Stories from the Mission Field

February 2024

India: From dependence to self-determination

Prospects for tribal communities

The small, yellow blossoms of the butter tree move nimbly from the forest floor through the hands of Sukanti into their basket. It is painstakingly hard work. People in Chhattisgarh and Odisha have always processed the blossoms, fruits and nuts of the tree. The butter tree is revered and the liqueur made from its blossoms is a staple at every celebration. It is thanks to the "Green Action Project" in her village of Jampali that Sukanti makes enough profit from selling the blossoms to feed her family.

It is not a new idea for people to harvest the fruits of the forest, eat them themselves or sell parts of them. What is new is that the women and men are now doing this systematically and together. In addition, they received important start-up support for their production community. The change brought about by the one-year old project of EBM INTERNATIONAL and the local partner Jesus Loves Ministries (JLM) is remarkable.

Forced labor across many generations

The states of Chhattisgarh and Odisha are among the poorest in India. The remote forest areas are mainly inhabited by tribal communities that have always been excluded from the caste system. A system of forced labor still persists in some regions: entire generations have to work for their owners like serf slaves. A way out of this is not desired. As a rule, people could only escape the resulting poverty if they managed to find work far away in the big cities. When the coronavirus pandemic hit India particularly hard and all travel was strictly prohibited, the plight of the rural tribal communities grew once again.

A climate-friendly project to combat hunger

Samarpana Praveen, head of Jesus Loves Ministries and pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Uppada, was already helping the poorest people of Chhattisgarh during the pandemic and initiated the Green Action project to provide families with a sustainable income. A second aspect is just as important: by establishing natural plantations, the land is being greened - an important contribution to climate protection. The aim of the project is to cultivate various useful and medicinal plants from the forest using modern methods, to preserve the products and to sell them through joint initiatives.

The Indian butter tree is just one of many plants: Tendu leaves, tamarind and various nuts and fruits are collected and processed seasonally. Brooms woven from twigs or homemade baskets made from bamboo are also sold. The Green Action project imparts knowledge, helps with the construction of warehouses and production rooms and with the purchase of small machines. Samarparna Praveen reports: "We have completed setting up an office, prepared material for training programs and formed a network of 45 self-help groups to reach 45 villages. In the meantime, we are working with the Chhattisgarh government to allocate 25 hectares of land for the climate change program, which will start next year."

Ways out of poverty

Women like Sukanti are already benefiting from growing incomes. Various tribal communities and landless migrant workers live in her village of Jampali. The prices they used to receive for the berries or fruit they collected were often low. Together, they can sell preserved products out of season and achieve higher prices as a cooperative. This motivates, strengthens solidarity and means a sustainable improvement in living conditions.

Jesus Loves Ministries is continuously expanding the project: Further village communities are to be reached. The milk and egg program, which has been successful in other regions, has also been launched. Once a week, and later more often if possible, around 50 children receive a meal to combat malnutrition.

Climate protection is also the fight against hunger

The climate also benefits from the Green Action project: workers, who previously had to earn their living far away, created a green agricultural area on a 20-hectare wasteland. This created tree nurseries for long-term use. Fruit trees, medicinal plants and timber plantations provide work and income. In total, around 925 families are to be enabled to have a better outlook on life through a regular income.

EBM INTERNATIONAL is supporting the project for three years and is funding it with up to 100,000 euros over this period. This season, Sukanti collected 189 kilos of butter tree blossoms, which she was able to sell at a profit. She is grateful: Thanks to the support, she, her family and the village community have found a way out of poverty and into self-determination.