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Learning in a Village

Studies about global warming talk about the need for developing countries to adapt to climate change. The good news is that in India a wide range of mitigation and adaptation measures are taking place. To use the phrase of Augustin, Vienna’s well-loved figure of historical myth, “the situation is serious but not hopeless.” At the end of this article are links to some examples that illustrate various initiatives that are already working. However, with 68% of the country’s population in villages, India needs many more such miracles. My wife and I recently joined a project, started by some local partners, to develop a sustainable school in a village in Tamil Nadu.

The village lies in a green, agricultural area about forty kilometers from the city of Chennai (pop. 8.23 million) in the Chingleput district of Tamil Nadu. Although surrounded by productive farmland, approach roads to this village are so poor as to be almost non-existent. The roads were badly damaged in the extensive flooding that followed the unusually heavy monsoon rains of September-October 2015. Parts of the city of Chennai and the surrounding countryside were inundated to depths of one to two meters.

Water wells and green fields: the surrounding countryside

Water wells and green fields: the surrounding countryside

The village itself, when one arrives, is relatively prosperous. There are many large wells that supply water for irrigation. The land seems fertile and a variety of crops is grown. Despite this, young people are moving in droves to the cities, lured by scenes of urban wealth and glamor on television. These people are merely following a trend happening in many countries around the world as small farm holdings sell out to larger entities and corporations that can practice industrial-scale farming with all its recognized negative consequences.

The many faces of learning

The many faces of learning

The idea of a rural sustainable school is really very simple. In addition to conventional education, the childrens’ learning will be focused on practical skills that are relevant in a rural environment; from organic farming, forestry, carpentry, medicinal uses of plants, setting up and servicing small-scale photovoltaics, forestry, wildlife management (the area is very rich in bird-life) etc. In addition, there are plans to use a locally patented system that incorporates waste plastic into long-lasting road surfaces. In all of these efforts, voluntary labor (shramdhan) will play the most important role. For without local participation, there will be no long-term program. With local participation, the community takes ownership of all the above areas, become experts in selected areas and run it themselves. This is the main reason that the partners are starting this school project on a self-financed basis. As soon as outside money enters the equation, a certain precious balance is lost and people will tend to sit back and wait for capital to provide answers that they would otherwise look for themselves.

A shadow puppet play made by 8-year-olds using home-made props

A shadow puppet play made by 8-year-olds using home-made props

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3LHe9I6QPu8 jal khet (Water Fields)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aBfjsdICGT0

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9hmkgn0nBgk

The school building itself will be constructed on-site with compressed stabilized earth blocks (CSEBs) that do not need firing or baking like conventional bricks. They just need compression following which the bricks are kept wet for a month and then sun-dried for three months. Electricity will initially be provided by 5 Kw of solar panels that are expected to cost around €4000 at current prices. More capacity and storage will be added as the price falls. For more information about the philosophy behind the project, see this article on my blog. “Development as an Attitude: learning to unlearn.”

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The Decline of the Rest.

200px-decline_of_the_west_1922Oswald Spengler published the first volume of his two-volume life’s work, The Decline of the West, in 1918. Seventy-four years later, speaking at the Earth Summit, Rio de Janeiro in 1992, 41st US President George HW Bush, a decent man, declared, “The American way of life is not up for negotiation. Period.” This pre-emptive declaration by the leader of the world’s most powerful nation essentially castrated the noble intentions of the summit, to limit humankind’s exploitation of the earth’s resources to sustainable levels. The result of the Rio summit was Agenda 21, a non-binding, voluntarily implemented action plan for the 21st century. This was the paltry outcome of a nine-day meeting representing 172 countries attended by 116 heads of state, 2400 NGOs and 17,000 other representatives of indigenous peoples and ordinary ‘you and me’ types.

Twenty-one years after the US President’s declaration in Rio, the WWF designated the 20th of August 2013 as “Earth Overshoot Day;” the day that humanity has used as much renewable natural resources as the planet can regenerate in one year. In 2016, Earth Overshoot Day is estimated to have fallen on August 8th, after which date we’re drawing down the planet’s renewable resources for the rest of the year. Pity the poor planet! The American way of life is still not up for negotiation, and the rest of the world is rushing to catch up. If ever populous countries like China and India get there, the planet will be sucked dry and we’ll all have to follow Elon Musk to Mars! So are we condemned to a two-track planet where some countries (or some sections of society within countries) corner material resources and the rest go a-begging? This is the scenario being projected by right wing demagogues worldwide and this is the reason for their recent successes at the ballot box.

Economists and philosophers have tried to redefine human well-being to reflect planetary limits, most notably in recent years by Tim Jackson’s book Prosperity without Growth, which acknowledges that the current definition of economic success is fundamentally flawed. Prosperous societies today increasingly recognize that increased material wealth does not increase well-being. However, most people the world over, regardless of their economic condition, still aspire to some version of the American way of life. This  aspiration is reflected in the respect automatically accorded to wealthy people in the world today. A look at the Who’s Who of practically any country includes the names of its wealthiest citizens, together with lists of eminent physicians, lawyers, sportspeople and so on.

Gandhi pithily articulated this state of affairs decades ago when he said: The world has enough for every man’s need but not for every man’s greed. For each according to her needs would be the ideal but, as always, messy reality intervenes. One man’s need is another man’s greed. So it is that millions of well-meaning, virtuous, affluent people the world over would never dream of giving up hard-won creature comforts for the sake of other planetary denizens who are less well off. The spiral of technology has historically been to continuously improve human life, and to continuously create problems at the same time. These problems in turn needed infusions of new technology to solve its problems. So right now, the choices seem to be to outer-planetary colonization, or to invest in defences (gated communities, wealthy enclaves, security guards, border walls) to hold on to material gains. Technology offers a third alternative. The idea of a sharing economy has recently gained a lot of traction. Who needs ownership when mobility and services are seamlessly available? Indeed, ownership becomes a bit of a burden in comparison to the convenience of superb services available on demand with little or no delay.

A gated community safely behind bars

A gated community safely behind bars

Even if all this is achieved, humankind’s basic inner restlessness will ensure that we keep wanting more and better, with one eye on the people next door. Global contentment is a moving target. Enter mystic and philosopher Sadhguru and his lectures on inner engineering. His most memorable anecdote in the video (begins at minute 16) is a reminder that all is not lost in the midst of this doom and gloom if we can take the time to laugh at ourselves and the posturings that have brought us to this point.

Sadhguru, irreverent teacher

Sadhguru, irreverent mystic

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Palmyra tree – Borassus flabellifer

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Floyd Cardoz India, Floyd Cardoz Goa, Chef Floyd Cardoz, Jacqueline Raposo, Bombay Duck, Jowar, Tadgola, Ice Apples

Palm Fruit Image: courtesy Master Chef Floyd Cardoz

There are so many different kinds of palm trees that it’s difficult to distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys in the palm tree story. By bad guys, I mean only one, the oil palm. Oil palm plantations have been blamed for extensive tropical deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as for habitat loss of critically endangered species like the Orang Utan and the Sumatran Tiger. Blame the producers by all means, but don’t forget to blame the consumers as well. And that means us, the consumers of so many products that have palm oil as an ingredient. These include soaps, washing powder, cooking oil, butter substitutes, pastry dough, many baked goods, and most recently, biodiesel. Anyway, this posting is in praise of the lesser known palmyra palm, one of more than three hundred varieties of palm tree. Here’s a useful website with illustrations of 30 varieties.

The palmyra palm tree and its delicious fruit remain relatively unknown worldwide despite its wide use in southeast Asia, especially in India and Cambodia. In India, it is the state tree of Tamil Nad. Palmyra jaggery is a recommended sweetener in Ayurvedic medicine. Modern tests show it has a low glycemic index of 40 (as opposed to 100 for refined white sugar) in addition to containing a range of B-complex vitamins. There are over 800 listed uses for the palmyra tree. Every part of the tree can be used for a range of foods, timber and household products. Palm tree kernels, pictured above, are like large, sweet water chestnuts and very refreshing summer snacks, rich in minerals. In addition, its leaves can be used as thatch, to weave baskets or mats. Centuries ago, palm leaves were used to write on. The wood provides excellent construction material.

African palmyra palms. Image courtesy Wikimedia

African palmyra palms. Image courtesy Wikimedia

Most people, myself included, think of coconuts or dates when palm trees are mentioned. The palmyra palm is a neglected cousin that is just as useful and deserves to be more widely known.

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Development as an Attitude: Learning to Unlearn

If we look at development work as the business of changing attitudes, then attitudes to learning must change a great deal in almost every continent in the world today (with the possible exception of Antarctica). One has only to read the newspapers of any country in the world to hear of growing xenophobia, widespread fearmongering, environmental destruction and climate catastrophes. The American psychiatrist Karl Menninger often said: Attitudes are more important than facts. Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung said the same thing in different words. It depends on how we look at things and not how they are in themselves. The Indian philosopher and mystic, Sri Aurobindo said: What is of first importance is not the religious or non-religious character of the work done, but the inner attitude in which it is done.

My wife and I chose to begin our (self) development work in a tiny village near Chennai in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. We were there to learn and not to teach. My wife, who has worked as a teacher in international schools around the world all her professional  life, began her interaction by learning a few Tamil words and phrases from village children who had expected her to spout knowledge and teach them English or mathematics. To their delight, they became teachers themselves from the very first day. They planted saplings, choosing the trees they wanted to have growing in the compound. They planted the ubiquitous banyan tree, in whose shade a few decades hence, generations of school children might seek shelter. They planted the arasu maram, the tree of kings it’s called in Tamil, under whose pointed leaves a latter-day Gautama Buddha might find enlightenment. At the end of the day’s lessons, instead of guiding us to the bus-stop, they showed us around their village and introduced us to their parents. We learned a lot throughout our five-week involvement here, and came to know a number of interesting local people.  A politician, who I might have once dismissed as a party hack; this one might be key to helping the seven thousand people who live in his rural community preserve the intact ecosystem that exists in the area. A real estate developer, a truly modest man, who is interested in promoting rural youth education. He puts his money where his mouth is, by sharing a couple of acres of land to the project and getting sponsors for some of the forthcoming school building constructions. The entire venture is the brainchild of a retired college professor, an eminent Tamil scholar, who has already helped hundreds of, and several generations of, disadvantaged urban school kids in Chennai (Madras) by setting up five after-school learning centers at various points in the city. This venture with four acres of land around a container, is his first rural learning center. We are honored to be a part of this enterprise and look forward to spending several months a year here. On this initial visit, we commute every day from the city to the village by motor-bike. On our next visit, we hope to stay in a small thatch-roofed hut right next to the school.

Teachers' Quarters

Teachers’ Quarters? our future home.

On day one of the school, activities were inaugurated by planting trees. We learned so much from the villagers. We started by weeding the grounds. A creeper growing wild at the foot of the palmyra tree (Borassus flabellifer: more on that in a subsequent post) is about to be ripped out of the earth as a weed. Renuka stops me. This is a medicinal plant, she says, and tells me the name in Tamil. It’s leaves can be ground into a paste and used for arthritis or bodily aches and pains.

Herb for the arthritic?

Herb for the arthritic, Renuka tells us…

A number of saplings were taken to the empty site that had been marked out with a wire fence and stone posts. A container stood there, the first class-room. Fees should be modest and affordable, but the school should not be free. The people in the village tend to be cynical, and rightly so, about free gifts. They’ve been receiving freebies from politicians for a couple of generations; politicians who tend to look at them as vote banks. So it was decided to charge the students a fee of 50 rupees per month for the privilege of attending (around 75 Eurocents, yes cents, per month at today’s exchange rates). That’s all it costs to educate a child. That, and an enormous amount of goodwill. And goodwill there is aplenty. We have more than a dozen willing volunteer helpers. There’s Chakkaravarthy, who’s given up his job as an engineer at a multinational to become a technical help to the school and several other ventures started by his uncle. There’s Sukumar, who has been working with disadvantaged children for over a decade. He comes alive when he is with the kids, and never gets tired of interacting with them. Looking at him, one sees a picture of the right man in the right place doing what he loves. And what of us? We are on a steep learning curve, and the children have much to teach us. And the more they teach, the more they will learn.

Shobana will plant the peepul tree today...

Today, Shobana will plant the peepul tree…

The school is just a container, but learning is happening all the same. The Global Partnership for Education estimates that it costs on average US$ 1.18 per day to educate a child in low and middle income developing countries. This is a small sum, but multiplied by millions of children, several billions are needed annually. Unfortunately, influential people lobby their governments for fighter planes so they can bomb the hell out of their enemies from a safe altitude. Each of these warplanes costs more than the entire school education of several million children. Fortunately now, this village model shows that learning can take place even without a schoolroom and with far less than surmised by the Global Partnership for Education.

An organic garden, first steps

An organic garden, first steps

Putting up the container and a toilet. Composting toilets to follow...

Putting up the container and a toilet. Composting toilets to follow…

Sukumar with another tree for the school.

Sukumar with another tree for the school.

Who needs a container when kids are hungry to learn?

Who needs a container when kids are hungry to learn?

Dhansekar concludes the day's lessons with a yoga session.

Dhansekar concludes the day’s lessons with a yoga session on a tarpaulin beside the container.

If a modern urbanite, Indian or foreign, were to visit the village today, they might see an ‘underdeveloped’ community. Access roads are poor, electricity is intermittent, and the children learn by rote in public schools staffed by teachers who insist on mindless discipline to the detriment of knowledge acquisition. What we see here is something quite different. We see children hungry to learn, living in a vibrant ecosystem that is intact and flourishing. This is rich farmland. Judging by the abundant birdlife (black drongos, Alexandrine parakeets, green parrots, greater coucal, hoopoes, bulbuls, swifts, spoonbills, several varieties of water birds, mynahs, weaver birds, francolin and several others), nature and man coexist comfortably here. Presumably there are poisonous snakes, scorpions, centipedes and rats in this paradise although we did not see any on our visit. We look forward to spending a lot more time in this village ‘undeveloping ourselves’ before we begin to teach. Or perhaps we have nothing to teach and everything to learn; about how not to confuse development with economic advancement. I fear the world has suffered enough from the latter.

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Monsoon Wedding

The wedding was in Kerala, a state in India whose advertising blurb labels it “God’s Own Country.” Argentinians and Brazilians also make rival claims to have been similarly favoured by the Creator, while each runs the others’ country down “Yeah, God gave your country everything, but then he created you people to compensate!” In the case of Kerala, the affable people of neighbouring Tamil Nadu harbor no such pretensions, laughingly noting that several million people from Kerala prefer to live with them rather than in their own home state.  The wedding eve reception and reception were at  holiday resorts at Kumarakom.

Houseboat on Vembanad lake amidst clumps of water hyacinth.

“Kettuvallam,” (Houseboat) on Vembanad lake amidst clumps of water hyacinth.

Kumarakom is situated on the banks of Vembanad lake, apparently the longest lake in India, whose wetland system covers an area of two thousand square kilometers. Much of Kerala’s claim to God’s bounty comes from the backwaters, large estuarine stretches of brackish water that gives rise to a very rich ecosystem. Part of the lake holds the fresh water that drains into it from several rivers, and this fresh water section is separated from the brackish portion by mudflats. The lake is at the heart of ‘backwater tourism’ in the state, with hundreds of “kettuvallams,” floating homes on motorized traditional boats. The riverboat network spans 200 km from north to south and the lake teems with giant prawns and several other types of freshwater fish.

freshly prepared seafood lunch

freshly prepared seafood lunch with tapioca and a glass of toddy

Fish await a fiery fry. Pearl spot, prawn and anchovies fried.

Fish await a fiery fry. Pearl spot, prawn and anchovies…

fresh caught prawn

fresh caught prawn

Meanwhile, the bride and groom were happily united at a church in neighboring Kottayam town. It was a glorious wedding with guests travelling from around the world to attend. The groom wore a kilt, befitting his antecedents, and the bride wore a matching tartan sari, designed by the groom’s mother. All in all, a fitting Kerala wedding for the 21st century. The wedding photos belong in a family album rather than this blog, so none appear here. But if you ever are invited to a wedding in Kerala, my advice to you is, go!

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Seeds of Inequity

What could be more principled than companies that work to genetically modify seeds, breeding out negative traits and selecting a mix of desirable qualities that make them resistant to pests, hardy enough to withstand droughts or floods as desired? After all, farmers have been doing this for hundreds of years, patiently crossing varieties and developing superior strains of the world’s crops. Enter the profit motive. Still no harm done, we thought! Selfish interest is the lever used by civilizations to lift their peoples to prosperity, with the profit motive as the fulcrum on which this lever rests.

Strains of wheat

Strains of wheat

The world has generally accepted the truth of this principle ever since Adam Smith pointed it out in his seminal work, first published in 1776. Except for a relatively brief interlude when some nations experimented with communism and socialism in a failed search for social justice and equity, the world has broadly accepted Smith’s premise that wealth creation is a good thing and ought to be encouraged by enlightened governments that simply move out of the way and allow entrepreneurs to do their stuff. By and large, this is what seems to have happened in the case of GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Basically, some large corporations have copyrighted and distributed their seeds (sounds fair enough; respect for intellectual property rights sets the basis for innovation and prosperity). The problem is, these corporations have also made the rules about what happens to the seed generations that follow. They have decreed, and governments have accepted, that farmers may not retain a proportion of seeds from their crop for planting the subsequent season, but have to buy the seeds from the corporations again.

As Lizzie Wade points out in her Science article “How Syrians saved an Ancient Seedbank from Civil War”

…Maize, for example, was created by ancient Mesoamericans by painstakingly breeding more and more appetizing teosinte, a stubby grass with tiny, tough kernels that has so little in common with modern maize that archaeologists dismissed it as a possible wild ancestor until genetic tests revealed the surprising truth. The problem in the short run is that conventional breeding can be s…l…o…w. Teosinte was domesticated in central Mexico between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago, but farmers only managed to create a variety that tasted good a mere millennium ago 

They can plant and reap, but they can't sow again without buying seed...

They can plant and reap, but they can’t sow again without buying seed…

As S. Grant points out in his article “10 Problems Genetically Modified Foods are Already Causing,”  once they plant GM crops, farmers can no longer legally harvest their own seeds and are in danger of entering an era of perpetual bondage. Thus serfdom re-enters the world in the 21st century, this time clothed in the language of high-tech and carrying the false promise of freedom from hunger. Lawmakers are all too often ignorant and dazzled by technology, so they fail to realise the problems with GM crops are more to do with social and juridical issues rather than with the technology itself.

“In India, seeds are taken as a symbol of God’s blessing. They keep it, they store it, they know what is good seed and bad seed.” “Control oil and you control nations. Control food, and you control people.”

The above two memorable quotes are from a must-see 9-minute video about Natabar Sarangi, a village farmer who distributes free seeds to poor farmers out of the deep conviction that the thousands of varieties of seeds bred and developed over centuries should not be lost. In the process, he helps many of them to modest prosperity.

For more by this author, see his Amazon page here.