Volume 1 Number 2
What People are Doing Right
01 October 1987

'No one comes here except the army-, it's too dangerous,' the driver told his passenger, a tiny but determined woman agricultural student. The area, in the mountains of Northern Thailand, had been devastated and depopulated by guerrilla warfare.
'No one comes here except the army-, it's too dangerous,' the driver told his passenger, a tiny but determined woman agricultural student. The area, in the mountains of Northern Thailand, had been devastated and depopulated by guerrilla warfare. The people who remained were living in holes in the ground in appalling conditions.

When Rosukon Poompanvong - known to all as 'Ihun Moo' - graduated, she persuaded the army to send her back to Khao Kor to organize a rural development project there. 'I learnt from the farmers by working with them and listening to them,' she says. Eight years on, the project supports 9,000 people and sends ten tonnes of vegetables to the market in Bangkok every day. The villagers are settlers, gathered from different parts of the country. With the help of Khun Moo and her assistants they have grown together into a community and turned heavily eroded hillsides into fertile terraced plots. The project has been so successful that Khun Moo has been asked to set up others in different parts of the country.

In spite of the depressing statistics, the world is full of such community-level success stories, often ignited by one committed person. It may be the young army veteran who returns to his village, rebuilds morale and, over a period of 12 years, turns a village on the point of desertion into a thriving community. Or the trade unionist who inspires young underemployed men in his area to set up a nightschool for local children and address health and sanitation problems. Or the distinguished author whose orphanage - an oasis in the countryside beyond the turmoil of Calcutta - gives abandoned children a home and trains them in rural skills. Or the Pune businessman, horrified by the effects of drought in the countryside, who sparks off a network of cooperatives for poor farmers which means they can irrigate their crops. These examples are simply those I met on a brief visit to India three years ago - four among hundreds I might have seen.

In his recent book, The Greening of Africa (Paladin, 1987), Paul Harrison cites project after project as grounds for his belief that, in the face of current doom-mongering, 'Africa can surprise the world'. He describes the policies behind Zimbabwe's post-independence `maize miracle', which raised black farmers' share of the national market from seven per cent before independence to 48 per cent by 1985, led to the country's biggest maize harvest ever in 1985, and even enabled it to give aid to Ethiopia. He tells how Burkina Faso - one of the world's poorest nations - saved the lives of between 18,000 and 50,000 children in 1985 through a two-month vaccination drive, and has embarked on a rural primary health care campaign, staffed by 7,500 village health agents and midwives. He describes how farmers all over the continent are winning the fight against erosion through simple soil and water conservation techniques.

These breakthroughs, says Harrison, 'are surrounded and vastly outnumbered by failures'. But, he adds, the successful projects are like seeds. 'If they are sown widely enough, they can take over the field.' Among the ingredients of success are inspired leadership and an emphasis on local participation from planning through to execution.

Seven out of ten Africans live off the land. Harrison believes the key to recovery lies with the small farmer and that, given Africa's soils and climate. her Green Revolution must build on organic foundations. 'Africa can pull herself through,' he concludes. `Her farmers have all the skill and adaptability and energy required.' Whether they have the chance to use these qualities depends on both national and international reforms.

The same emphasis on individuals runs through a second book published to coincide with the Brundtland Report, Lloyd Timberlake's Only One Earth (BBC/Earthscan 1987). He cites community-based efforts to address environmental problems ranging from the loss of trees in Sri Lanka to the growth of the desert in Kenya, from chemical pollution in California to housing in Peru. His examples make the point that grassroots initiatives tuned to local needs arc more effective than those imported from outside - and that when individuals act, they can make a difference.

Such initiatives often require a gamble - a sacrifice of short-term gains for the sake of the future. The courage required may come, as people inspired by Moral Re-Armament have found, from a turnaround in attitudes, motivated by faith. Khun Moo, who has seen friends killed in the area where she works, says that her trust in God takes away her fear.

Roly Kingwill's sheep farm lies in South Africa's semi-arid Karoo. His land was suffering from severe erosion because of overgrazing. Rehabilitation began when he decided to take his Christian faith more seriously. This led him to drop his authoritarian approach to his workers - and adopt radical methods of soil conservation.

‘There began to grow in me a new "land ethic" - that the soil belongs to God and to future generations,' says Kingwill. `I was exploiting it for my own gain.' He decided to cut his stock levels by a third and introduce a system of rotational grazing. Today this is recommended practice; then, some 50 years ago, it took courage. ‘It meant sacrificing income, at a time when we were carrying a heavy bond on the land,' he says. Things were hard at first. But after some years Kingwill began to see results. `Grass was growing where it had never grown before. The sheep began to yield more wool and the percentage of lambs increased. Cattle were fattening where there had been no food ten years before.'

Climate for change
In the end, what governments and industries do comes down to what voters and consumers want. In Britain at a time when farmers are under pressure - public demand for 'safe' food has created a sellers' market for organic farmers. Shoppers who by-pass aerosols for the sake of the ozone layer, drivers who change to unleaded fuel. householders who recycle wastes all help to create the climate for change.

Those who are prepared to take their convictions into the public arena may change policy. Robin Prickett, a New Zealand sheep farmer, heard that farmers in the South Island were planning to introduce sugar-beet into the country. 'It occurred to me that this would damage Fiji's economy, as sugar was the sole export on which it depended,' he says. Working with other farmers in the face of a powerful pro-sugar-beet lobby, he convinced the government that New Zealand should continue to import sugar, rather than growing her own. Sonic 20 years on the policy still stands.

At root. sustainable development in both North and South comes down to individual values 'Many of us live beyond the world's ecological means, for instance in our patterns of energy use.' says the Brundtland report. Perceived needs are socially and culturally determined.' E. F. Schumacher. one of the prophets of sustainable development, put it more pithily: -How could we even begin to disarm greed and envy? Perhaps by being much less greedy and envious ourselves.

Khun Moo echoes these concerns. reflecting on how to prevent corruption and competition undermining Khao Kor's new prosperity. Technological development is not so hard,' she says. 'Moral development is difficult and just as important.'
Mary Lean

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