Two years ago, Swedish national Kerstin Bohman was working deep in the jungles of Indonesia as part of a university research team. Living was basic. She stayed with local villagers and spent her time studying causes of deforestation and how it affected the environment and the livelihoods of farming communities.
Today she is sitting in a room surrounded by a group of women from Thirukkovil in Sri Lanka’s eastern district of Ampara. The room is quiet as local Red Cross staff carefully explain details of a new livelihoods project under way in the community.
Kerstin is the driving force behind the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ post-tsunami livelihoods programme in Ampara District. “I volunteered with the Swedish Red Cross in 2006 to possibly go back to Indonesia and help on their tsunami operation. Instead, I was sent to Sri Lanka,” she recalls.
“In a way the work is similar. It involves working with people in rural and developing areas - understanding their constraints and options for their daily life – how they use available natural and other resources. Livelihoods should be suitable to the environment and the community. Only then can they be sustainable.” she adds.
The assembled women start to explain their current situations through a translator and talk about their hopes for the future. Some work in the fields helping with the paddy harvest, others rear poultry, others work as seamstresses. “I wake up at four every morning to travel on foot and then by bus to Akkaraipattu, several kilometres away, where I cut grass for cattle or help in the harvest of paddy,” explains S. Rajeswari. “I hope to learn how to manage a small business and set up a small shop close to home. Then I can also look after my two daughters,” she says.
Another member of the group, K Rasanayaki, talks about how her skills as a seamstress support her four children. “I hope that what I learn from the Red Cross project will help me and other women in the village get together and set up a small business where we can buy cloth, sew clothes and sell them,” she says.
Kerstin listens intently, interjecting with the occasional question, before explaining how the success of the proposed livelihoods project will depend upon community participation. The programme planned for this particular village in Thirukkovil aims to train community members, mostly women, in how to establish home based businesses, market products and improve production skills.
The Red Cross will partner with the British NGO Practical Action to help villagers identify needs and potential markets. A Community Based Business Resource Centre will also be established, enabling community members to support each other as they set up and build new commercial endeavours.
“The aim is to empower families and communities to regain lost livelihoods or improve and diversify on what they already do,” explains Kerstin.
An hour’s drive away and Kerstin sits down again with Red Cross colleagues and members of a fishery cooperative to discuss a project being implemented in the village of Ninthavur. Here, the Red Cross is providing funding to the 40-member cooperative and will assist them to set up a small shop where both members and other fishermen from the area can purchase fuel, nets and other items at low cost. The scheme will mean that they will no longer have to pay exorbitant travel costs or pay inflated prices with local traders in order to get the materials they need to earn a living.
As a collective the fishermen will purchase supplies in bulk at cheaper prices than would be the case if bought individually. The items can then be sold with a small mark-up, which will go towards the running and upkeep of the shop, as well as to small loans to cooperative members to purchase fuel, nets and fishing tackle.
When the tsunami struck, the fishermen lost thousands of dollars worth of fishing boats, nets, engines and equipment. Some of this has been replaced under a government funding programme but these short term loans will help members purchase other equipment or provisions needed to conduct day to day fishing activities.
According to Kirsten Bohman, listening to the communities needs is vital before the finer details of the livelihoods projects are worked out. “The discussions we are having with the villagers in Thirukkovil and fishermen in Ninthavur ensure that the people who will ultimately benefit from such programmes are being involved in their planning and implementation right from the start.”