- the Community Asset of the adivasi community
Rationale for the ‘Community Asset’
In the summer of 1995, ACCORD held a major taking stock exercise called ‘the Mahasabha’ or ‘Big Gathering’ with over 200 adivasi leaders. We looked back on almost a decade’s work to decide our future direction. The consensus was we needed to put systems in place in order to “stand on our own feet” in the local dialects -“sondam kaalil nikyanam.” We realized that health, education and housing would need eternal funding. This could never be self sustaining. Financial sustainability of these institutions was an issue that the community would have to grapple with forever.
So we decided we must think of something which would be our goose that laid golden eggs forever. Another interesting conclusion was reached. People pointed out that though our tea planting economic regeneration had solved many financial problems, it had created individual wealth which made people more selfish and was detrimental to community values. We needed a strategy to create community wealth. The ‘Mahasabha’ deliberated this issue and came out with a strategy. It was decided to create a golden goose in the form of a Tea Estate. The profits could be used to financially support our service delivery institutions – health, education and housing.
Simultaneously almost, several coincidences took place. In 1995, Stan was with a group of students of the Alternative ESG (Evangelische Studentinnen Gemeinde) in Heidelberg, Germany. The discussions were on values, the adivasi lifestyle, how much the adivasis’ values could contribute to the world and the related development problems. The German students decided to form the ATP or Adivasi Tee Projekt. They would make a commitment to raise funds for the tea plantation or common wealth source. We approached the EDCS a development Bank for a loan to buy the plantation. They agreed readily but took over a year to sort it out.
An estate in Devala came up for purchase and negotiations began. The funding didn’t come through and we were desperate. The exasperated owner used to phone us at 6am, about 5 times a week, to find out when we would close the deal! We had almost given up on the idea because the credit terms were outrageously exploitative. Then a friend of ours, Hilary Blume, Founder of the Charities Advisory Trust (CAT), heard the story and was furious that a bank ostensibly created to help the poor, should offer such exploitative terms of credit. She offered us the money, all £345,000 pounds of it, to buy the estate. We could not believe our luck. The Germans celebrated too in far away Heidelberg. And finally we bought the Devala plantation in 1998.
We named it the Madhuvana or Honey Forest and thus began a new chapter in our history.
At the time of writing CAT gave us £345,000 to buy the plantation of which friends of ACCORD James and Marion Wells Bruges contributed £10,000 and the German students’ ATP have over the years re-funded about £89,000. This means CAT gave £250,000 (and £100,000 as an interest free loan). We are still repaying the loan in small installments and welcome any contributions to repay CAT’s more than generous, kind terms.
The plantation was in a dreadfully neglected condition when we purchased it and out of the 176 acres, only about 60 acres was planted with tea. Even this 60 acres was in bad shape, with innumerable bald patches needing a lot of gap filling. ACCORD started investing in the estate to bring the production to optimum levels. During the last six years, we made substantial improvements in the planted area and tea leaf output. We have increased the planted area from 60 acres to 100 acres.
Irrigation systems have been installed, the required roads to all the planted areas have been built the leaf sheds required to collect tea leaves at optimum distances from the tea fields have been established, the systems required to monitor the performance of the estate in terms of productivity, yields etc. have been streamlined. The plantation gives regular employment to over 60 families in and around the estate. The estate is managed completely by an adivasi team.
Unfortunately, the tea economy crashed almost immediately after we purchased the Madhuvana Plantations. Tea leaf prices which were around Rs.15 per kilo when we purchased the estate, crashed to less than Rs.5 and 6 per kilo. Since the plantation is an important element of our strategy - to make the adivasi institutions financially sustainable and self reliant , we persisted with the plantation and developed it to the current level. Tea prices have improved marginally. So we hope that it will start yielding good returns in the not too distant future.Future Plans
We have plans to diversify. We are exploring the possibility of growing crops like pepper, medicinal herbs, etc. Even though we have some coffee plants on the estate and pepper as an intercrop in the tea fields, we hope to improve the productivity of the estate by introducing other crops as well. We have already started a nursery of forest tree species . Going organic has already begun..
An intangible gain is that local adivasis see that their prestige, their image in the area has improved because the adivasis now own a plantation, call the shots, are not anymore lowly unskilled labourers. The Devala team report for instance that self esteem and confidence has grown. “Few of our people stagger around drunk in Devala,” Radhakrishnan, a team leader and ACCORD elder replied. “Before it was just an adivasi drunk. Now its Radhakrishnan or Kumaran or Chimbaran not merely a drunken Paniya lying in the gutter. So we’ve come a long way.”