Grassroots Development

Development, as it has been carried out by Western multilateral and bilateral agencies (e.g., the World Bank or the US Agency for International Development), is a political process. Third World governments and state agencies receive funds to implement programs that, in fact, centralize and increase their power. Most often the groups affected by such programs are not involved in defining key problems or in concepturalizing the solutions.

Development programs - particularly those implemented since World War II, when they started to become an international industry in their own right - are often used to legitimize the political state's appropriation or theft of resources from indigenous lands. Indigenous peoples are losing their centuries-old bases, and formerly self-sufficient groups are being forced to become dependent upon states that have neither the resources nor the will to care for them.

How, then, can we remove politics from the development process? We probably cannot. Development means change, and change is an inherently political concept. Development can be more equitable, however. In many societies, equality between the sexes has given way to male domination, a result of outsiders' attempts to find and work only with local male counterparts. To promote equality in all areas, the people most affected by development must be included in the initial evaluations and the final decisions. In this way they will come to own the process. Development has the potential to empower people and reinforce the cultural traditions that have allowed native groups to survive. The projects described in this section illustrate ingenious attempts by local groups to bridge the past and the future - by bringing their own moral and organizational traditions and blending them with more recently introduced elements from the outside.

Surely, the future for indigenous peoples is in mixing the old with the new. Few native people want to live exactly as their ancestors did, any more than any of the rest of us do. However, they want the power to make the decisions that affect their lives. They want to decide which traditions to carry forward and which to leave behind. And they want to decide how quickly and how deeply they should participate in the world economic and political system.

Education in the ways of the outside world is essential if groups are to join that world without being exploited or destroyed by it. Yet education that denigrates all things indigenous not only alienates its younger generations, but prevents them from being a real part of either world. And their groups' survival depends on them.


"Top-down" development, imposed by Western aid agencies on Third World countries, most often misses the mark and fails to provide real "aid" or long-term solutions to poverty and other problems. In this excerpt, Daniel Stiles discusses this development dilemma.

Economic development, in the Western sense, commonly involves the transformation of a Third World traditional socioeconomic system into one more similar to the pattern found in the West where continual growth of production and capital is assumed as good and desirable. The usual approach to development has involved a donor bureaucracy (e.g., USAID [Agency for International Development], World Bank, UNDP [UN Development Programme], EEC [European Economic Community]) dealing with a recipient governmental bureaucracy (e.g., Minister of Planning and National Development, the Treasury, etc.). Development project proposals are formulated based on priorities established nominally by the recipient government, but usually influenced by what the donor is willing to finance. These proposals are often formulated by "expert" consultants, usually paid for by the donor agency. The consultants(s) pay a short visit to the proposed project area, study the technical and economic aspects of the project and, theoretically, the social and environmental impacts, and then write up the proposal.

Most of the projects formulated in this way are not very successful, and often are downright disasters. The donor agencies themselves have identified the major problem as one of taking a "top-down" approach, i.e., that of planning a project from above without involving the local population intended to carry out the project and benefit from it. Literally thousands of development projects have been planned and implemented using this approach in the Third World since "aid" started up in earnest in the early 1960s following decolonization. Remarkably, after 25 years of experience, it is still the way in which proposals are formulated today. Unremarkably, projects continue to fail.

A main problem is the inherent inherent inability of a bureaucracy to behave like anything other than what it is - a bureaucracy with rules and regulations, set procedures, and formats to follow. Only bureaucrats trained in the intricacies of their self-made rules have the ability to interpret and follow them. How, then, can the people who are supposed to be the objects of a "development" project have input into planning? They need interpreters, consultants who are skilled in discovering and translating the wishes of the people who are to be developed into the bureaucrat's language and rule system. With this method, however, the translation is often very bad or, even if it is good, the bureaucrats don't read it. Also, national priorities set by a central government may override local desires, and most development agencies have to work through government.

Because of their own investigations and self-criticism, and unsolicited criticism from outside, most donor bureaucracies have incorporated guidelines into their procedures for project proposal formulation that call for "local participation in planning at all stages." Because of time constraints and lack of communication between bureaucrats and the people, lip service only is paid to these guidelines.


Indigenous cooperatives can take on many forms, tailoring themselves to the needs of a particular group, region, or resource. When snake catching was banned in India in the 1970s, the Irula, traditional hunters and gatherers who depended on snake catching for a living, found themselves caught in the politics of conservation. Their solution was to form the Irula Snake Catcher Cooperative in 1982 to organize and market their specialized knowledge.

For many years, Irula have been earning money by catching snakes. The fashion industry's demand for snakeskin products has created within India a large market for snakeskins. Entrepreneurs in this industry hire Irula to supply them with skins. since there is a high demand for snakeskin fashions, this is a profitable business. However, the entrepreneurs take advantage of the Irula's marginal position. They pay the tribals only a fraction of the value of the skins. Irula also take a great risk when they trap snakes. In 1972, for reasons of conservation, the Indian government banned snake catching. If an Irula gets caught, he has to fend for himself; the employers take no responsibility.

This places Irula in a difficult predicament. As they are unskilled for any other work or occupation, their only alternative is to live off the land. However, the dwindling wildlife resources combined with the conservation laws passed under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 make this an impoverished existence. Their choice is either starvation or running the risk of being arrested. As a result, Irula are being branded as lawless and criminal.…

In 1979 this idea culminated in the creation of the Irula Snake Catchers' Industrial Cooperative. When this co-op was founded, it had two main objectives: 1) to enable the Irula tribe to survive, become economically viable, and carve a place for itself in today's world: and 2) to use Irula skills for the extraction of snake venom to be used in the production of antivenom serum.…

To prevent an ecological imbalance, the cooperative follows two important guidelines: 1) the snakes are caught from a wide area totaling several thousand square kilometers; and 2) are released after a few venom extractions.

As the process of venom extraction is traumatic for the snake, the co-op only purchases snakes that are over a particular size. When a snake is bought, its place of capture is noted, it is coded with a number, and it is sexed, measured, and weighed. If a snake is recaptured, its number with corresponding information will enable the co-op determine how it has fared since its last period of captivity.

In a follow-up piece in 1987, Cultural Survival Quarterly reported on a new project started for Irula women.

In November 1986, a new project was started for Irula women. The Irula Tribal Women's Society, with a current membership of approximately 70 women, will soon begin a massive agroforestry project in Chingleput district. A reforestation plan for the next three years will include the replantation of a thousand acres of current wasteland. Species planted will include quick-growing fodder and timber, slower growing lumbers such as teak, and fruit and medicinal species. The society has applied to the government for permission to plant two lots totaling 400 acres during the first year. To date, the Wasteland Development Board of the Indian government has sanctioned funding for the project.

At the time of this writing, the cooperative is engaged in a protracted dialogue with the government for permission to start closed-cycle crocodile farming, both for skin and protein. India has been successful in crocodile rehabilitation. To bring the conservation cycle to a logical climax, sustained use of crocodiles would help the people who traditionally used them - Irula.

The Irula Cooperative is already attracting attention as one of the few co-ops of its kind to make a profit. Care is being exercised to keep it from becoming a top-heavy organization and the cooperative has no intention of political sponsorship or affiliation. The Irula are quick to realize they have the means to make their own cooperative work and grow. The tribal identity and pride in doing a skilled and dangerous occupation better than anyone else may, in the long run, be as helpful as the cash income the cooperative provides for Irula members.


As the Huichol Indians have become involved in efforts to generate income and modernize their agriculture, introduce cattle raising, and sell timber from their once-isolated region, they have entered the wage economy. Their carpentry workshop represents an attempt to balance concerns about further deforestation with their needs to earn a living and protect their land and society.

The environmental impact reports worried Huichol leaders who recognized the threat to their land and society. Therefore, they embraced Project Tuapuri, a carpentry school-workshop designed to stem the flow of Indians out of Huichol territory through local employment opportunities demonstrating their claim to forests through visible use of the woodlands.…

The project began very modestly at the request of community leaders of Santa Caterina Cuexcompaitlan, or Tuapuri. Under the guidance of the president of communal goods (the principal agrarian authority), and in regular consultation with that community's chief elected authority, the tatoani, course work for 10 to 15 young Huichol was initiated in late 1982.

Following discussions by the community leaders, the school workshop was strategically rather than conveniently located. They built it on a high windswept ridge where no Huichol actually reside. Bitterly cold in the rainy season, but alongside the loggers' access road, they located it in one of the areas most subject to territorial invasion and timber theft. The school thus served as an outpost or marker of the Huichol forest. As trucks laden with logs ambled along the rough road, the activities underway at the school, however modest at the outset, signaled that the Huichol were actively utilizing their forest resources.

The project produced a series of trained carpenters who, in addition to their own work, have been recruited as instructors for work in similar workshops in two of the other sub-regions of the Huichol territory. The project has helped but not stopped the movement of Huichol from the traditional lands. However, in terms of illustrating a concern for their environment and demonstrating a rational management program, the Huichol's efforts have been exemplary. Moreover, it has occurred without the slightest loss of Huichol cultural pride. On the contrary, the effort has maintained a strong sense of community property amid efforts by government agencies to weaken that unity.


One woman's efforts to preserve traditional Ladakhi culture in the face of modernity resulted in the Ladakh Project, which promotes self-sufficiency over handouts.

Helena Norberg-Hodge, a Swedish linguist who has spent half of each year in Ladakh since she first visited in 1974, tells of an experience which sharply illustrates [the] deterioration in the Ladakhis' self-esteem. During one of her earliest visits to Ladakh, a young man gave her a tour of his village. Impressed by the size and beauty of all the houses she saw, she asked him to show her the poorest house. He proudly informed her that there were no poor houses there. Recently, she overheard the same man imploring a tourist, "If only you could do something to help us Ladakhis. We are so poor."

This change in self-image is driving the Ladakhis to relinquish traditional practices and materials in favor of "modern" ways and products, even where the latter are inconsistent with local needs and conditions. The result, too often, is an actual decrease in the standard of living. Young people, hoping to emulate the modern, urban life, are leaving the villages and moving to Leh, the main population center. But because there are few paying jobs offered in this still largely agrarian economy, unemployment and poverty are gaining a toe-hold. Crowding is causing sanitation problems and an erosion in the once pervasive friendly spirit. Farmers have begun using synthetic fertilizers which threaten the quality of the fragile mountain soil that the Ladakhis have enriched through centuries of careful composting and cultivation. Packaged processed foods are gaining preference over the traditional diet of whole grains and vegetables.…

The Ladakh Project is promoting a development path for Ladakh that will build on, rather than destroy, its traditions. This involves the introduction of technologies that can be implemented at a decentralized level using locally available resources, thus preserving the Ladakhis' social structure and self-sufficiency.

A good example of such an appropriate technology is the Trombe wall, a device for passive solar space-heating. A clean, reliable heating source is one of Ladakh's major needs. Dung, the fuel that is traditionally used, produces smoky fires which cause many health problems and offer poor relief from the bitter winter temperates. Fossil fuels must be imported to Ladakh and present a threat to air and water quality. But Ladakh receives about 320 days of sun annually, and the traditional building materials - stone and mud brick - provide the thermal mass needed for heat collection in a Trombe wall. For these reasons, the Ladakh Project has focused attention on promoting and building Trombe walls on Ladakhi homes and designing them in a manner which complements Ladakh's beautiful traditional architecture.


Formed by a group of craftswomen, the lkwe Marketing Collective on the White Earth Indian reservation in northern Minnesota markets wild rice and crafts and works to reclaim lands and rebuild the community's traditional economic base. In 1991 Cultural Survival loaned the group working capital to expand its production, and we are helping to place the products in wider markets.

We are skilled people. At the Ikwe Marketing Collective we believe that our traditional skills - maple sugar harvest, wild rice harvest, traditional crafts (basketmaking, beadwork, tanning, etc.) - are highly valuable skills that others do not posses. These skills, combined with our resources, are a viable basis for economic development. This form of economic development is our best chance of changing the conditions of our community in the long term.

Our development work is based on two premises. First, domestic use - i.e., subsistence use - is a critical aspect of economic development. By consuming our resources, we get a "use value." This value - whether from eating wild rice or berries - is critical to a poor community. There may never be a job for every person on the reservation, so there may never be money to "enjoy" an American standard of living from wages. To feed our families, we might as well eat good Native food, instead of trying to get the money to buy "white" food. Finally, the subsistence sector of our economy actually provides a greater economic and social value to our people than does the wage sector. Thus, controlling production of our resources, on our own terms, is a cornerstone of rebuilding our self-reliance as a community.

The second premise for our development work relies on our "export" of resources. If we get a good price, our resources are valuable enough to provide a reasonable source of income for many families on the reservation. Furthermore, Native-harvested rice, instead of paddy rice from California, is increasingly in demand by the American public.

In the long term this development approach will strengthen our community because it enhances our indigenous economy. Finally, development work is part of our overall organizing effort which seeks - through legal and legislative approaches - the return of our land. According to federal investigators, our land has been illegally taken. Now - through one major lawsuit, a great deal of community work, and ongoing lobbying in Washington - we plan to get it back. We understand full well that we cannot be a land-based community without land.


The success of the experimental farm at Purace, in southwestern Colombia's Department of Cauca, derives from the fact that it was designed and carried out by members of the indigenous community, in collaboration with specialists. Now white farmers in the region turn to Indian farmers for advice on resource management.

Under the weight of increasing economic and political difficulties, the Regional Indian Council of Cauca (CRIC) was formed in 1972. CRIC's initial purposes, as stated in its seven-point program, were to demarcate and entitle indigenous lands, protect Indian rights, and promote Indian culture and education.... After 12 years of work in these areas, CRIC restated its priorities to emphasize economic assistance. In its 1984 platform, environmental restoration and production were made first-order priorities.…

Restoration of deteriorated lands was foremost on CRIC's agenda. As one of its first efforts in a larger land management program, CRIC initiated an experimental station at Purace in 1985. In the early stages of the project a Danish agronomist worked with the community to develop appropriate land-use methods. Today, the station provides a major portion of food consumed in the region. The station's farm is managed by a council of leaders, or cabildo, which rotates annually. The cabildo acts as creditor to the community, providing temporary funds for necessary purchases such as seeds and sprinklers.


The Turkmen Weaving Project, sponsored by Cultural Survival, has allowed Afghan Turkmen refugees living in Pakistan to continue the traditional practice of rug weaving while making a profitable income in a refugee camp environment. The $5,500 invested in 1989 yielded $150,000 in carpet sales in 1991. This excerpt is from Chris Walter's (the project coordinator) impressions of his visit to Pakistan on 15 February 1989, the last day of Soviet occupation.

The mood here in the camp is decidedly low key; if a war has been won, still nobody seems to be celebrating. Or perhaps the feeling is simply one of realism: the struggle is not over until the Afghan Communist regime falls - which everyone fully expects to happen - and until the parties of the Mujahideen agree on some type of consensus government. In any case, no one is talking about packing up and heading for home - not for the time being, anyway.

Everyone, then, continues to do what they've been doing for the last five or eight years, which for the Turkmen is weaving carpets. Since carpet weaving is their primary means of livelihood here, the Turkmen have tried to exploit almost every conceivable niche of the market. Rug sizes range from 2 by 2 inches (to be put under drinking glasses?) to approximately 10 by 14 feet. From traditional Turkmen designs, they have branched out into Persian city and village designs as well as Caucasian designs. "War rugs" - that is, rugs with tank, helicopter, and gun designs - seem to be quite a hit in the West and are being knocked off the looms in prodigious numbers. One may hope that this is a passing phase, but it is, for now, very much a commercial enterprise, not an individual's eccentric inspiration. Another new item is bicycle seat covers - carpets woven in the shape of a bicycle seat (probably for the Pakistani market).


This excerpt illustrates the difficulties that education can present for mothers who must perform their traditional agricultural work while raising young children. If the older children, who usually help care for the younger ones while the mothers work in the fields, are in school, how do the women cope? Mothers, eager to provide their children with the best education possible, find themselves torn between their duties and their aspirations for their children.

Before the families decided that education was essential, mothers who were not able to hire help kept some children at home to care for infants and toddlers during the hours that they worked in the fields and performed chores outside the homestead. As in other societies in the Third World, children six through 10 were most frequently in charge of younger siblings.…

When the six-year-olds were no longer available during schools hours, four - and five-year-old children were pressed into service as child nurses. These children are less capable of playing a consistent caretaking role. To add to the problems of the mothers, as the classrooms became crowded and the administration sought techniques for choosing between the applicants, they began to favor children who had attended nursery schools. Mothers, eager that their children should have the best opportunities, responded by enrolling their five-year-olds. Now during the schools hours they had only four-year-olds at home to supervise younger siblings while they hurried to take animals to the pasture, carry water from the town well, or get wood for the cooking fire. If they went to the garden during school hours, infants and toddlers accompanied them and the four-year-old carried the infant strapped on its back while the mother worked.…

How did village mothers appraise the results of schooling? What are the realistic opportunities today in Kenya for young men and women who have earned high school and university diplomas? In the early 1960s high school graduates from the community we studied were able to get work. However, by the 1970s even college graduates were unsure of their futures. In 1975 the village children we had observed were in their teens. None had made the university. A few were enrolled in technical schools. Most had returned to the village with no promise of employment in the white collar jobs that they and their parents believed were assured to those who earned a diploma. Both young and old were perplexed by the false promises that they felt had been made to them. They did not know who was responsible for their failure.


Since 1972, the Shuar Federation has been broadcasting lessons by radio in Spanish and Shuar to approximately 240 villages. This unique project was the Shuar's solution to years of missionary education, which forced Indians to leave their villages for months at a time, eroding not only their sense of community but leaving them less time to learn about their own culture.

Though the Shuar staunchly resisted contact with Westerners since the mid-sixteenth century, at the end of the last century they began to trade with the Salesian missions. Then their acceptance of the missionaries, in order to acquire trade goods previously unavailable in the Amazon, also entailed their acceptance of religious indoctrination, permanent villages, and education of their young in mission schools.…

The missionaries considered Christian education and the separation of children from their families necessary to eradicate barbaric practices and customs of the Shuar. For Shuar youths, the educational experience was alienating; it undermined their cultural identity and deprived them of a unique Shuar education in their home villages. Many Shuar children ended up choosing spouses in the missions, contrary to traditional Shuar matrimonial arrangements, and many preferred, once their schooling was finished, to continue living close by the missions, rather than returning to their home communities.…

In 1972, when the bicultural radio school program was created, there were 10 boarding schools with 1,450 students; other Shuar attended public schools. Fewer than half of 5,000 potential students complete a primary education. It was difficult for Shuar children to travel long distances to get to school, especially in the rainy season, and many could not afford boarding expenses. The drop-out rate in public schools was always high due to the culture shock and alienation Shuar children experience with mestizo or white children and schoolteachers who don't speak Shuar. Those who stayed often had to repeat years. Finally, in the 30 government schools, the majority of the government-appointed teachers did not wish to be there, did not speak Shuar, and had little enthusiasm for teaching children.…

The Shuar system of schooling has a number of advantages over the national or mission schools. According to Father Shutka it is inexpensive relative to public schools in the rest of the country (see Salazar); a Shuar child attending the radio school costs the Ecuadorian government half the expense of his counterpart attending public schools in the rest of the country. It unifies the centers in a spirit of cooperation. It instills in Shuar youth a pride in their culture instead of degrading, negating, or replacing it with a foreign one. School hours can be adjusted to the activities of the Shuar household so that there is as little separation as possible of children from their parents; children can still help their parents and learn from them. Thus though they are exposed to and introduced to the white man's world through their education, it is on other terms and is not a wrenching and traumatic experience which alienates them from their cultural background, community, and family. In fact Shuar education prepares children to be leaders and participating members of their communities.


Women were the catalysts for the Chipko, or "Embrace the Tree," movement in India. Gandhian in spirit, the Chipko strategy focuses on satyagraha, or nonviolent resistance;, as a way to preserve the Himalaya's critical mountain-forest ecosystem. Chipko activists use grassroots education as the basis for spreading their message.

The Chipko movement was born in remote hill village, far away from the air-conditioned chambers of planners, policy makers, and administrators. Even in the long discussions of seminar and conference halls of the metropolises, it did not figure. It was under the shady trees, where villagers discussed their problems, that this idea arose.…


The Sarvodaya workers hailed from average hill families, who had practical experience of poverty and hard life. They devised their own method to organize and educate the masses. They organized labor cooperatives to earn a livelihood by manual labor. To educate the masses they undertook long foot marches from village to village. The foot marches inspired the youth, who spent their holidays walking in the villages making people conscious about the role of the forests in soil and water conservation.…

The most effective way to organize and educate the people was to tell the story of Lord Krishna - Shrimat Bhagwatam. This scripture was interpreted to explain the need to establish a cordial relationship between Man and Nature. Dr. Indu Tikekar, a leading Sarvodaya worker, evolved the new technique of telling the story.

Such gatherings provided a platform for the village women to share their experiences of the miserable life and an opportunity for new leadership to emerge among themselves. Thus, the leadership of this movement emerged from the common people, practically from each village, and it was free from the dangers of a central leadership which often suppresses local initiative. The funds for the movement were collected from the meager offerings of the participants in these gatherings. Each would offer a handful of rice.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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