The tribe & and the bishop
This week, Jeff Moore and I have been travelling in Kerala, a state in the southwest of India, with Richard Swift who is a freelance journalist and former editor of the New Internationalist magazine. We spent most of our days visiting small tea and spice farmers in the Western Ghat Mountains. The Peermade Development Society introduced us to their impressive organic agriculture programs, including an ecological farmer training centre, a spice and tea factory and extensive relationships and support for small-scale farmers.
This NGO developed from the vision of a priest, Fr. Matthew Arackal, who was posted to the area in the 1970s. Finding that there were few Catholic followers, he went to the streets of a village to find inspiration for the type of meaningful work that he might do. After a while, he observed a man from a Kannambady tribe, a group of indigenous people who lived as hunter gatherers in the large forests. They lived in bamboo tree houses to be safe from wild leopards and elephants. Fr. Matthew saw the man approach a merchant to trade cardamom that he had foraged, for tobacco and salt. Understanding the local prices for these commodities, he noticed a great inequity in the value of the tobacco and salt that was given in exchange for the cardamom. It became clear that he would work to bring fairness to this type of trade. A commitment that we can relate to at Just Us! It was very interesting to hear this story direct from Fr. Arackal, who is now a Bishop. It really demonstrates the simple truth and motivation behind the fair trade movement.
As he began to work with the tribal people, he was taken by their harvesting of wild spices, inspiring him to create models for low-intensity, organic agriculture. Soon after, when the Indian government decided to turn the forests into nature preserves, Fr. Matthew helped to work out a compromise where the tribal people could have community areas within the preserves and develop small-scale organic agriculture practices. This was quite revolutionary for the time in India since organic farming was not a well known concept. He also helped create a market for their products. PDS has now grown into a significant fair trade and organic tea and spice processing and export organization, with the integration of other small organic farmers in the area. The tribal farmers told us that they still longed for the freedom of their hunter-gatherer lifestyle in the forest, but also realized the importance of building a good, healthy agrarian foundation for future generations based on their current reality of a more limited territory.
Bishop Mathew told us that with all these developments it took great commitment by many people. He also lived a constant struggle of creating real change in the quality of life for the farmers, and running effective business operations. This is a very real challenge that organizations in ethical trade face because we must do both well in order to be successful.