Why the goats had to go

8th November 1996 at 00:00
The true-life story of how Indian villagers saved their forest and farm land is inspiring a primary project. Bernard Adams reports. At the edge of a broad green primary playing field in Hampshire something extraordinary is going on. Dressed in gorgeously patterned robes, children from Nightingale School are curving their arms in a gentle swaying dance. They are being led by professional dancer Sushmita Pati from the Orissa province in India. As they step out on the long grass between some low trees, rapid-fire clicks from the camera of our photographer - who is lying prone on the grass in front of them - show that he's getting the pictures he wants.

But there's nothing set-up or forced about what they're doing. They've merely transferred the dance they've been practising in the assembly hall to the highly appropriate environment of trees and grass. Trees and grass and the delicate balance of nature form the key to the development education project in which the children are involved.

They are working on Thengapalli, a primary pack from the Hampshire Development Education Centre. The pack has sprung from the remarkable achievements of the people of Kesharpur, a village of perhaps 100 families in the Indian state of Orissa. More than 20 years ago the villagers began to take action to deal as a community with a growing environmental problem threatening their whole way of life.

Their story is a fascinating one. Before independence the colonial regime took what it wanted from the forests with scant regard for the consequences. After 1947 the forests were "given back to the people". But in this part of Orissa (half-way down the right-hand side of India, as you look at the map) this led to deforestation through logging and the stripping of trees for firewood - both by commercial concerns and the villagers themselves, which in turn led to all sorts of environmental consequences. As the trees disappeared, the poorest locals started to rely more on goats, goats which supplied milk, but which also further harmed the environment of the local Binjagiri Hill.

The goats ate all the remaining vegetation on the deforested slopes - with the result that the springs dried up for most of the year, while in the rainy season water gushed down, hurling rock waste into the fields below.

By the mid-Seventies food, water and fodder were in short supply. This is where three activists come on the scene: Bapa, a peasant farmer then in his sixties, a local man who had become a university professor and Jogi, the inspirational head of the local school.

They began to persuade the local people that free choice - which allowed them to take whatever they wanted from the forest - just wasn't working. Under Jogi's leadership they began to sit in circles and talk the problem through. Slowly the villagers came to realise that the first step they could take would be to get rid of the goats. So a decision was taken to sell them. This meant hardship for the poorer families. But their food supply was guaranteed by the other villagers, who agreed to share out the rice supply according to need.

After that the villagers of Kesharpur began to protect their forest and promote its re-growth. Protecting it meant preventing intruders from other villages cutting down trees on the hill. It meant persuading the other villages involved in deforesting the hill to follow the same path. And, eventually, it meant banding together after 10 years of gentle Gandhi-style persuasion with the other 22 villages around Binjagiri Hill to form an environmental movement - Friends of Trees and Living Beings - which has both a practical, active side and a reflective, spiritual dimension.

By 1988 Kesharpur had won a UN Global 500 award and the villagers were invited to the prestigious presentation in Geneva. Politely, they told the organisers that they would rather have the money for the air fares to use locally.

Now, in 1996, the local environment has been transformed. Once again Binjagin Hill is covered with thick forest. The springs flow down copiously but in a controlled way, and the fields have been cleared of rock waste. The old fauna is returning and it's now possible for villagers to keep a few goats again without upsetting the ecological balance.

How has all this been achieved? Basically through grass-roots voluntary activism: the families of the village all taking responsibility for creating a sustainable environment. And the teachers have had a role: fostering environmental awareness and developing tree nurseries.

Such is the story behind Hampshire Development Education Centre's Thengapalli pack. It is being trialled at Nightingale School, which is situated in Eastleigh near Southampton, and at other Hampshire schools. At Nightingale, the staff and more than 300 pupils have taken up the Kesharpur project with great enthusiasm.

Sushmita Pati is choreographing dances for several classes to be part of a major Thengapalli production involving music and drama as well as dance to be put on by the junior school at Christmas. A skipping dance in the playground reflected the act of cutting and winnowing the rice; in another, a billowing sari is used to represent the water in the streams.

Sushmita comes from Orissa but now lives in Basingstoke and has been a practising artist in education for 10 years. Her involvement and that of a male Indian dancer, Satish, has been funded by Southern Arts. Says Sushmita: "This dance is not just an exotic extra, another bit of intercultural experience. It's part of something more serious." She's also delighted with the performance skills of the Nightingale children, who seem to have found nothing strange about trying to copy the sinuously graceful movements of Sushmita.

At the same time, Lindsay McCarthy, in charge of the December production, was involved with her group of 9 to 11-year-olds in making thengas, the sticks which symbolise the responsibility of local people for the forest. A fortnight earlier, each individual child had bent some wire into a shape about a foot long, sometimes with a fork at the end, and had then covered it with layers of papier mache. Now these wand-like sticks were ready for painting and the children were showing heroic restraint while they were told how to mix the colours.

In another room, Lynn McEwan was working on some role-play and drama as the children learned the story of how Binjagiri Hill was deforested. They had to take sides in "The goats-must-go" argument and finally ended up swearing, a little anxiously, on a thenga that they would help to re-create the forest and all its resources, including the tigers and monkeys.

Dylan Theodore, an ex-primary school teacher, who now works for the Hampshire Development Education Centre, sees the lessons from the Kesharpur experience as a very clear example of how the North can learn from the South; and he hopes that as well as providing a locality study the Thengapalli pack will encourage teachers to deal with "personal, social, cultural, moral and even spiritual themes".

The pack was developed with help from Oxfam, the EU and Hampshire LEA, with additional funding for a study visit to Kesharpur by Dylan Theodore and several advisers. The resulting resource is money well spent on a through-provoking piece of development education: if small village communities can co-operate so effectively, why can't we?

The Thengapalli pack will be available in February but will be officially launched at the Commonwealth Institute in June, when Jogi and other teachers from Kesharpur will attend. The pack (Pounds 25) consists of three booklets, 70 colour prints, an audio cassette with natural sounds and music plus hints on staging Thengapalli!. Enquiries to Dylan Theodore, Hampshire DEC, Falcon House, Romsey Road, Winchester SO22 5PL.

Tel: 01962 856106. Or Linda Elliott, Hampshire County Council education department. Tel: 01962 846549

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