuss and interview them about issues related to how farming, water access/quality, and land ownership have changed in the last ten years. Although it was hard to get individual farmer responses because the rest of the village members were constantly crowded around and contributing out of their own excitement, we were able to conclude a few foundational facts that nearly every individual living and working in the area had recently experience. During the mid to late 90’s, most all farmers were using organic manure to maintain and develop their crops. Over the past four to five years however, farmers have been introduced to a combination of organic and chemical manure used both for their paid farming work, as well as for their personal use. With regards to the farmer’s personal crops, the cost of owning and maintain a cow to produce organic manure has risen steadily over the last ten years. In terms of using chemical manure in the line of work, it all comes back to profits. With the climate change India and the rest of the world has recently experienced, farming as a business has felt some serious downturns. Chemical manure, in the short run, is able to boost crop productivity per season and bring in a good portion of that recently lost income lost in previous years. As many of the farmers mentioned throughout the interview though, chemical manure is not good in the long-run, for anyone’s future. It produces more of very specific crops, but not of better quality (sometimes even worse), and those chemicals found in this specific mix of manure are slowly but surely result in severe devastation to the soil and land to which they are given. In addition to the people’s crops, some of the drinking water used by the farmers and their families comes from sources drawn upwards from the ground, adding yet another and even more direct danger when it comes to the effects of using this chemical manure. So, while these farmers may be able to grow their crops and provide for their families this year, there is nothing close to “a sure thing” when it comes to next year’s harvest.

To end the visit on a positive note, there is one danger involving food and farming that this village in particular has not yet had to overcome. While the chemical manure is thought to be problematic or dangerous for the reasons mentioned above, prawn farms possess an even greater danger to the farmer’s and their families. When multi-national companies make their way into the area and exploit any available worker’s labor in the name of American eaten “shrimp”, often unknown to those who actually it these curly little creatures, irreversible damage has been done. After a 14-year-old girl and her mother have finished a 16-hour day shelling shrimp for a wage below belief, the land on which the prawn farm was initially established is no longer usable, and the company moves on. Not only are the chemicals used in the shrimp-shelling process extremely toxic, but they destroy the once-used “farming land” to a point of no return. These already poor families who have been continuously struggling to keep their crops and families a-float, wake up to discover that their land has been bought out by some billion-dollar CEO who exploits, pollutes, and then leaves behind a previously healthy plot of land and all of its workers, only to go find the next. Although the village I have been discussing does not currently face this threat, only because there are not currently any prawn farms nearby, the possibilities for danger and displacement that so many farmers and their families live in fear of is beyond my own imagination and possibly yours.

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