What Goes Around, Comes Around

During 1986, or so, a Roman Catholic Bishop from India came to Bar Harbor Maine to raise money for destitute members of his various parishes.  His domain was Alleppey (also spelled Allaphuzza) in Kerala, a state in Southwest India.  His seat was in the fabled Malabar forest on the shore of the Arabian Sea.

This is what Bishops do.  They raise money in order to spread the Gospel and to alleviate poverty.  Sometimes what they propose is truly based on real poverty, but is not practical.

The Bishop spoke in Mt. Desert Island, Maine, Catholic Church where a longtime friend of mine, Douglas Chapman, heard him.  Now, Chapman, an attorney, maintains in his office a non-profit benevolent organization in order to distribute money from some of his wealthy clients who want to be benevolent but remain anonymous throughout the entire process.  Their very private lives are not to be interrupted.  Atty. Chapman sees to that.

He accepts the responsibility for the program feasibility and the strict accountability of the sometimes large sums of money involved.  He enlists experts in public health, animal husbandry or whatever to advise him.  This would include site visits, interviews, feasibility studies, and even cost-benefit analysis to assure that there is a true need, and that money can be expended with a strong fact-based opinion by experts that it will help the parties in need.  His goal is to help people help themselves.  These are not ongoing support charities or doles or subsidies but jump-start initiatives.  Every challenge is a special case.  No two are alike.

On one such occasion, I helped in Alleppey starting in 1986.  This project took 13 years to “debug” and it helped nearly 1000 women.  Each raised fish in her own home pond for her own family.  Extra production was traded over the backyard fence with neighbors for eggs or vegetables or whatever.  The reason we remained involved for so long was not animal husbandry, but rather it was to adjust to the culture of people who needed help.  The farming of fishes is all well-known and has been published worldwide.  In this instance, the men in the community didn’t like the idea of having women independently accomplish something without involving the men’s domain of the marketplace with its drugs, alcohol and walkman radios.

Now, fast forward from 1986 to about 2010 and another Catholic Bishop in another nearby Catholic Indian Diocese.  This one was located not on the seacoast, but in the foothills of the Western Ghat, a mountain range forming a spine through southern India.  Again, I was involved.  Here there was no standing water, no lakes, no ponds; just small fast-moving streams tumbling down over rocks on their way to the sea.

Now, to culture pond fish you need ponds, and the geology there didn’t permit ponds.  Incidentally, the Bishop was assuredly Catholic, but most assuredly not Roman Catholic.  He was Syrian Orthodox, ordained by the Pope in Rome but permitted to marry.  In fact, he told me that the came from a long line of Bishops.

As was the case in Alleppey, so also in this Orthodox Diocese of Pathanamthitta, most of the Christians came out of the untouchable or unscheduled class of Indians.  These people broke away from the Hindu religion in order to gain humanity.  In that part of the world, an untouchable, even today, is considered by a high caste Hindu to be somewhat less than human.  Don’t fall for that myth that Gandhi eliminated untouchability.  He was himself a Hindu and he simply changed their name.  He called them the “unscheduled” class.  In Pathanamthitta there was, as I mentioned previously, a lack of standing water.  There were many fast-moving mountain streams down steep hillsides, but there were no ponds.  There were however, plenty of dense mountain forests with bushes and shrubs that goats naturally choose to eat.

Of course, goats became my preferred animal to help these people pull themselves out of poverty.  The program, now in its fourth year, seems to be working, but there are some parallels with Alleppey to observe and ponder.  In Alleppey, poverty was largely due to a gradual failure of the domestic rice crop.  This was caused by the gradual Indian neglect of the tidal gates which the British built and maintained for the Indians until they were kicked out in 1949.  These tide gates restricted the incoming salty water but opened on the outgoing tide to drain out the marshes, until gradually the salinity went down enough to support a good rice paddy crop.  The Indians neglected to pick up the job of maintaining those British built tidal gates and eventually the productivity of the paddy, an Indian food staple ceased.  Indians told me that rice farming was “too labor intensive.”

However all was not lost, because in nearby Thailand (Siam) there was plenty of farmed rice and even more coming because the Thai Prime Minister was getting farmers’ votes by supporting the price of rice.  To maintain or raise the price of rice, he simply had his government buy it.  Then he sold some to the Indians who bought it gladly with money loaned from the World Bank that likely will never get repaid.  Soon Thailand was rice rich but the price support subsidy left the government broke.  Eventually the King winked at an Army General and the Thai Prime Minister got booted out.  Good riddance, he was also a crook.  Then, he, the deposed Prime Minister, was succeeded by his younger sister, who also “supported” the price of rice to get the farmers continuing vote.  So again the King winked and she also got booted out.

In the meantime, the World Bank slowed the flow of money the Indians used to buy Thai rice.  Remember, prior to 1949 India had enough rice – locally grown.

So, what has this got to do with Pathanamthitta, Kerala in southwest India? Plenty, but it’s not simple.  Those forested hillsides, where the goats love to browse on undergrowth, are critical to the economy of the Indians in that area.  It seems that these forests are also home to great numbers of wild rubber trees.  It is really rubber that drives their economy.

Unfortunately, as the rice boom declines in Thailand the Thai rubber plantations are now being stimulated by subsidies from the government.  This is being done to encourage Thai rubber growers to vote for their Prime Minister, since the rice market is now swamped with plenty of rice but no customers.

Rubber incidentally suffers from boom and bust because, in part, rubber trees are also grown in many other tropical places besides Thailand and India.

I think dear reader, you can see where this may be heading.  What goes around – comes around.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s the price subsidy of rice or rubber in Thailand or India.  When politicians buy votes with subsidies of government money – the people lose.  I plan to wait and see.  In the meantime the goat and fish projects do help keep food on the table, without a doubt or a subsidy.