Changing the in-vironment
describes how development approaches often fail to tap
one of the most potent resources of the poor
The Indian organization Trees
for Life got off to a slow start. When businessman Balbir Mathur first
tried, in 1980, to persuade villagers to plant trees to protect the
environment, no one would accept a sapling from him. Attitudes quickly
changed when he asked a local Hindu holy man to bless the saplings: by
1989 the organization was planting 700,000 trees a year.
'Wherever possible, we distribute trees as prasadam (spiritual
blessing), whether from temples, gurdwaras or mosques,' he says.
'Westerners don't understand this. The spiritual centring of the tree is
His experience points to a potent resource, often overlooked in the North.
The spiritual dimension of sustainable development has only recently begun
to gain recognition within the international development community.
Last October, the World Bank held its first conference on the theme and
concluded that a major failing of externally driven development efforts
has been that they are not in tune with the beliefs and values of local
people. Its President, James D. Wolfensohn, described 'melding economic
assistance with spiritual, ethical and moral considerations as a key
challenge confronting the World Bank and development community'.
A few months before, a report for Ottawa's International Development
Research Centre (IDRC) came to a similar conclusion. Its author, William
S. Ryan, asserted: 'Development projects, perhaps most particularly in
Africa, are seen to fail because agencies and researchers are unwilling to
engage patiently the deep religious and spiritual beliefs rooted in the
extended family and the spirit world.'
And the IDRC's Vice-President, Pierre Biemens, added in the report's
foreword: 'To take material inputs as the point of departure for external
intervention is to adopt a unidimensional perspective of humanness which
will in turn distort one's notion of development.'
In the past experts, particularly in the North, have often seen religion
as an obstacle to progress. Religion can indeed breed superstition,
conflict and resistance to change. But it is also a fundamental part of
the cultural reality of most of the poorest people on Earth.
Listening to the poor - a keystone of the new development paradigm sought
at last year's Social Summit in Copenhagen - requires being open to their
values. As Professor Robert Chambers of the Institute of Development
Studies at Sussex University says: 'What [the poor] value and choose often
differs from what outside professionals expect.'
Faith is strongest at the grassroots and weakest among the educated elite
at both the global and national levels. This can lead to great
misunderstanding between experts and those they seek to serve. Laurence
Taylor, Director of development studies at the Selly Oak Colleges in
Britain, tells the story of a group of Norwegian bureaucrats deputed to
evaluate a project in Zimbabwe. When the community meeting they attended
opened with a prayer, they objected: their money should not be used to
fund prayer meetings. Their hosts were amazed. 'We open all our meetings
with prayer,' they said. 'Don't you?'
In the North, the Enlightenment of the 18th century brokered a divorce
between the 'objective' world of science and technology and the
'subjective' world of feelings and faith. The spiritual realm became
private, with little relation to the working world. The South, however,
has retained a much more holistic view of life.
'The world view of the vast majority of poor people in the developing
world is essentially religious,' explains Jeff Thindwa, a Malawian who is
Director of relief and development for World Vision, United Kingdom. 'We
are operating in an environment where the spiritual and the religious are
not viewed as politically correct. But not to engage with the poor in ways
that relate to their spirituality is to be politically incorrect with
them. Development workers who have no ear for the spirituality of the poor
are in danger of becoming irrelevant in the long term.'
Twenty years ago the village of Ralegan Siddhi, near Pune, India, was
dying of thirst. Uncertain rains and frequent droughts meant that only
one-fifth of its people were growing enough food to feed themselves. The
community was at the mercy of moneylenders and had a reputation for
alcoholism and crime.
In 1975, a local man, Anna (brother) Hazare, returned to Ralegan Siddhi
determined to change things. He used the temple as his rallying point,
bringing the community together for a week-long religious recitation
marathon. The community decided to extend the temple, and then moved on to
soil and water conservation projects. Average crop yields have now
trebled, milk yields have quadrupled and 70 per cent of the villagers are
self-sufficient in grain. Drunkenness, crime and migration to the cities
have all declined.
Hazare's approach went beyond drawing on his community's faith to
legitimize self-help. His understanding of development embraced not only
material circumstances but the personal growth of the people involved. He
encouraged the hard drinkers to come to the temple to take a pledge of
abstinence because the villagers' alcohol problems were impeding their
ability to work together. 'Addiction was the cause of all our troubles,'
he says. He believes that inner liberation is a source of empowerment.
I have found this view echoed by grassroot
leaders in communities at different ends of the Earth. In Rio de Janeiro,
a widow told me how her husband founded the city's first taxi-drivers'
cooperatives after he had stopped spending his life - and the family
finances - on drink, gambling and nicotine. In Jamaica, the leaders of a
village with a 50-year tradition of self-help maintained that it was their
faith which had kept them going as the winds of political and economic
change blew hot and cold. And in inner-city London, a young ex-offender
described the process which had empowered him to help conceive and set up
Europe's largest black-run community centre: 'One of the inferiorities
which develops is, "I've committed a crime, I wasn't a very good student
at school, didn't leave with qualifications - how can I ever begin to do
anything?" There had to be a spiritual encounter to overcome that.'
Motivation for change
The Christian Base Communities (CBCs) linked to the Catholic Church in
Latin America and elsewhere have similar experiences. CBCs bring small
groups of neighbours together to examine their faith in the light of their
lives, and their lives in the light of their faith. Countless political,
social and environmental actions have resulted. The CBCs of San Fernando
on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines, for example, won a
hard-fought battle for a ban against logging in 1988.
Not all religious customs benefit the environment. But activists who
respect local beliefs may have a better chance of bringing change than
those who do not.
Forty years ago every death in the village of Bans Kharka, Nepal,
increased watershed deforestation, as mourners cleared hilltop sites for
memorial cairns. As the community began to run out of firewood and fodder,
its leader, Laxman Dong, enlisted the help of local Buddhist priests. They
persuaded the villagers to dismantle the cairns, use the stones to build a
monastery for their rituals and burn the dead in fuel-efficient
crematoria. Villagers were required to plant five trees when they
registered a birth, death or marriage. Today there are so many trees that
this novel green tax has been cut to a single sapling.
Dong convinced the community that 'building a drinking water scheme is as
much an act of dharma (virtuous action) as prayers'. The community
now has drinking water, sanitation, a health centre, irrigated fields and
grain to sell to outsiders.
Sri Lanka's Sarvodaya movement is perhaps the world's best known holistic
approach to sustainable development. It sees development as a means, not
an end: 'Material well-being is no more than the vehicle necessary for
spiritual awakening,' its literature maintains. Over the last 40 years it
has worked in up to 7,000 of the country's 23,000 villages.
Erosion of values
In recent years Sarvodaya has nearly collapsed under the strain of the
culture clash between the world's secular North and its holistic South.
When civil war engulfed Sri Lanka in 1983, Sarvodaya's outreach made it a
natural choice for donors seeking a channel for emergency relief. Its
resources quadrupled in four years. But the bureaucracy and centralization
required to meet the donors' justifiable demands for accountability eroded
the informal, village-based and values-driven structures which had been
the movement's strength. Sarvodaya's staff complained that the donors were
only interested in the material side of their work, rather than its moral,
cultural and spiritual elements.
In ancient Sri Lanka, temples were built out of the earth dug when
irrigation canals and tanks were excavated, offering a metaphor for an
approach in which spiritual and material development go hand in hand. To
overlook the spiritual dimension is to discount one of the most potent
factors in grassroots sustainable development. The springs of action and
initiative, of hope and perseverance lie within. As the Sri Lankan writer
and thinker Varindra Tarzie Vittachi once wrote, 'There will be no change
in the environment without a change in the in-vironment'
Mary Lean is the author of Bread, bricks and belief: communities in
charge of their future (Kumarian Press, West Hartford, 1995).
'In most social environments of the South, the role of custom, culture and
religion is still meaningful. Life is seen not only as the concern of man
as it is related to other men or society, but as the concern of man as it
is related to nature and God the Creator.
'In the ethics of life of most developing countries the interlink of
man-society-nature and God is still valid, while in most developed
countries the ethics of life are concerned with man alone.
'Such an ethic of life in the South allows for the further enhancement of
environmental ethics based on concern for the environment as God's
Creation. It is important that the South pulls the North along on this
path. This may then become a moral force to put a brake on increased
wasteful and unsustainable consumption.'
Prof. Dr. Emil Salim, of the University of Indonesia, Jakarta, and
former Environment Minister of Indonesia.