Transrural in the Tsunami Region

26th December 2004. A day to remember. More people were killed than in any tsunami in recorded history. 230,000 dead or missing from 9 countries, many more with damaged livelihoods or limbs. The 9 year-old survivor, who painted the picture below/left from his personal recollection six weeks after the event, told us it was as if a giant hand surged up out of the sea to try and grab everything in its path. Survivors from Phang Nga province in Thailand told us that it felt like a wall moving towards them – getting bigger, darker, and louder by the second.

From its epicentre heading east, the Great Tsunami struck the Thai coastline at 09.52 local time. Heading west, it hit the Indian sub-continent later that same morning. After passing the southern tip of Sri Lanka, the swell did an extraordinary thing. With the altered sea bed configuration, the swell turned sharp right, almost turning back on itself, and the resultant waves smashed into Galle district on Sri Lanka’s western coastline, then on to Kaniyakumari district at the southernmost tip of India. Many of the local people there did not even know the meaning of the word “tsunami” until that day.

The response to the tsunami was unprecedented. For a variety of reasons, the event caught the public’s imagination. Significant amounts of money were raised and disbursed on relief and reconstruction. Some was well spent, some not. The Transrural team was on the ground in February 2005 and again in 2006, not to add a drop to the flow of funds for short-term relief and reconstruction work, but to plan a different approach to suit a longer-term need.  In the tsunami region, we don’t donate, or even help people to help themselves. We aim to help selected local people to help their counterparts open up new opportunities.

Back in 1997, Thailand had experienced its own financial crisis and, out of the resulting hardship, sprung a host of cottage industries, making an extraordinary range of items. Necessity truly is the mother of invention. Many of the producer groups joined up with the national “OTOP” movement. The literal translation of the acronym “OTOP” is “One Village One Product”. This is Thailand’s long-standing policy to encourage rural villages to use their creative talents by making their own unique hand-made items from locally-available raw materials. A significant number of city people, many of whom are making a good living - yet retain strong family connections with much poorer rural areas - love the OTOP products and are happy to support the rural producer by paying a little more than for factory goods. This policy is the antithesis of mass production and standardisation.

From 2002-4, within the framework of an EU-backed rural development project, Transrural supported a diverse range of “OTOP” groups in Thailand, that started up around 1997. Our role was to identify those items with particular market potential from remote villages, to suggest ways to improve organisation of these community-based enterprises, introduce minor design changes, and promote links to outside markets. We worked with groups making card from pineapple pulp, soap and soap dishes from coconut, brooches from seed pods, and earrings from fish-scales.

Soon after the tsunami struck, leaders of women-led coconut and fish-scale OTOP groups told us that they had spoken with survivors, and that they were willing to share their experience by establishing new initiatives in affected zones, and also open up their experience to other countries. As a result, Transrural’s trustees approved investing in a visit to affected areas in February 2005 to consult widely. Then, with co-funding from the Big Lottery Fund, the parts of the jigsaw for a five-year livelihood regeneration project from 2007 - 2012 covering targeted zones in India, Sri Lanka and Thailand were put in place. At the time of writing, the four project profiles that follow reflect long-term initiatives that are underway. 

While the natural conditions in the three zones are similar, the differences in economic and cultural conditions are more marked. Kaniyakumari in India is the poorest, with high and rising population density placing increasing strain on limited resources. Many people who were affected by the tsunami find themselves caught in a poverty trap, trying in vain to extricate themselves from loan repayment obligations to local money-lenders who charge exorbitant rates of interest. Visitors to the Sri Lanka’s southern coastline, whisked from airport to resort, could be forgiven for thinking that life is not too bad for local people in this idyllic looking country. In reality, compounded by the ongoing effects of conflict, lack of opportunity and market outlets, the suicide rate is the third highest in the world. Thailand’s coastal region, in contrast, is generally better off, although poverty pockets do exist in tsunami-affected zones away from the main tourist areas.

supported by the National Lottery