Changing the in-vironment

Changing the in-vironment


describes how development approaches often fail to tap one of the most potent resources of the poor

boy carrying basket

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 very important.'

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.

Harnessing belief

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.

boy drinking from leafI 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.

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