Whose Environment is it?

At the beginning of the day, I heard we were going to attend talks on environmental sustainability and I pictured myself walking through the boonies, and following dirt paths that led to smaller dirt paths. This was entirely accurate, though it does not begin to describe the  links that I found being built between the environmental projects and the local economy.

I knew that the benefits of having a more direct connection to environment can be found at every turn.  One expects to hear the medicinal benefits of plants and the usefulness of building with indigenous plants (bamboo.) These were the first explanations we were given today when visiting Pitchandikulam Forest, and the Bamboo Center. From a western perspective it’s hard to disagree with all the evidence that these are both worthwhile endeavors.  Yet these reasons barely scratch the surface of what environmental sustainability means for the rural villagers touched by these projects. These projects, which are all connected, bring jobs, knowledge and opportunities to villages where historically you did what your family did and your children did the same after you.  These projects offer ways for at least some villagers to stay in the village and not be forced to seek work in cities, where the only option is living in slums far away from family life.

Maintaining Pitchandikulam forest creates jobs for 200 people, who in turn support 200 families in and around Auroville.  Largely, these are not expats living off previous bank accounts; these are the true Tamil people, who have lived in the village years before Auroville was even conceived.  They plant trees that are indigenous to the region, and raise awareness about the Kaliweli Bioregion and the benefits of using local plants for preventative and curative medicine. In India alone, an estimated 8,000 species of plants are used as medicine in the folk tradition. Yet, In an age when pharmacies are cropping up in villages while the actual crops are being destroyed to make white rice, places like  the Forest, which serves as a medicinal plant conservation park connects villagers to livelihood, to knowledge, and to maintaining their historical ways of healing.

The Bamboo Center demonstrates the advantages of using local materials in building and how versatile bamboo can be. Everything from buildings to clothing and even musical instruments can be built with it. This practice follows their adage of sustainability because the materials are completely recyclable, but the Centers greatest triumph is the training and employment it offers for the community. Currently 14 women are trained for 3 to 4 month periods at the center, and after they not only have skills in working with local materials but they have the option of employment by the center.  Especially for local woman, the options of learning skills that involve working directly with manufacturing largely do not exist.

In the sense that these two places offer initial jobs for villagers and provide them with an opportunity to gain skills and buy themselves basic necessities, the programs offer a chance for a better financial situation. What isn’t clear is whether these programs will truly offer villagers a chance at sustainable development, or if these programs are merely sustaining them currently.  As the nominal rate of inflation grows, the real rate of inflation for villagers who spend almost their entire income on food is actually much higher, so even for villagers with these program jobs, their purchasing power shrinks each year.  It’s with this in mind that the question of environmental sustainability must be examined. What is the point of preserving the environment if an entire section of the population cannot afford to even survive?

-Kathleen Buchholz

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