Friday, November 12, 2010
AFTER PAKISTAN’S FLOODS, NEW WORRIES ABOUT DEBT AND LAND RIGHTS
Naimat Ahmed’s village in Thatta district, in Sindh, is still under water. She shows me her flooded field, where she’d been growing rice, wading into the waters to show me how high the levels still remain. She opens up the door to her simple mud-and-thatch home, which is full of squelchy mud. She won’t be able to move back inside until the ground dries out and has to sleep with others in the village out in the open air, in makeshift shelters constructed from wooden poles with cotton sheeting as a roof. Yet she and a group of other women in the village were determined to head back home as quickly as possible after Pakistan’s devastating floods to protect their stake to the land.
“Our land is here. We feared if we didn’t come back quickly, people would come and stay here and take things from our homes”, Naimat Ahmed told me.
Naimat’s wish to protect her precious assets is understandable. Until earlier this year, she had no land at all, until she was awarded four acres under the Sindh provincial government’s land re-distribution programme. It’s the first scheme of its kind in South Asia, where tracts of state-owned land are given to landless women peasants in an attempt to begin reducing poverty and bring about much wider social changes in rural areas.
It’s estimated 60% of people in Sindh are landless, while large areas of farmland are owned by small, wealthy and politically influential elites. And now Pakistan’s devastating floods, which destroyed homes, fields and livestock, are forcing some of the poorest in Pakistan, without adequate food, shelter, or jobs, deeper into debt.
“This was going to be my first crop from my own land and the rice was almost ready to harvest. Then the floods came”, said Naimat. “Everything was destroyed. I can’t see how we can get enough food and it will be several months before we can use our land again. But even then, we don’t have money for seeds and fertilizer”, she said. “We have debts from shops that have given us credit. Things are difficult.”
Sindh was the region worst-affected by the floods; and in many areas flood waters still remain stubbornly high, refusing to drain away.
More than a million people remain displaced, their homes damaged or destroyed. The worry is that when families do return home, new disputes could arise over land as many boundaries, previously marked by irrigation channels, have been washed away and ownership records have been destroyed.
Land disputes had arisen even before the floods. The first phase of Sindh’s land redistribution programme had some serious flaws and was tainted by allegations of nepotism and corruption.
Mother of six, Aasi Mallah, was physically attacked by people in her village in Jati town who disputed her claim to land after she had been awarded a four acre plot by the provincial government. “Our land was a blessing. But a large group of people gathered and threatened us; they became violent and beat us”, she told me, showing me a scar on her daughter’s face.
Aasi and her family were forced to flee their village and now live on a small plot of land by a roadside owned by her husband’s former landlord, determined to pursue her land battle through the courts. It could be a long process. Oxfam and its partner, Participatory Development Initiatives, have been helping Aasi and other women like her with legal support as well as spreading awareness among some of the poorest in Sindh about their rights to claim for land under the re-distribution scheme.
Some of the original flaws in the land programme have been ironed out, thanks to lobbying by groups like PDI and Oxfam. And, despite the floods, the authorities in Sindh have pledged to continue with the scheme, rolling it out to more areas across the province.
“Property rights for women in Pakistan is a rarity – and sometimes an impossibility”, said Saima Hassan, PDI’s Land for Women Programme officer. “The distribution of government land to landless peasant women in Sindh is a historic initiative. And while it has had flaws, we’re trying to make sure that all the women eligible for land under the scheme receive it; and can change their status from peasant to landowner.”
The hope is that not only will the scheme continue to be rolled out across Sindh, but also in other parts of Pakistan; giving some of the poorest families a chance to own land that, for generations, they’ve cultivated and lived on; a chance to finally begin to lift themselves out of the cycle of poverty and debt.
Saturday, October 30, 2010
Three months after floods devastated Pakistan, cases of disease are increasing and in the worst hit region, the southern province of Sindh, large areas remain under water. At the same time, warned the international aid agency Oxfam, funds for the UN flood appeal are drying up and thretening the aid and reconstruction effort. As winter approaches, seven million peple are still without adequate shelter. Oxfam called on the donor community to generously fund Pakistan in its time of need
Sunday, October 3, 2010
Paro and drive to Thimpu
We're sitting on the left hand of the plane as we head to Bhutan - and despite the thick clouds, the peaks of the Himalayan mountains become visible as we come closer to our destination,
I'm excited and full of anticipation. I've wanted to visit Bhutan - the land of the thunder dragon, a country which has never been colonised and until the 1960s was pretty much cut off from the rest of the world - for many years. The mantra for the country is now gross national happiness - a collective good which is rated above gross national product. Bhutan used to be ruled by hereditary monarchs until holding its first democratic elections in 2008.
Landlocked Bhutan is sandwiched between the world's two most populous countries, India and China. It has pursued a policy of insulation for many decades; and still puruses a policy designed to protect its cultural identity, though in the last decade, there have been dramatic changes: satellite television, the internet, and democratic elections which saw the country shift from an absolute monarchy to a parliamentary democracy.
Stepping off the plane the country doesn't disappoint. The small airport is traditional in architecture and colourfully painted. Airport staff wear the traditional dress - gho for men (a knee high wrapped tunic held together tightly with a waistbelt) and a kira for women - also a beautifully decorated tunic held with pins at the neck and topped with a brocade jacket)
Outside its warm and sunny. Its so green and there are brightly coloured flowers
Our smiling guide Tshering tells us there are only 3 International flights into Bhutan (population est. at 700,000) each day. This year tourist arrivals will number about 37,000 - well up from the time when the government limited visitor arrivals to just 3000. But there were plans he said to build more hotels to accommodate as many as 200 000 by 2012. Most would have to travel by road from India unless there were changes to expand the existing airport.
Driving around the picturesque narrow lanes with white painted buildings and farmhouses around Paro it was hard to see how that could happen. "The infrastructure can cope", Tshering assured us. There's enough electricity (he told us hydropowered electricity is their country's top export earner followed by tourism) and that many new hotels were being built.
Our first stop after coffee was at Paro Dzhong, or citadel.
There was a new rule banning tourists from wearing t shirts. Some of my group, about to return to the car to find jackets or shirts, were told by the temple official that after all, it didn't matter - and were waved in with a smile.
We explore the dzhong. Near the entranced are some paintings depicting the circle of life. There are 3 animals in centre of wheel reprsenting the three poisons; snake (avoid being hot /short tempered); rooster (avoid sexual excesses) and cow (avoid laziness). Dharma can be achieved if you are pure in intention and avoid the 3 sins. But if you don't follow the path you can face a grim future with torture/reincarnation as animals
We have a delicious lunch sampling some traditional Bhutanese dishes - lots are in cheese sauce and of course a plate of spicy chillies - ema datsi- which we will later discover is part of every meal here. We love the spice.
We drive onto the capital, Thimpu, about an hour and a half away, to catch the end of the annual tsechu or festival. We walk to the dzhong but its raining hard. Many Bhutanese, dressed in their finest costumes, are drenched to the skin.
But the crowds are still queuing to receive spiritual blessings
Groups of dancers perform in front of the crowd
Its a shame its raining so hard. Some people have disobeyed instructions not to use umbrellas while others shelter under arches and doorways
We explore more sights in the capital. High up there are scenic views of the city from the telegraph tower. The site is covered with prayer flags fluttering in the breeze
This is Bhutan's indigenous animal - a Takin.It's like a cross between a goat and a cow and is part of the country's mythological culture.
Other stops included the textile museum, the chorten (the bhutanese word for stupa) and the school of traditional arts where we watched young students carving wood, weaving and showing off their embroidery skills
Its raining as we leave Thimpu. We drive along the Dochu La pass that is supposed to give us a spectacular panoramic views of the eastern Himalayan range and stop at a cafe for drinks
But clouds swirl like thick fog and we can barely see our feet in front of us
We drive on dipping down into a valley. This is the most beautiful place we've been so far. Rice fields are carved out in terraces across the valley. In another month it will be ready for harvest but for now there's a vivid patchwork of vibrant greens as the rice blows in the breeze
Our lunchstop is at a restaurant with stunning views over the valley
We pass houses and shops with phalluses painted on the walls. This area is located by the temple of fertility - Chimi Lakhang, built in the 15th century by the 'divine madman' Lama Drukpa Kuenley one of Bhutan's favourite saints
He used songs, ribald humour and outrageous behaviour to get across his teachings to ordinary bhutanese- believing that stiff social norms and the buddhist clergy were blockages to peoples' true understanding
In his life his outrageous sexual exploits were legendary and the phalluses painted on houses today are said to represent him
Its quite funny to see so many phalluses on display - paintings on walls, wooden and stone phallic symbols, even wooden ones hanging or on display almost everywhere here
At the temple we watch young monks practice their speed recitation of texts. They pull faces, joke with each other and act like normal children, gleefully playing around as we take out our cameras
The temple itself contains statues and paintings as well as wooden and stone
phalluses said to be several hundred years old.
We walk back through the rice fields to reach the road and drive to Punakha's dhzong - a beautiful building placed at the confluence of two rivers
Its a really amazing setting we enter climbing steps and then going across a bridge with views across to the river
Astrological charts are among the paintings on the entrance walls and in the first courtyard a huge beautiful bodhi tree
We climb up multiple stairs to the top for views over the whole fortress.
We head to our hotel high in the valley which in the morning will give us some stunning views over the rice terraces with dramatic swirls of cloud in the blue sky
Drive to Bumthang
We leave early morning for the long drive to Bumthang
It was raining hard overnight and while there is now light rain the sky is clear and blue
We set off stopping at the weekly market at Wangdi. Its small but colourful with villagers selling fruit and vegetables and lots of bright chillies, including some tiny round ones looking almost like cherries that are supposed to be the hottest.
We break our journey further along at Rukubji a spot where the film Travellers and Magicians (a Bhutanese film well worth watching) was filmed. They had painted some buddhas on the wall and a prayer as well as hundreds of tsa tsa - tiny stupa shaped objects made of clay painted gold and blue - praying for good health, good health, good future
Its a day of long driving which we break with scenic stops, lunch and a drive to a dzhong.
Tangbi Mani festival
Today is a national public holiday, our guide told us the night before - blessed rainy day, marking the end of the monsoon rains.
He told us rain was predicted at 0540 am and we should gather some of the rainwater to shower in if we wanted spiritual purification. Sleep seemed a good option. When we asked our guide in the morning if he had showered in the water he smiled in embarrassment. No, he said, I was also sleeping.
Today is also a festival day which we have been waiting very excitedly for. We drive to Tanbi monastery to see the tangbi mani festival - 'tang' means land and 'mani' part of a buddhist mantra - meaning 1000 eyes and hands.
There are dances celebrating Pema Lingpa, the man who subdued demons in the valley and hid bows and arrows in his sleeves
And there is a fire dance. People leap through burning haystacks, said to symbolise purification.
Bhutan is luxuriantly and densely forested unlike many neighbouring areas like Sikkim in northern India where there has been serious deforestation
There's a national policy that if you want to cut trees says our guide. If you cut one tree, you must plant two. June 2 is marked national forestry day when all students plant tree saplings (also coronation day for the 4th king)
We visit a nunnery where nuns are playing badminton as we leave there is light rain and suddenly one strong rainbow forms followed by a second - so beautiful
We drive on a little to a sacred place festooned with prayer flags - known as the burning lake
We head back stopping in the town for sightseeing. The shops are traditional buildings. A huge film poster advertises the next production - Miss Bhutan
Drive to Gangtey
We stop on way taking pictures and then visit Tt Dzong - a new museum located in former fortress. Its impressive with fantastic views over the valley
We restart our long drive to the Gangtey gompa - one of Bhutan's oldest monasteries
Our overnight is in a valley Phobjika where black necked cranes visit in November. There is no electricity in the valley to avoid disturbing their habitat Its much colder here. Our hotel Dew Chen is surprisingly good: and one of our favourite places to stay. Its new but charming and has great panoramic views of the valley. Its also got its own generator - so there is electricity until 9pm.
Early start for drive to Wangdi. We stop at the Wangude Phodrang Dzong, built in the 17th century.
We stop off at a market and then head to Paro.,
Our last full day in Bhutan is one of the most amazing. We climb to a monastery/fortress set high in the clifftop and looming dramatically over the valley. It takes about 2 hours to walk and the scenery is incredible. It's known as the tiger's nest - Taktshang monastery. Its where Guru Rinpoche is said to have flown riding on a tigress and meditated here in a cave for 3 months. Its one of the holiest sights in Bhutan and there is a wonderful sense of calm and stillness despite the large numbers of tourists and pilgrims coming here.
Bhutan's locally produced and wonderfully fruity beer...