Saturday, August 12, 2006


Yesterday, with all the foreigners here, and Bhoomi (Amma and Appa’s doctor son from Cambodia) and Sathya the pediatrician arrived, some of the hostel children did an especially large and intricate kolam (floor painting) at the entrance to the Workers Home. Given that they know that most of us can’t read Tamil, they wrote a message below it: “WELCOME Do ALL.”

That pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it? (There is no definitive “T” sound in Tamil, so what seems to us to be an obvious spelling error makes perfectly good sense in Tamil.)

Michi the Japanese researcher returned from Nagapattinam and gave some of us a little report of what she saw, which I’ve patched together with information from Krishnammal and Veerachami. The NGOs (non-governmental organizations) are swarming around the city, all trying to do what they think is good work in the recovery from the tsunami. They compete for literate Tamil-speaking staff, causing individuals to jump from one agency to another, looking for the best pay and employment conditions. The price of basic food stuffs has soared, with good rice increasing from 13 rupees per kilogram at the time of the tsunami to 20 rupees now. Fish has gone from 30 rupees per kilogram to 80 rupees per kilogram, all of this to feed the hungry NGOs. Meanwhile, wages in the surrounding countryside for agricultural labor haven’t increased at all, so the result is that agencies like the International Red Cross and dozens of others are contributing to a massive increase in hunger, and in bonded labor, as I reported on previously. Costs of building materials have increased, of course – the houses that LAFTI used to build cost $1,200-$1,400, but are now up to around $2,200 for the raw materials.

Some agencies have taken to giving boats and fishing equipment to communities that lost them in the tsunami, but many are unable to ascertain which communities were fisherfolk before and which weren’t. One Dalit community that we know of that had never fished before received boats and nets. But because the fish harvests are still down by 80% from a decade ago as a result of pollution and estuary destruction caused by the prawn farms, this has simply resulted in more fisherman chasing fewer fish. “Teach a man to fish” without ensuring the conditions whereby there will be fish to be found simply increases bitterness and dependence – the man would have been better off given some fish to eat.

The District Collector has been trying to control all of this well-intentioned idiocy, but it hasn’t been an easy task. He has occasionally called on LAFTI for assistance (including rebuilding some of the “permanent housing” built following the tsunami that fell down in the first rains), but on the whole, LAFTI has kept to its mission of providing land to the landless and building houses, and forging alliances between the people of the land and the fisherfolk, both suffering from the predations of the prawn farms.

The so-called “temporary” houses made of PVC without windows or sanitation or latrines that I visited last year are still up. There have been several fires (highly predictable) with people killed at the site. Several American Pentacostal churches have attempted to use this opportunity of finding large agglomerations of homeless people in one place to preach their specific brand of Salvationism. This activity is strictly forbidden by law, but these particular American Christians breed their own brand of lawlessness.

Meanwhile, in our workshops here we have had long conversations about the abandoned prawn farm lands. My own particular fear, one that I haven’t shared openly, is that even while operating, seepage of the cancer-causing chemical cocktails used in prawn production may have made its way to the rice fields. I have no idea to what degree they are taken up in the food chain. Since we know the chemicals have heavily impacted fish spawning, what has been the effect on bird populations? Are chemicals concentrated in the fish? Have there been increases in cancer rates, still births, and malformations among people from the chemical soup?

I have not yet shared this with Krishnammal or LAFTI’s leadership – I don’t want to be alarmist, especially as I know there would be no place for the people to go in any case, and I am most definitely not a scientist, ecologist, or physician. (I will share this fear with Bhoomikumar today.) If true, it would make Love Canal look like a picnic. And the same would be true in the 23 other nations where World Bank-backed multinationals have swept in like predators, leaving lunar landscapes in their wake. This is the continuing “land tsunami”.

But LAFTI staff have expressed strong interest in taking over the desolate lands that scar the landscape from the rapidly expanding number of abandoned prawn farms. My heart thrills to the idea, and yet I have urged extreme caution, strongly suggesting that thorough testing for chemical residues of each plot be undertaken before embracing the land reclamation concept. If found to be doable, it would be a model for the rest of the world. To my knowledge, no intensive prawn farm lands have been returned to food agriculture anywhere in the world (Michi says – I think I’ve got this right - there are several places in Andhra Pradesh, the state north of Tamil Nadu, where semi-intensive areas have been returned to oil seed production.) Environmental cleanup of the prawn farms, though ordered by India’s Supreme Court in 1996, is not high on the priority list of corporate entities out to make a fast buck. (Of course, you can see this worldwide in the growing mega-mountains of mine tailings.) I’ve overstated the case – it is not on their priority list, or any list at all.

Sigh. At any rate, I have urged Michi, who left for Chennai this morning and who is casting about for a Ph.D. topic, to take up the role of coordinating “research-to-practice” between the scientists who might determine the degree of chemical degradation, restoration ecologists who might have best practices for reclaiming the land, and LAFTI, who could return the land to the people. There is much too much research that never reaches practical application. There is no one at LAFTI capable of accomplishing this task, and someone with experience in talking with researchers worldwide is precisely who is needed. She promises to consider the idea; I can see that she is intrigued. Krishnammal says Michi is the fifth or sixth Ph.D. researcher who has come to visit in the past year, but Michi “is the one with a good heart.”


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