BE THE CHANGE YOU WISH TO SEE
With little institutional support or recognition, a small project called “Amar Majuli” is changing the lives of people on a small Indian River island. How one girls’ semester abroad became a bona fide project in international development.
Of all the people trying to realize their dreams through “Headstart” (a crowd-funding platform) one project in particular stands out. It’s not an artist who wants to put out an album or a book, neither is it a photo exhibition or a conceptual dance performance. It’s a project raising money for the economic independence of the Indian Missing tribe living on the river island of Majuli in northeast India.
The project “Amar Majuli” was born two years ago, the initiative of Gili Navon and Shaked Avitzedek, both graduates of Glocal Community-Development Studies program at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The project strives to create sustainable development in the fields of agriculture, women empowerment and activist volunteerism among people of the Mising Tribe in Majuli, who face major trials both socially and environmentally. The project is currently active in more than twenty villages, and its goal is to allow the residents of the island to have financial and social security.
It all started in late 2010, when the first cycle of the Glocal program finished its first school year and and was preparing to go abroad for a four-month internship with a NGO. For most students in the program, the internship was the main issue that preoccupied them the most during the previous year. Almost everyone debated where they should go (Africa? Asia? or maybe Latin America?); what issue they should focus on (gender? conflict resolution? Why not agriculture?); and what kind of organization they should intern with (an established INGO or rather a small local organization?). Four months is not such a long time, and everyone wanted to make sure they are taking advantage of this opportunity in the best way possible, both as a learning experience and the basis for their seminar paper and as a professional experience which might start their professional careers.
Gili Navon, who studied in the same class, was among the lucky ones who were not at all perplexed by these questions. From the moment she started the program until her graduation there was one very specific place she had in mind – a small island called Majuli; located on the River Brahmaputra River in state of Assam, India. “I actually knew from the start, from the beginning the school year, that I wanted to do my internship in Majuli” she recalls, “despite it being less than ideal a place to send students to, due to its extreme remoteness and limited communication and mobility. At the time it was Aya Navon, the internship coordinator, who advised me that despite these technical challenges, if it means that much for me to go there, then I should do it. Back then, that advice was very meaningful to me and Aya remained very significant in the project to come.”
When did you first hear about Majuli?
“I was traveling in India for over a year back in 2007 and was looking for more remote and less touristic place to travel to. I heard about the North-East region and when I got there I found a place which was fascinating, remote and tribal, completely different from anything I had known before. During my stay there I heard about this river island called Majuli and once I was there I realized that this is a place I’m fascinated by. Following this experience I decided to study Sociology and Anthropology combined with Indian Studies for my bachelor’s degree, in order to go back and write about that area. Once I finished that, I realized that for my Master’s I want something more practical which relates more strongly the field, instead of just writing articles and that’s how I got to Glocal.”
What are the main challenges which are currently facing the inhabitants of Majuli?
Shaked: “The big story of the island is the erosion, which has resulted in the island losing more than half its territory during the last fifty years. The erosion is caused by several factors: firstly, global warming affects the rate in which the Himalayan glaciers are thawing, which in turn affects the Brahmaputra river originating there. Moreover, the massive development currently taking place in China, includes the construction of dams, which cause changes in the river. There are many different factors in this equation, what is certain is that for the people in Majuli, who earn their living from agriculture, the loss of land is an existential challenge.”
Gili: “In addition to the issue of agriculture, there’s also the issue of migration from the island, whereupon the people of Majuli cease to be independent and become employees, thus losing a part of their unique cultural identity. As a tribe, the Missing habitants of Majuli are considered lowest in the Indian caste system, so low they are actually outside the categorization. Therefore, by leaving their island they face social isolation many closed doors. In addition, there’s a great deal of prejudices in the way they’re perceived, so it’s not just the environment which poses challenges, but they also have social and cultural obstacles aplenty.”
Shaked: “In dealing with global climate change there are two approaches, Mitigation and Adaptation. Currently we’re focused on the latter, working to help communities cope and adapt to the changes occurring around them.
Gili : “People might think that since the island is disappearing anyway, why waste time working on it, but we work with the people of Majuli trying to establish economic and social security in order to deal with these challenges. In the future, we hope to start a more direct action mitigation, of preventing erosion by planting plants known to prevent processes of erosion.”
How did a four-month internship turn into a three year project in sustainable development?
Gili: What I began to build during the internship was based upon the things I learned in Glocal, primarily the ABCD methodology (Asset Based Community Development) which anchors the project in the community’s local assets. In the case of the Missing community is Majuli, the main asset is their women’s talent for weaving. My project was setting up collaborations between a group of weavers who can later sell their products, emphasizing women’s leadership and empowerment. My internship focused on two elements, the first is the belief of them as human beings, in what they have to offer and the traditional designs of their culture and the second is the attempt to link them directly to people outside the island, who managed to sell local cultural products. Something very powerful was born there and the important thing for me was that this collaboration will continue on after my internship and that the women will leave the island to sell their products, and that’s indeed what happened. They continued this operation through small initiatives in the local market and even established weaving centers in four of the women’s houses. This group of women have undergone a truly amazing process, both personally and economically, and when I left Majuli at the end of the internship I promised them I’d come back. It wasn’t until I was able to raise an initial amount of money for the group’s activities, that I realized with shaked that it was going to happen now.”
To India, with love
In the beginning of 2011 Gili returned from Majuli and started her second year of the program, but has kept in close touch with the group of women she had worked with. She sought funding for the project and in the meantime recruited her friend Shaked Avizedek, who holds a BA in Environmental and Atmospheric sciences from the Hebrew University and has extensive experience in the fields of environmental protection through education and activism. Upon graduating from Glocal in January of 2012, the two traveled to Majuli for six months, which expanded the project and established it. Currently, the project operates under the organization “Kaima” in in cooperation with three local organizations (IMPACT – NE, F2F, The Ant). The project’s staff includes Gili and Shaked, who are working on a voluntary basis, and a local member from Majuli who is a paid employee, responsible for field operations. The project recently launched a crowd-funding campaign in “Headstart” in order to enable the continuation of the project and the infrastructure necessary for its economic sustainability.
What is your current financial support?
Gili: “We are now working with an initial donation of 10 thousand dollars, with which we were able to fund a year’s work in the field. This donation was given to us based on the belief that our system heavily relies on the assets of the community, and on the belief that even a modest amount of money can go a long way in creating change. I think this is an important message in this field.”
With this donation, we’ve turned a group of 25 women into a cooperative of 70 weavers and created a platform that allows the people of Majuli to act towards securing their economic and social wellbeing. Additionally, we started a beautiful initiative of a bike bank for women, providing them bicycle with comfortable loans. The bike bank encourages their independence and mobility and is managed today by a group of women in one of the remote villages. We set up the bank after running into one of the women we work with, she was walking to hospital with her child on her back, in order to get him vaccinated, a two-hour walk each direction. The impact of this initiative is on a much larger scale than we can imagine, once women from remote villages have the ability to go to market, to meet with each other, it’s an amazing thing.”
In which other fields does “Amar Majuli” work?
Shaked: “We started a partnership with a local organization that deals with organic agriculture. We work with a group of farmers to encourage organic agriculture and to improve their yield. This project also provides support in marketing their products and encourages skills which will allow them to make a living off it. The idea of the project is to train people in the villages who in turn will pass the knowledge on in their villages. For example, The Indian governmental projects do not include farmers from tribes. We saw that our work in the island resonated within the local community and in an attempt to leverage that impact, we decided to establish a group of local volunteers and start working with them on the foundations of development.”
Gili: “At first we asked them to map out the needs in the field, a process which we also learned a lot from, and then supported them in the initiative they decided according to their findings. We invested a small sum of 6,000 rupees (340 NIS), with which they’ve done with about six various initiatives, and there’s still change. For example, they brought up the issue of poor widows in the village, they set up vegetable gardens to help them feed their families and also sell them in the market. In addition to that, they took a school which was only a shed and renovated it, building actual walls. These projects have cost us about four or five dollars each.”
Shaked: “It’s all part of a process of identifying the needs of the local community, which is also a platform for the community to raise issues which we have no other way of discovering. It creates a fascinating encounter between the communities in Majuli, which although was not a primary goal, it’s still very interesting and meaningful. The next step is linking the local volunteers to international volunteers and have them work together like peers, instead of having “top down” interventions.”
The Project is now entering its third year, what’s in store for this coming year?
Shaked: “We are working now to tie up the project so to ensure economic sustainability for the community. We’re in the process of implementation models that will allow the project to be financially independent and the activities to expand and be managed by the community itself. During this last period of time in Majuli we first encountered Gandhi’s famous saying “Be the change you wish to see in the world”. It expresses perfectly the spirit that drives us since we started working in Majuli and we try every day to instill that idea in all the people working with us there.”