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Visit to Orissa with Balbir Mathur of Trees for Life


My wife Rozzie and I are trustees of a small British charity, The Berkeley Reafforestation Trust (BRT). We raise money here in the UK to promote tree planting initiatives in the developing world, in particular in Africa and India. We support local "social forestry" activities - community efforts to get trees back into degraded environments where they are so essential as a source of wood fuel, fodder, leaf litter and other forest products. Trees also contribute to soil stabilization and water retention.


My wife Rozzie and I are trustees of a small British charity, The Berkeley Reafforestation Trust (BRT). We raise money here in the UK to promote tree planting initiatives in the developing world, in particular in Africa and India. We support local "social forestry" activities - community efforts to get trees back into degraded environments where they are so essential as a source of wood fuel, fodder, leaf litter and other forest products. Trees also contribute to soil stabilization and water retention.

We recently heard of Trees for Life (TFL) and wrote to Balbir to find out more. Soon afterwards we met when he was passing through London, and the next thing was an invitation to accompany him on a working visit to Orissa.

Rozzie and I had been given TFL literature in advance of our Indian visit, but we had difficulty getting to grips with how it operated. Balbir was insistent that TFL is a "movement" and not an "organisation" - what did this mean? How could all this activity be going on in India and elsewhere without an organisation? We were soon to discover!

A movement of dedicated volunteers TFL has no office of its own in India - a supporter offers his business office facility to act as post box and administrative facilitator in Delhi. TFL has no employees in India, has no hierarchy and is entirely dependent on a network of "volunteers."

Who are these volunteers and what do they do? They are a remarkable collection of individuals committed to the work of TFL and its dedication to the rural poor of India. They receive no material reward or official recognition for their tireless efforts which come from the heart.

Let me describe some of those we met. Mr. Panda - a senior local government officer from a village background - immensely knowledgeable about the history and people of the area, the flora and fauna and everything else besides! Mr. Hota - a senior forestry officer with a special interest in medicinal trees. Paresh Naik - a young unmarried social worker with considerable organisational skills. A scribe in the law courts who took day after day off to accompany us, losing his daily earnings as a consequence. Bijoy - a business entrepreneur who told us his life had been changed by finding TFL. Mr Sahu, Sushim . . . I could mention many others.

These volunteers are the people in the field. They know their areas, learn of local needs, generate local support groups, encourage local self-help initiatives and prepare the ground for Balbir's visits. And well prepared that ground is - Balbir is kept busy dawn till dusk visiting schools, orphanages, small farmers, women's groups, leper colonies, local newspaper editors, educational officers and many more.


Serving the poorest of the poor

TFL is working with the poorest of the poor, many of whom live in remote villages which few educated Indians will ever visit. Peasant farmers working tiny areas of land, often without water supply or any capital inputs. Schools started up by local groups or individuals in the absence of government provision, pitifully short of facilities, books and equipment.

We visited an orphanage which had been started in an abandoned temple site on a remote hill top beyond the village. It was the initiative of an elderly peasant farmer who had lost his wife and sold his land to finance the work. These people have no chance of accessing conventional development aid or NGO support - they do not have the knowledge or the resources to submit written project proposals and access the establishment.


Helping those who will help others

TFL's method of working is quite different from that of other development agencies. It is based on people, not just written project proposals, development plans and formal evaluations of outcomes. TFL is not there to impose formulas: its purpose is to respond to local needs by helping those who are prepared to help themselves. TFL "serves the servers" - the servers being those members of the community who take the initiative in helping others directly or by example.

Balbir insists that TFL is not a "charity" - there are no handouts! Any support from TFL in cash or kind has to be matched by local inputs. The objective is always to help rural communities to become self supporting without disturbing the local culture: TFL always seeks to withdraw at the appropriate time "leaving no footprint behind."


Responding to local needs

Although the relationship with TFL often involves tree planting, and in particular the planting of lemon orchards (the fruit from a plot of two acres will after six years provide sufficient income to meet an entire school's budget), its support can reach every area of local community need - water supply, basic health requirements, education, agricultural improvement, credit facilities and more. Let me give one or two examples.

A school TFL has worked alongside has established and maintained a lemon plantation - each pupil has responsibility for weeding and watering two of the trees. The school needs to build a further classroom and TFL has offered to fund the concrete and timber required on the understanding that the staff, pupils and their families collect all the stone needed for the foundations from surrounding fields and that the building work is done through voluntary local participation with no paid labour. There is no signed agreement - just a handshake: the school has proved itself in the past and has earned further backing.

A second example - a leper colony had been loaned money by TFL to grow rice for sale and the community repaid the loan after the first harvest without need of a reminder! TFL is now supplying the colony with fruit trees on the understanding that the ground will be properly prepared and maintained by the lepers themselves. This agricultural initiative has given the colony a sense of self-respect - outcasts from society otherwise largely dependent on handouts and begging.

Not all TFL activities run so smoothly. TFL has supported individuals, schools and others who have then not fulfilled their part of the bargain - trees and vegetable plantations left unweeded, a new building neglected and unpainted. TFL sees such "failures" in perspective - they are the failures of individuals and communities to help themselves, and not the failures of TFL to meet its own preconceived objectives. No further support can be expected from TFL in these cases until the beneficiaries have put their house in order. At that point "failure" has become an integral part of subsequent success.


Responsible handling of money

TFL has strong views about money. Money is in short supply and entrusted to TFL by its supporters. It must never be wasted and every effort must be made to avoid spending it unnecessarily. Volunteers and beneficiaries alike are asked to match TFL funding wherever possible, to beg and borrow from other sources, to get materials, printing work and travel costs donated where possible - to be humble and to ask for help.

TFL offers support by drip feeding small and carefully targeted sums - further support may be forthcoming if recipients fulfill their part of the bargain and display a genuine will for selfhelp.

Throwing money at a problem is never a solution and almost always counterproductive - engendering dependency as opposed to initiative and self-respect.

Money is paid over as a contribution from an anonymous source - again this is to avoid the creation of dependency. TFL does not raise money in advance of its requirements - rather it finds money in response to agreed needs in specific communities.


Need for education

Balbir sees education as the central issue which will determine the future of rural development and the ultimate enfranchisement of the rural poor. At present "technology" (information and learning) is not being transferred from the educated elite to the mass of India's rural population. Around 80% of Indians live in 700,000 villages which "educated" Indians will seldom if ever visit. Indeed the educated classes have in general more in common with an American or European than their own rural compatriots, making top down communication almost impossible. Hindi is the national language of India but day to day communication in the countryside is through a host of different languages and dialects.

Many villages which have schools on paper do not have them on the ground. Teachers are loath to work in poverty stricken areas and are often constrained by salaries which do not cover the basic necessities of life. The Indian state has not the financial means to provide universal education and a proper school in every village will remain a pipe dream for generations to come.


Using mass communication tools for education

Balbir is deeply concerned by this problem of access to education and technology transfer. It is one thing to support particular schools, but in the last analysis this only scratches the surface of the national problem. Thus TFL is experimenting with potential mass communication.

The first step has been the production of a painstakingly researched and field tested poster on the health benefits associated with the Moringa (drumstick) tree, leaves of which contain an extraordinary concentration of proteins and vitamins. The poster has been developed as a cartoon story beautifully produced in colour on quality paper - at this stage in Hindi but in due course in a plethora of other languages with text adapted to local nuance and custom.

We are surfeited with printed material here in the West, but in rural India where there are few if any books such a document can be highly prized. It is accompanied by a "kit" - children will colour in their own mini posters to take home from school and thus spread the message in their homes. This is the beginning of horizontal communication - material produced or adapted locally and disseminated through the peer group rather than from on high.

Balbir dreams of developing this process to a stage whereby ultimately every village will have access to educational material locally developed and in an appropriate form through satellite technology. It is a curious fact that, while so often desperately poor, almost all villages have electricity and someone will have access to television and video. Where there is no trained teacher information relayed by satellite will provide the raw material for learning: an untrained facilitator - a concerned parent or community leader - will undertake the teacher role. This vision is not perhaps so much of a fantasy as it might appear: information technology is developing at a staggering pace and the cost of hardware needed to access it is falling by the day.


Impressions of India and the Indian people

I will finish with some general reflection on our Indian experience. A Westerner must accept that in India one is never alone - you leave privacy and any "personal space" behind you at the airport! Sit down by the roadside to enjoy the view and you are surrounded by a small crowd within seconds. Arrive exhausted at your guest house room and there is a constant succession of people knocking on your door - bringing your sheets, checking the bathroom, bringing you tea, just having a look and diverse other missions. Wherever you go people will congregate around you, silently observing your every move.

Accept this as unthreatening and the way things are - just get on with your life without embarrassment and you will learn to enjoy the unspoken companionship. The Indian way is to be inclusive - we in the West to be ever more exclusive. The Indian poor may experience almost every deprivation in the book but isolation will not be amongst them.

In rural India the Westerner is exposed to the harsh realties of life from which we are largely sheltered back home - the destitute, the disfigured and the sick. The experience of India is however never depressing and most travellers return uplifted by the energy, diversity and friendliness of the people. There is an ever present sense of ancient culture and spirituality. Somehow the seething mass of street dwellers in Calcutta survive and do so with a certain innate dignity - a tribute to the indomitable human spirit. It is a daily miracle to see women and children emerging from their shacks in their fresh and pressed clothes - the girls' long hair glistening and meticulously plaited.

Finally a word on Balbir. There is a famous advert for a lager here in the UK which goes, "Heinniken refreshes the parts that other beers cannot reach." I think of Balbir as "Heinniken man" - serving those at the very bottom of the pile, largely disenfranchised and untouched by the benefits of social services or development aid. To Rozzie and me, this is what Trees for Life is all about.