Grassroots: Saving money and seeds
DON DE SILVA
Life is harsh in the northern areas of Pakistan, where four of the world's toughest mountain ranges - the Himalayas, Karakorum, Hindu Kush and Pamirs - explode into one of its biggest concentrations of towering peaks. There are few roads: getting from one place to another requires a massive effort on spiralling mountain tracks.
The Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP), created by the Aga Khan Foundation in 1982, is active in well over a thousand villages there, helping people to establish rural credit schemes and local enterprises, and to grow food crops. It encourages and helps villagers to mobilize themselves and set up organizations - with which it enters into formal partnerships - and provides financial and technical assistance. In all about three-quarters of a million people benefit.
Village women in Sher Qila, half an hour's drive from Gilgit, were diffident when an AKRSP worker first talked to them some years ago about the advantages of establishing a credit scheme. How could poor people like them be expected to save when every cent was needed? But the worker patiently explained, over several visits, that while they might not be able to save much individually, lots of small amounts, saved jointly, might add up to enough for establishing a profitable enterprise. The women realized that this scheme would also get them out of the clutches of the local money lenders, to whom many families had been indebted for generations.
Forty of the women decided to form an organization and each made regular deposits, some starting with as little as 25 cents, into a joint bank account. The women were given a passbook and an elected member maintained a register of savings.
After three years, the group sought and received a loan of 74,000 rupees ($3,700), part of which went to build a poultry shed and buy chickens. But the first two flocks died because, says Jahan, the president of the group, 'we quarrelled so much that they were badly neglected'. But they learned from their mistakes. AKRSP trained some members to vaccinate and care for the chickens. A third flock survived and the group has prospered.
They began selling chickens. When the first profits arrived, the group took out a bigger loan to buy a truck, enabling it to take the chickens directly to Gilgit and other towns, cutting out middlemen. The truck returns with groceries - rice, flour, spices and other goods - which are much cheaper in the towns and are then sold to villagers at modest profits.
The group then turned to growing vegetables and fruit. Women in the region do not own land, but they successfully persuaded local land owners to provide them with some that was spare. AKRSP provided free seeds and training in how to grow crops in soil of low productivity. The women concentrated on vegetables like peas, beans and potatoes, because they are less perishable. They established an orchard growing cherries, plums, peaches and other fruits - and also grow fodder for livestock. They now both feed their families and sell substantial surpluses.
Food security is also uppermost in the minds of women in the villages of Nyakrishi in the Tangail district in Bangladesh.
Extremely concerned about the erosion of local genetic resources by the rapid expansion of modern agriculture, these women have launched one of the world's most innovative programmes to protect and conserve them.
The Nyakrishi movement started in 1988 helped by UBINIG, a leading communication and development non-governmental organization in Bangladesh. It was prompted by the devastating floods which that year inundated most of the country for over two weeks just before the harvest was due. Nyakrishi farmers lost their entire crops and seed beds - their food security for the next year - and found it hard to get new seeds.
With UBINIG's support, women's groups took the lead. Discussions and local meetings were held to identify important seed varieties and the women soon realized that they had important knowledge about seeds and seed conservation practices, which had come down through the generations.
They now store their seeds high in their houses in coloured glass bottles or earthenware pots made airtight with a mixture of cow-dung and soil, and placed on makeshift shelves or tied to ropes hanging from the ceiling. They have established a community seed repository, which they call Beejsundar, meaning 'beautiful seeds'. (They reject the term 'seed bank', feeling that seeds should be freely available to the community.) It has an impressive collection, including 28 varieties of grapefruit and 18 varieties of bamboo. Farmers both contribute varieties to the repository and receive them from it: some regularly walk 15 kilometres to help maintain it.
The women also pay close attention to improving the quality of soil. Farmers in the Nyakrishi villages have stopped using pesticides and fertilizers, which they say have seriously impaired the health of the villagers, particularly through polluting fish ponds. And the women have developed organic methods of improving soil fertility, such as compost from water hyacinths.
They use exhibits, song, dance, puppet theatre and drama to pass their experiences on to other communities. 'Green villages' says Farida Akhter, a director of UBINIG, 'are proliferating'. Every year, they hold a week-long festival to which villagers come from far and wide. Amid the celebrations, workshops and discussion groups are held on issues like seeds and conservation, food security, international patenting of seeds and the impact of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) on developing countries.
The Nyakrishi women are worried about the international agreements and actions to patent and market seed varieties, pointing out that the costing of genetic materials will hurt poor farming communities. One, Jehanara, says: 'We have many different local varieties of paddy, but these have lost out against the high-yielding ones. We are told that we can get more money if we use high-yielding varieties. But all that they have done is to increase greed'.
Don de Silva specializes in communication and the environment. He can
be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
and would like to receive information about grassroots