issue 228 - February 1992
View from the village
How good is Oxfam's development work? The NI decided to try and find out by
sending local journalists from Brazil, Zambia and Bangladesh to visit an Oxfam project
of their choice. We wanted them to talk to people in the communities the agency aims to
help - and not be guided by Oxfam workers' view. And they were asked to find
out whether Oxfam was seen as a partner - or just as a source of cash.
Once upon a time in Petrolandia
'When they began to realize
That all would be flooded
Men, women and children
Began to lament
And now, heaven help us,
How are we going to live?'
FULGENCIO MANOEL DA SILVA
B R A Z I L
There was once a town called Petrolandia. It was an ordinary town with dusty streets and blue-and-white tiled facades, deep in the arid sertão or hinterland of north-east Brazil. Then in 1986 it disappeared beneath the waters of the São Francisco River, diverted and dammed to build the hydroelectric plant of Itaparica.
Today a new town called Nova Petrolandia has replaced the old one. It sits on the edge of what is now a huge lake - at the bottom of which lie the homes and lands of 6,000 rural workers and their families. And in an unpaved street of this new town is found the Trade Union League for the Lower São Francisco Valley - uniting 13 different unions in the states of Pernambuco and Bahia - and also the Human Rights Centre. The latter was born and supported with help from Oxfam UK.
The dam project has done more than drown old Petrolandia - it has created a state of constant tension in the region. Not far away, in Gloria, a trade-union worker called Nildo Jose da Silva is phoning the newspapers in Recife and Salvador to make a denunciation. The Bahian police, hooded and armed with machine guns, have surrounded some of the new agricultural settlements or agrovilas in Gloria, on the pretext of hunting 'marijuana growers . They have been invading houses without authorization, stealing firearms kept for hunting purposes and even kidnapping a union leader. He was soon released, though he was abused as 'one of the men who wanted to bust up the Dam'.
The police action is an attempt to intimidate rural workers who are trying to stand up for their rights. The workers' main complaint is that the Hydroelectric Company of São Francisco is not meeting commitments made in 1986 to resettle the people displaced by the Dam. These agreements were made after protesters occupied the dam construction site at Itaparica and brought work to an absolute standstill for six days.
In June 1991 roughly 3,000 people again occupied the site to protest against the endless delays. Although the 6,000 families who lost their homes and lands have now been rehoused, their main claim to land has not been met. Of the 120 irrigated areas for agriculture due to be ready by 1988, only one is to be handed over - even though the Hydroelectric Company has received funds from the World Bank specifically for this purpose. Most of the unirrigated lands for cultivation have not even been demarcated. Meanwhile, intense drought in the north-eastern sertão has reduced the productivity of the soil by 20 per cent, driving those still trying to plant to despair.
To make matters worse, the Company's monthly payments to each family are below the agreed figure of two minimum salaries. This has caused an atmosphere of unease, enforced idleness, and even violence.
'A bit of money that we earn with our own sweat, from what we plant, from what we harvest, is better than this miserable pension,' says Marcondes Ferreira.
But at least Marcondes Ferreira and the others like him have a movement behind them now. Oxfam has been developing a relationship with the rural workers' movement of this region since 1981. It has been a period of intense mobilization and organization. The trade unions have learned from the experience of people who were simply pushed out with no guarantee of a livelihood when three dams were built upstream.
Vicente da Costa Coelho, Director of the Human Rights Centre in Petrolandia, remembers: 'Oxfam, with its understanding of the whole situation, started supporting us. One representative began to come here a lot. He would actually see with us what was needed and sometimes he'd help out with specific things without the need for a "project" as such. Oxfam understood that the workers have fared badly, through no fault of their own, but due to the Government and the situation this country is facing.'
Activist Eraldo José de Souza adds: 'The Union League was strong and had credibility, but it couldn't be legalized. We realized we needed a Human Rights Centre to respond to the problems of people not linked to the rural unions - and also to back up the League itself.'
The Centre's directors are unanimous in stressing Oxfam's importance. So what has Oxfam done? According to Vicente it has contributed to mobilization, to setting up an infrastructure and to making contacts with other organizations. It has also, at both the national and international levels, denounced those who oppress rural workers.
At present, 'a little project' of Oxfam's covers the costs of three advisers - an agronomist, a social worker and a lawyer. It has provided two vehicles - together with fuel and running costs - which are vital for maintaining contact with the isolated agricultural settlements. And it is discussing whether to fund the hiring of a more permanent adviser. This would be a big step forward according to Vicente. 'We get so involved in the daily struggle that we cannot even stop to reflect on things; it's just a mad rush. An adviser is someone who can be objective and make suggestions.'
But the top priority in any new agreement with Oxfam will be training. 'Today we are realizing,' Vicente continues, 'that given the broadening of the scope of our work, it is vital to invest urgently in training schemes to prepare new leaders. We learn through practice, the hard way, but now it's not feasible to wait 10 years for another good leader. We don't want what happened to others to happen to us.' One way of keeping oppressed people in their place has always been to remove leaders who pose a threat before any successors can emerge.
'As for resettlement,' says Vicente, 'we reckon we will only reach our objectives by making the workers take on their own management - in other words become sufficiently organized to produce and market their own goods. This will require a lot of discussion on the best methods... You can see the number of challenges to be taken up, can't you?' he adds with a worried smile.
Oxfam is not seen merely as a provider of funds. 'We consider Oxfam as a partner,' says Eraldo. And both he and Vicente feel that this sense of partnership - combined with Oxfam's pressure on the World Bank to suspend funds destined for the Hydroelectric Company - eliminates any impression of mere charity or paternalism.
Besides, the workers raise the funding for their protests and campaigns themselves. Despite the high costs involved, the mass protest demonstrations last June - both at the dam site and at the regional headquarters of the Hydroelectric Company in Recife - were fully covered by donations from the rural workers.
'This is the fruit of the union and awareness of these people,' concludes Eraldo, 'the seeds of which Oxfam helped to plant.' By Tarciana Portella, who works with Zarabatana, a media group based in Recife.
1 The poem at the start cornes from a cordel - a booklet of popular poetry - called The Occupation of the Itaparica Dam Site. The poet. Fulgencio Manoel da Silva is Director of the Rural Workers' Union in Floresta.
Don't desert us now!
About 150 kilometres west of Lusaka lies the rural town of Mumbwa. This region of Zambia has been particularly hit by one of the classic scourges of African agriculture, the tsetse fly. It means the local farmers cannot keep cattle, even to help them with the ploughing of their land. All work on the lend has to be done in the most painstaking and backbreaking fashion, with a hoe.
Life is hard for the small maize farmer, and people have traditionally had to resort to foreign help. Since the 1960s this has meant a heavy dependence on supplementary feeding for children and food aid from abroad. Local communities have not really been encouraged to use their initiative to develop a long-term security plan.
It has always been hard to see a way out of the poverty trap because the local lending institutions discriminate against small farmers. 'There are just too many rules', says Abraham Kabinda, chair of the Kaindu Nutrition Group. 'These local landing institutions insist that we peasant farmers should have money in the bank before they give us a loan. But how do we get money in the bank when we cannot even sell enough maize to clothe our families?'
This is where Oxfam UK came in. In 1985, the Mumbwa Nutrition Group asked Oxfam to finance a survey examining the causes of malnutrition in the area. Workshops discussed the problems found in the survey, among them lack of farm implements, seed and fertilizer.
Those workshops in 1987 and 1988 decided that agricultural projects for women and young people should be created and strengthened. Finally in 1990 and 1991 smaller local nutrition groups were formed in two pilot protects with Oxfam's help. In Kaindu, for example, 32 families were assisted out of a total population of 11,000 inhabitants.
That assistance basically comes down to Oxfam operating as a mini bank, offering the local farmers loans to buy fertilizer or maize seed without insisting on collateral. Some of the farmers were lees than enthusiastic about the idea at first, worried that, if they failed, 'the project people would sell our chickens'.
'When I first applied for a loan from Oxfam, I was very scared, thinking that if I had a very low yield, I would be arrested,' says Miniver Sakala, who had never received a loan in her life and felt intimidated by the prospects of paying one back.
'But I'm now a happy, confident farmer,' she continues, 'and would like Oxfam to give us bigger loans. We were malnourished and unhealthy-looking because of lack of food until they came along. Oxfam should not give up on us now.'
This is people's main concern. 'Over 300 other farmers want to join our group now,' says Mr Kabinda. 'This is very encouraging: it becomes impassable here during the rainy season so we need a lot of people to grow a lot of maize. But Oxfam is reluctant to give us more loans. This is like giving a child half a bun and promising to give it the other half next day yet the child is still hungry.'
Another farmer, Albert Sheleni, says the problem with the Oxfam loans is that 'If one is expected to grow only enough to eat, one cannot progress. We need to improve our standard of living further.'
To be fair, Oxfam has done more than just offer loans. It has given a grant to help establish a revolving fund which the community supervises. And it has helped the group to market its produce and buy back any surplus. This surplus is kept in a 'food bank' to cover any lean times before the next harvest.
'Oxfam has helped us work together,' concludes Abraham Kabinda. 'Considering that we have only just started, we are very happy with what has been achieved. But Oxfam should not desert us now, it should give us bigger loans to expand our maize-fields.'
By Mary Namakando, senior features reporter with The Times of Zambia.
A haven of hope on the island of Silence
It was 4.30am, at least an hour before sunrise. The stars were still bright in the dark November sky. Women from the nearby slums were going in groups to fetch water for drinking and washing; we could see them only as shadows. We were at the harbour in Hatiya, waiting for the tide to rise enough for the boat we had hired to come and take us to Nijhum Owip, the island of Silence.
With its improvised engine this boat took almost four hours to reach the island; and even then we had to disembark in knee-deep water and walk across the beach for half an hour to reach the habitable area. This seemed an extraordinary journey to me. But it is almost an everyday routine for Mohammed Sirajuddin, field worker for Dwip Unnayon Sangstah (DUS), an organization wholly funded by Oxfam UK.
Almost everyone on the island knows Sirajuddin. Most of them are landless and have been organized into groups by DUS. Among them is Ajaharuddin, an elderly farmer who approaches us as we walk. He is keen to pay back the 500 taka ($13) that he borrowed from his group. 'After the cyclone of last April,' he says, 'I had no capital to invest in my field. So I took a loan for three and a half months. Were we not organized in groups, I would have had to go to the moneylender and pay at least 200 taka in interest. Thank Ailah that now we have the group. This way I can pay back my loan even before it is due.'
DUS works for the landless in the whole Hatiya region as well as on Nijhum Dwip - and in this part of the Bay of Bengal, where land is constantly shifting, there are always large numbers of landless even at the best of times. And at the worst of times, as after the cyclone last April, almost everyone is in trouble.
According to Rahimuddin, another farmer, Nijhum Dwip started rising from the Bay of Bengal in the early 1960s. A few desperate people started living on it as early as 1985 but the major cyclone of 1970 washed away the whole island. Legend has it that only one woman survived the storm by climbing on a tree. She is still around and commonly known as Kaora Buri, the Old Lady of the Kaora Tree.
But the devastation of 1970 did not stop poor people from migrating to Nijhum Dwip. 'The river grabbed our home in Hatiya,' says Abdul Jabbar. 'After losing that, what could we do? We climbed on a fishing boat and ended up on the Dwip.'
Until ten years ago, neither voluntary agencies nor the Government knew much about Nijhum Dwip. But in 1982, DUS made a survey of the island - and found it was like an outlaw state. A few hooligans, with the help of Forest Department employees, were ruling the roost, doing whatever they liked, from stealing poor farmers' harvest to raping the womenfolk.
'We were scattered all over the island,' says Sirajuddin. We were helpless and powerless. We were not united but the few bad people were and so they could do anything. We were actually hiding in the bushes.' He laughs: 'We were literally living in the jungle then.'
Sirajuddin and DUS started organizing landless people into groups in 1985, and eventually started implementing the Government's land-reform programme, under which each landless family was guaranteed two acres of land, All 10.000 inhabitants were organized into 10 cluster villages - and DUS is still responsible for the organization of eight of these. It has provided the villages with six tubewells for drinking water, taken charge of schooling and started a mother-and-child health programme. On women's issues in general, though, DUS has not yet made much progress: the women of Nijhum Dwip live in purdah. I didn't see a single woman out on the road or working in the fields. Even in a Hindu fishing village all the women ran inside the house as soon as I arrived. DUS is trying to counter this problem by hiring more women field workers.
The impressive social organization achieved by DUS on Nijhum Dwip should be seen in the context of Hatiya in general, where the plight of the poor and landless has been deteriorating and the power of the elite growing. On my long journey to the area from Ohaka we took a sea-truck across the river from Char Jabbar. The boat was crowded: there was a group of university students on an excursion, very loud and proud; there was a group of mullahs, with long beards, on their travels from village to village persuading people to turn more devoutly towards islam.
And on the floor of the boat were a group of landless people, looking unhappy and hungry, in dirty, tom clothing. They had no money for the fare, and had to face the rage of the ticket collector. But what could they do? Unable to find work in Hatiya they had crossed the river in search of work on the mainland. But there were no jobs there either; they were coming back home with lust empty pockets and hopelessness. If only they too could be organized like the fanners of Nijhum Dwip.
By Faruq Faisel a journalist based in Dhaka.