June 17, 2013

From cultivating land to cultivating minds

For generations, members of the Santal tribe of Jharkhand in northeast India have farmed the land.

But their share of the land is shrinking as the indigenous population expands and as companies mine the land's mineral wealth. For the first time in their history, the Santals must find alternative sources of livelihood.

"Most of the families are dependent upon agriculture," said Vincent Murmu, a member of the Santal community and coordinator for CFCA's Dumka project. "They learned the occupation from their parents. They have been doing this for many generations."

Rasik and his land
Rasik looks out at the vast wasteland of his family's property. The once fertile land was stripped of its natural resources by mining.

The Dumka project staff has been working with Santal families as they look toward education as the key to their children's future.

"Education provides the opportunity to open up to the big world so they have the opportunity to work [in jobs outside agriculture]," Murmu said. "We discuss how education is a cultivation of the mind. It does not require any land and no one can steal it from them."

Educating the next generation

Rasik is a Santal rice farmer with a 17-year-old daughter, Macu, who has been sponsored through CFCA since 2003.

Neither Rasik nor his wife, Sonamoni, went to school, but Macu is studying to be a teacher at a nearby college. She hopes to teach children in her village.

"It is a compulsory situation for us to look for an alternative," Rasik said. "If we educate our children, they can get jobs."

Rasik inherited a 2-acre parcel of land from his father, but his father leased half of it to a mining company. The mining company pays Rasik about $222 a year for the lease.

Macu and Rasik
Sponsored youth Macu and her father, Rasik.

He supplements this income by working in the mine and farming the rest of his land. His wife generates some income selling brooms. Still, it is difficult for Rasik to cover Macu's education expenses. That is why he is so grateful for sponsorship.

The sponsorship funds help cover Macu's tuition, school supplies, books, transportation and room and board.

To save money, Macu chose to attend a college that does not offer housing. She rents a room near the school with other classmates and lives there during the school year, returning home only for summer vacation and other long holidays.

"Expenses will be more in boarding schools when compared to regular schools," Macu said. "As CFCA is [helping to] support us, I am able to continue my education."

Providing options for the future

With the help of CFCA sponsorship, Santal families are learning to adapt to a changing world.

Sara Asmussen, CFCA project specialist for India, visited the community to help introduce the concept of mothers groups.

Macu is studying to become a teacher. She hopes to one day teach the children of her village.

"Traditionally, the Santals have been culturally marginalized," she said. "They live in a rural area without a lot of infrastructure. Roads are bad and transportation is difficult. Health care access is a struggle."

Because Santal land is protected under the law and cannot be bought or sold, mining companies negotiate leases with farmers, sometimes for as long as 99 years. Land that has been leased for mining is often contaminated and no longer suitable for agriculture when it is returned to the Santal owners.

The Santal landowners do not have many options when surrounding lands are leased, Murmu said.

"Sometimes it happens that the lands all around his property are leased and he does not want to lease his own," Murmu said. "In this case, he is forced to let his property go. He has no other choice."

Water channels may become blocked once mining begins, preventing farmers from cultivating their crops. Also, soil and sand extracted from the mining process may cover roads and make them impassable, creating yet another obstacle for farmers trying to sell their crops.

Rasik and his wife
Rasik and his wife, Sonamoni.

CFCA mothers groups have helped unite and empower the Santal families as they seek to provide an education for their children. Through the groups families are learning skills such as making basic banking transactions, so they can withdraw funds from their children's CFCA bank account to cover school costs.

"We are supporting the parents to know the process of enrolling the children in schools," Murmu said.

Most of the CFCA sponsored children are the first generation of the family to attend school.

Rasik is comforted knowing Macu's education will help her obtain a job and help the family protect their rights.

"[Macu's] future is secured now," he said. "We feel we also are secure. Next time I need to sign any lease agreement or any other documentation, I will take my daughter to help read it so they won't take advantage of our illiteracy."