Following our recent pledge to send aid to the traditional communities that we work with in rural Nepal, we are now following up with the third chapter in a series of reports on our relief efforts in Nepal. Immediately following the news of the first earthquake in Nepal, the Absolute Essential team rallied.
Apparently... some 4.1 billion dollars has been pledged to Nepal and yet they estimate that only a fraction of that has actually been spent on reconstruction projects so far. It seems that the politics of forming the necessary National Reconstruction Authority has stopped the flow of goodwill.
By comparison, the Absolute Essential running total seems like a drop in the ocean… but we did promise to take our funds directly to its final destination as soon as possible. And to tell you exactly what it would be spent on and why.
Which is why in September I personally footed the bill to travel to the damaged eco-paper business in Jiri with our latest relief money. First hand, I was determined to see it spent on a grass-roots project, with the capacity to help a maximum of people on a long term basis.
So the Jiri paper co-operative was my goal. When operational, the employment it generates sustains over a thousand people and the hope is that a well focused, direct approach can make a modest fundraising effort help an entire village get back on its feet.
What was the situation for these Nepalese people after the earthquakes?
Travelling to Jiri on the last leg of the journey from Katmandu was heartbreaking. Our jeep passed through a landscape of mudslides, tarpaulin shelters and rock piles of former homes.
It brought to mind news footage of refugee camps and shanty towns and slowly it dawned on me that realistically, there wasn’t going to be a return to ‘before’ for these people, not for many years – or even generations – to come.
The rain added to the feeling of despair that was tugging at me and as we drove over the hill into Jiri itself I saw yet more destruction and rubble. Many trucks, lots of mud, wandering children, and somehow, incredibly to me, life carrying on. While I was there dwelling on the lifetime of work lost, the dreams in ruins… it seemed that everyone else had found it in themselves to simply get back up and make the best of it.
Though I was the only westerner in a place that would normally be buzzing with tourist hikers, the guesthouse had a blue tarpaulin covering the place where the front had been ripped off, and a sign: WE ARE OPEN. I was given a modest back room that was by relative standards luxurious: dry and clean (but not immune to the 4.8 aftershock that left me dizzy and disoriented, and not for the first time wondering what I was exactly doing there and if I was even safe).
After walking through the village and hearing stories that confirmed how far away outside help is for these rural areas – weeks of coping and improvising, and watching friends and family perish, before aid arrived – I went gratefully to bed. But no relief was to come with sleep, as it rained and rained and I lay there thinking of all those people under tarpaulins with water running through their shelters. And in the darkness, the intermittent tremors, reminding me how fragile it all still was.
Assessing the situation and opening a dialogue for constructive change
The dawn of a new day and it was back to the plan. I followed the project manager and co-operative president through the streets past the quiet resilience of his people starting their day in makeshift homes with grace; the fresh, green vegetable shoots in little garden plots somehow raising my spirits.
The paper factory was a solid-looking, double story building, with many cracks. And upon closer inspection probably not the safest place to enter though, of course, we did.
Within, I saw it was mostly a storage space for the raw materials: bundles of dried bark, stacks of paper in natural colors and varying thickness, looking a lot like stacks of laundry. There were leaks here and there, but it seemed that the special handmade paper was still intact.
The twisted office door hadn’t faired so well, so we went outside again to the production line area (thankfully the rain had stopped). It all looked broken and abandoned and it was hard to imagine any kind of productivity happening there.
With my trusted translator to guide me through the protocol, we began to talk logistics. In Nepal, meetings are based on relationships and conversations balanced carefully with respectful consideration of all the party’s wishes – even while focused firmly on the desired outcome.
My ‘Trade not Aid’ mantra held me in good stead as the manager pushed for the office and main building to be rebuilt and restored. I gently explained that while an office would be nice, it would not generate income or feed hungry mouths. It was also a long-term project that could take years.
Trade not Aid – negotiating a contract to restore productivity
I outlined our goal of placing our money into a project that we could fund entirely from A to Z, and that would give visible results. As we talked it through it became clear that the production line itself was the right place to start.
The broken production line needed a new boiler and bittler machine and all the troughs needed replacing too. Pretty much nothing of the original line up was working anymore and hadn’t been touched for 4 months, since the main quakes.
And so we hashed out the details from beginning to end, over the course of the day and lots of tea. Absolute Essential committed to a paper order to be completed following a 6-8 week reconstruction period. The 1,300 people from 126 families would begin to return to employment as soon as bark collection started again, from the many places the harvest was already waiting to happen.
We created a written contract – in English and Nepali – at the very place where it was said that the written word on paper must never be untrue, because Lokta paper was made for the scriptures of the gods.
Many, many thanks to all Absolute Essential fund-raisers for really making a difference
Mr. Chondra looked genuinely happy with the final outcome. He said that he had heard already many promises of help, but here was the only solid action that had materialized to would help his company and his community to get back on their feet.
Our final tour
As we took a final tour of the village and saw inside some of the makeshift houses where resourceful families were able to carry on, thanks to drains set up to siphon off incoming rainwater, I felt again an awe for the resilience and diligence of these people and a deep conviction that I would return again soon to see our project completed and the paper production back in action.
It goes without saying that every person who worked and donated to make this first step possible can be considered an essential player in this small but impactful project. The people of Jiri, who received me and looked after me so graciously despite their continued hardships, expressed much gratitude to you all.
A thousand thank-yous to all of you. Please stay tuned for more updates coming soon….
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