Friday, June 17, 2011

Oh, Orissa

While I'd had a fairly dramatic experience of being biked around remote, rural, "tribal" Andhra Pradesh in the Araku Valley, it turned out to be a very tame precursor of what was to come. I caught a train from Vishakapatnam up the coast to Bhubaneshwar and then to Puri to attempt to attend an independent film festival, though this didn't exactly turn out as planned. I ended up meeting a British author named Felix who has spent the past 10 or so years living half time in India and half time in Britain, and he ended up being a wealth of information and an excellent contact.

After spending a couple of days checking out the beach and some veerry old and intricate Hindu temples, I started on a journey that I could not have expected. As I may have mentioned before, part of this fellowship travel that I'm on is to spend time in places which have parallels to my homeplace in the coalfields of Appalachia, which to me means places that are fairly remote, have lots of hills, and also some issues with mining. I had heard for awhile that the mountains of southwest Orissa are capped with bauxite, the mineral used to create aluminum, and that the process for mining is very much like mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia. I'd also heard about some "primitive" tribal groups in this part of Orissa who had successfully protected their mountains from mining by a huge multinational corporation, but I was told that it would be next to impossible to actually go to this place due to the remoteness, lack of English speaking, and potential danger from company agents. I was therefore very happy when the aforementioned Felix (who has written a very good book about the worldwide aluminum industry and its effect on rural India) informed me that there would a big festival/celebration on top of one of the mountains that has so far been saved in the next couple of days and that he could put me in touch with the right people to find my way there.

To give a little background info, the aluminum company that wants to strip mine the Nyamgiri mountains (Vedanta) has a history of being insidious, relentless, ruthless, and very good at PR so as to make themselves appear to be a valuable asset to the community while destroying vast areas of land and forcing indigenous populations to leave their homeplaces and accept housing in cramped concrete boxes where they might have an opportunity to earn a few dollars a day as day laborers, as opposed to the self-sufficient farmer-gatherer lifestyle they had known. Although they had not been able to get the lease to mine these mountains, they had gone ahead and built a massive aluminum refinery in anticipation of the leases but are now being forced to import bauxite from other parts of India to justify the plant's existence. I arrived in Lanjigarh after a confusing navigation through the train system and a local jeep where I was bounced down some of the roughest, dustiest roads I had ever seen, doubtlessly made that way by the dozens of bauxite trucks making their way from the train station to the refinery and back. The jeep actually stopped at the gate of the refinery, and I was greeted by at least a mile of cruelly ironic propaganda painted on their fortified border wall containing bizarre messages such as "He who destroys a tree destroys himself! So beware!" and "Life: Not fair but still worth living. Drive carefully!"

From the gate I had to find my way to the contact that Felix had given me, but unfortunately he wasn't answering his phone. I decided to start walking in what I assumed was the direction of the actual town, and as I passed a non-descript, unlabeled building a friendly fellow with good English came out and offered to give me a ride if I would come in for a cup of tea first. It turned out that this was the local Vedanta CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) office, which apparently doubled as an interrogation chamber. Before I knew it I was in a tiny room surrounded by about 8 men looming over me while one very official-seeming fellow asked me many, many questions, often repeating the same ones and not seeming a bit friendly although the guy who originally lured me in would occasionally chime in that they are my best friends and only want to make sure that I stay safe. After trying to convince him for a half hour that I'm just a recently graduated traveler who is randomly visiting mining areas with no objective in mind, I finally had enough and stormed out of the room. The original guy was still wanting to give me a ride, and for some reason I let him. He did actually let me go after dropping me in the town, and luckily by this time my contact was answering his phone.

After that extremely creepy and jarring experience, I was greeted by a local fellow who gave me a ride to a meeting point where I caught a ride in a jeep with a few other folks to the foot of the mountain where the celebration would happen. There was a very nice organic hillside farm at this gathering area, and I was very surprised at how green this place was considering how brown the rest of India is in the dry season. It turns out that in addition to being great for refining into aluminum, bauxite is also a natural sponge which is amazing in its ability to retain and slowly release water over the entire year, providing clean water for drinking and agriculture for communities both near to and far from the source. Strangely, these perennial streams and rivers tend to disappear after an area has been strip mined and the communities often face life-or-death water shortages. After a large enough group of people had gathered, we started up the 30 minute trek to the top of the mountain where the festival would be held.

I was mainly walking with progressive urbanite Indians who were supporters of the cause of the local tribal people, as well as some disinterested reporters and a few of the tribals themselves. Once we reached the top it was nearly dark, but for the first time I was able to really see the people who I had been hearing about for some time. The Dongria Khond are considered to be some of the most unaltered by modernity Adivasi people in India, and this was most obvious in the distinctive hairpieces, facial piercings, and simple handwoven dress that was especially apparent with the women. They were also the most beautiful people I have ever been around, and it's really hard to describe exactly what I mean by that. There was a quiet, almost shy kind of look in their eyes, but also intense strength and confidence. They also seemed supremely healthy and full of calm energy. I spent the night and the next day trying to be as unobtrusive and unobnoxious as possible, very self-conscious of my camera (which I tried to keep as hidden as possible) and my glaring whiteness. Among other things, I heard many songs and saw many dances, and witnessed the beheading of a ram as a living sacrifice to the mountain deity that they worship. My biggest regret is that as I was descending the mountain to return back to the town, a group of young Dongria Khond men stopped me and seemed to be asking me to come back up the hill with them. I had already made an appointment with a nearby organic farming organization for the next day, and I declined their offer as they smiled and continued on their way. I'll always wonder what might have happened, whether they might have invited me to stay with them for some time, or what...

Soon I was bouncing down the road past the slums surrounding the Vedanta refinery toward the nearby town of Bissamcuttack to meet up with the Living Farms NGO. Similarly to the Naandi project in AP, their work was focused on preserving traditional organic farming and promoting new techniques that can help farmers to not be reliant on chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Unlike Naandi, they're not partnering with Vedanta on any PR campaigns! Once again I was ferreted around on the back of a motorbike to many remote villages to check out composting projects, community seed banks, organic rice and vegetable fields, as well as lots of very friendly people (all Adivasis or Dalits, the lowest caste) and tons of goats, cows, and buffaloes. One difference with this trip is that at many, many of the stops that we made I was offered a fresh tree sap drink known as "tarae." I decided to rename it "magical tree beer" because somehow it comes right out of the tree as a fermented beverage, though unfortunately it continues to ferment in your stomach, producing some undesirable side effects. Still it was a very nice way to see the hilly Orissan countryside. These folks also refused to accept any donation from me even though they spent quite a bit of time and gas over three days to show me around, and they were much, much smaller and less funded than Naandi.

After a brief excursion back down to the seaside town of Puri, I decided to check out the coal mining region of Orissa near the border with Chhattisgarh. A friend of a friend put me in touch with a local fellow who has been working on community rights in the Jharsaguda area for sometime, and soon I was meeting Mr. Gopinath Majhi in the small town of Belpahar. This very kind though somewhat defeated and weathered fellow hosted me for a few days in his family's home and took me around to see places that had already been extensively strip mined and those that would soon be destroyed, as well as people who had been struggling for some time. In the midst of it all, I also got to witness my first and only Indian wedding, a story in and of itself. There weren't too many success stories to tell here, as the government-owned surface coal mining operations had repeatedly forcibly evicted people from their land, often with zero or very little compensation of efforts at relocation. Only recently had people started to receive some reparations, though it was often fairly bizarre. We rode through one town where everyone was dismantling their own homes; apparently the government mining company had agreed to give them good paying jobs but only if they would destroy their own homes in advance of the mining operation. The amount of coal dust and dry, parching heat in this place made the Appalachian coalfields seem like paradise, but this would actually not be the most dramatic example of mining destruction and exploitation I would see in India.

Orissa is known as one of the poorest states in India with documented starvation deaths in the past 10 years, and I reckon that I was in some of the poorest parts. However, the issue of poverty here and elsewhere in heartland India is a complicated one. In the places where I visited people who could grow their own food without external inputs and save their own seeds, they were money-poor but contented and rich otherwise. In the places where mineral extraction and heavy industry were making this previous lifestyle impossible though they might actually have more money due to dangerous day labor, I saw the most abject poverty of anywhere in the trip so far. This theme would be continued as I traveled northeast to Jharkhand, arguably the poorest and most chaotic state in the country.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Araku Valley and Adivasi Farmers

DISCLAIMER: A friend of mine recently made me aware that the NGO that took me around in Araku Valley is also working with a huge, very destructive mining and aluminum processing company called Vedanta to get good press in a nearby state for "helping the poor" when they are actually doing the opposite. While I still appreciate the experience I had in Araku and I do think they are doing good work here, it's important to understand that these nation-wide, well-funded NGOs often have more than one side to them and sometimes get into bed with some unsavory characters. So, understand that I am not trying to completely endorse Naandi and all that they do, but only to relay a couple weeks of my travel experience in India.

With Auroville fading as a weird and out of place memory, I soon found myself in the coastal town of Vishakapatnam on the very northeast tip of Andhra Pradesh. This was only a brief stopover before traveling up to Araku Valley, a reputedly beautiful hilly area which is home to a heavy concentration of indigenous tribal people, generically known as Adivasi. I had randomly read a newspaper article while across the country in Rajasthan about a project in Araku to plug Adivasi farmers into organic certification and marketing schemes, and also to receive carbon credits for reforestation. It seemed to be worth checking out and the NGO heading this work emailed me back quickly after I found them through an internet search. After a train ride through very Appalachian-looking hills, I was greeted by a friendly chap at the train station who would give me a ride into the interior areas.

Naandi Foundation is a pretty big and well-funded NGO working on a diverse set of health, education, and livelihood issues in different parts of rural India. While there might be a bigger hierarchy at play, I found myself being hosted and taken around by very humble, helpful, and down to earth folks who were all from the local area. Once again on the back of a motorbike, it was a very strange but beautiful world I found myself in. The entire area was full of big hills, and though the people lacked much of anything in the way of tools or infrastructure, there were huge, well designed terraces everywhere for growing rice and other crops. People had ingeniously directed water from its source to flow through each of these fields so that they could be flooded and irrigated at key times. The dwellings were very simple, mostly made of packed mud or wood with clay tile roofs, and people (mostly women) were engaged in lots of different kinds of manual labor, like chopping wood, carrying water on their heads, planting rice, and working with water buffalo. I didn't know it at the time, but this scenery would come to be quite common to me over the next two months.

Our first stop was a village that was too remote to receive any connection to the national power grid (the villages that were "connected" had a single thin wire that supplied only enough power for light bulbs for maybe 3-4 hours per day), and it was chosen by TERI for a solar lighting project. A small set of solar panels were connected to an array of battery-powered lanterns, which the villagers charged everyday and then used to be able to see at night. From here we checked out some of their reforestation-cum-coffee plantation projects, whereby people were taught to grow shade-giving trees (silver oak) together with organic coffee. Apparently Naandi has been able to get carbon credits for the reforestation bit because these hillsides have been seriously denuded due to overharvesting and population pressure, whereas they were once densely forested carbon sinks. By dusk we had reached the state-of-the-art coffee processing facility that had also been built through Naandi. Apparently all of the growers in their program bring their beans here to be dehulled, cleaned, and ready to be sent off to roasters, and I believe it was done in a cooperative framework wherein the villagers are involved with the running of the plant as well. The hulls are are turned into biodynamic vermicompost, and the beans are mostly sold to high-end markets in Europe, bringing the most possible profit back to the growers.

I checked out their organic training center/tree nursery the next day, and learned a bit about the teaching programs they have to make innovative organic growing methods known to the local folks. David Hogg, originally a New Zealander who's been in India for the past 30 years, is the head of this whole farming development program and is very much into creation of biodynamic composts and pesticides, so that is the main focus of their methods here. Looked like some pretty potent stuff, maybe I'll try mixing up a brew when I get back to Kentucky. We went to one more village which was kind of a model because all of the different aspects of the program (coffee/reforestation, organic farming, biodynamic compost/pesticide production, and a Naandi-funded school) were happening here. Through my guide/translator, I was able to spend a fair amount of time talking with these folks about how this transition from mainly rice production with synthetic fertilizer to diversified organic agriculture has really benefited their lives. I was a bit surprised to see a flag in the middle of a remote village with a big communist symbol on it; apparently a lot of people in this region are not the biggest fans of the central Indian government and don't believe it really cares for the welfare of the rural poor.

I wanted to climb one of the hills, so the fellow who had been taking me around on motorbike and I reached the top and surveyed the surrounding farming valleys and hills rising off to the distance. I noticed that there was a big plume of steam rising from somewhere around the base of the hill, and descended to discover a pretty interesting scene. A bunch of guys were processing sugar cane into jaggery by pressing the juice from the cane with a diesel engine-driven press system, and then boiling the juice in a huge vat to leave only the thick, sticky crystals that are formed into big, solid chunks. They gave us some raw cane to chew on while we watched, and I just remember being almost overwhelmed by the wafts of sugar-filled steam that kept rising. This would be my last stop with Naandi, and I was very grateful to their generosity as I packed my things to go. As with many times on this trip, my hosts and travel guides wouldn't accept a penny from me as thanks.

On my way out of Araku, I made a stop over at Borra Caves, one of the biggest cave complexes in India. It was definitely impressive, but being in the villages for the past several days had caused me to forget how intensely obnoxious Indian families on vacation from the cities can be. The caves were filled with children and youth hollering and going crazy, and I had to go outside and wander off the beaten path to find an apparently unknown set of caves and waterfalls that were just down the river from the main set. I was the only soul around, and it was very good to sit and take in these surroundings before jumping back onto a train and into the cities.