Editors' Choice

Doing Good In Far Places

by Joseph Diedrich

Who is going to pay for that? Who has so much money?
Who has so much pinke-pinke?
Who ordered it, anyway?
—German drinking song.

I was sitting by the fire in the tea room of the old Windamere Hotel in Darjeeling on a cold winter afternoon. The Windamere is the sort of faraway place where travelers whose paths happen to cross tend to talk to one another unless they are British.

The pleasant looking woman in the next chair was Danish. She worked for the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, UNFAO, and had come out from their Rome headquarters to check on a project they had underway in Sikkim to improve the lot of the farmers in rural villages.

This interested me for several reasons. For one, I had just come down from Sikkim, a nearly vertical little place in the Himalayan foothills, bounded by Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan, where the snows of Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world, tower over everything. Sikkim had been an independent kingdom until 1975 when it had been swallowed by India in a move which the rest of the world appeared not to have noticed.

To my surprise, Sikkim was a relatively modern and progressive place, much better off than anywhere else that I had come across in my travels around India, and, unfortunately, much less picturesque than I had expected such a far off place to be. I could have named, offhand, a dozen places in the region — anywhere in Nepal for example — that seemed to need developmental aid much more than Sikkim.

Another reason for my interest was that I had happened upon another, unforgettable, help-the-rural-farmers project in Nepal fifteen years earlier, which I had been told was also UNFAO sponsored. After seeing that one I wondered what these people had in store for Sikkim?

In Nepal someone from UNFAO had realized that apple trees would grow well at altitudes of around 2500 meters in the steep valleys leading up to the high Himalayas. In such a valley below the Annapurna massif, with the help of politicians in the capitol, Kathmandu, they had taken over the painfully terraced fields where the villagers grew grain and cabbages. There they had planted specially selected apple trees, carried in on human backs, brought from somewhere far away.

The aid-givers realized, of course, that during the following six or seven years while the apple trees were growing big enough to bear a crop the villagers would have neither grain and cabbages to eat (because their fields were planted in apple trees) nor apples to sell~ so money would be provided to support the local economy until the apple crop came in. In accordance with established UNFAO policies this money was handed to government officials in Khatmandu for distribution to the affected villagers.

When I walked up through the valley ten years later the apple trees were producing a bumper crop in virtual isolation. Most of the local people had abandoned the valley years before because they no longer had enough land to grow their food and because the promised support funds had, somehow or other, gotten lost in Khatmandu.

So people were brought in from another valley to harvest the apples which were put in handsome stone barns UNFAO had built and then left to rot. A few were fermented into a rather unpleasant liquor which was consumed locally. Some nearby tea houses on the trail to Jomoson offered apple pie with their dhal bat. That was all.

The UNFAO officials who had planned the apple scheme had neglected to find out if Nepalese villagers liked to eat apples — they didn't — or if they would be able to carry their apples somewhere and sell them for enough money to buy the food which they used to grow for themselves before their fields were planted to apple trees. They couldn't.

The nearest town with road access so that apples could be shipped off to market was three days walk away over the ridges and apples are heavy. The most apples that a man could carry on his back for that distance could not be sold for enough money even to pay for his journey. The few apples that were for sale in the little town at the end of the road had been trucked up from India at much lower cost. And so it goes.

The UNFAO project for Sikkim, as the nice Danish woman explained it, proved to be considerably more complex than the apples for Nepal project of yesteryear. It was to benefit the rural famers of Sikkim in three important ways: more grain, more meat, and improved ecology, and it was already in progress. More than a year before seeds of improved strains of grain, genetically engineered for local conditions, had been shipped to the Sikkimese capitol, Gangtok, for distribution to the rural villagers.

Alas, this had not yet been done. The Sikkimese Minister of Agriculture had wanted to check the safety and quality of the new grains before distributing them to his farming community. Accordingly he had planted them on farms that he controlled himself to see how they grew. They had produced a bumper crop. So much so that this year the Minister had planted the new seeds on as much land as he could get his hands on. He planned to do this for as long as it would take him to be certain that there would be no harmful long term effects from the new varieties. After which the improved seeds, fully tested, would presumably be distributed to those farmers who hadn't been driven out of business in the meantime. One of the purposes of the Danish woman’s visit, she said, would be to urge the Minister of Agriculture to speed up the distribution process.

The main purpose of her visit, however, was to try to locate a shipment of motorcycle helmets which had gone missing somewhere between Rome and Gangtok.

(I am afraid that I asked her to repeat that.)

It was a little complicated. The UNFAO wanted to increase Sikkimese meat production by the introduction of an improved breed of goat. This new goat is larger and meatier than the indiginous Sikkimese goat and will eat almost anything and thrive on it. Obviously, this last quality, unattended to, would have unfortunate effects upon the local ecology, so UNFAO was taking steps to avoid such damage. The Sikkimese villagers would be encouraged to pen up their new goats instead of letting them run free as they do their current, less meaty, goats. The villagers would now, of course, have to grow goat fodder in their fields and carry it back to feed the penned animals. Unfortunately these fields are often quite far from the villages. It can be a long way to carry goat food.

The UNFAO had thought of how to make this new task easier for the farmers. The UNFAO was going to give them motor scooters.

I swear to you that is what the pleasant woman told me. If I hadn't seen the Apple Plan in Nepal I would have been certain that she was putting me on.

There is more. Shipments of the motor scooters had already arrived in Sikkim but, alas, they could not be distributed to the farmers. The shipment of safety helmets which were to be handed out along with the scooters had gone missing. The fact that in Sikkim protective helmets for motor scooter riders are nowhere to be seen does not matter. The UNFAO has decided that motor scooters may not be operated without protective headgear. And that is that. The scooters cannot be distributed until the missing helmets can be found or replaced.

Officials are looking into the matter.

I don't know what has become of the meatier and more voracious goats. Are they penned up and hungry or roaming free and ravaging? Maybe the Minister of Agriculture is keeping them until the missing helmets are found and the whole scheme can be properly put into motion.

I told the nice Dutch woman that I had just been traveling in the countryside in Sikkim, that the villagers seemed well fed and well housed, that the countryside is green and forested and that most of it is simply too steep to farm. Fields are scattered here and there wherever a slope will permit a terrace to be built to hold some soil. Most such terraced fields are high above or far below the cliffside roads and can be reached only by a steep and dangerous footpath. Not exactly motor scooter country. I pointed out that motor scooters need gasoline which is very expensive in Sikkim and that gasoline is available only in the towns, far from where most villagers live. I told her that the little Sikkim goats run free and take care of themselves while the farmers use their fields to grow food for their families and that I hadn't seen any evidence of goat damage to the environment.

Then I got going on apples in Nepal.

And then I stopped and apologized and said that I hoped I hadn't offended her.

She smiled and said that I hadn’t. She didn't make UNFAO policy, she said. This was done in Rome by UN appointees, many from third world countries far away from (and far different from) Sikkim. Even if she didn't always agree with what was being done, her job was to see that these policies were carried out in the best way possible. Right now her concerns were to convince the Minister of Agriculture to pass along some of the improved seed to the people for whom it was meant and to check on the search for the missing helmets.

I said that both of these seemed like good ideas and I didn't ask her which local politician would be entrusted with the distribution of the motor scooters once the essential helmets had been delivered. Then we changed the subject, talked of shoes and ships and sealing wax for a while, and went off to our rooms to change for dinner — something which you do at the Windamere if you know what’s good for you.

What brings this all back, poignantly, is that I am seated at my desk preparing my income tax return. Some of the money I must pay will certainly go to the UN, as well it should, and some of that will certainly go to the UNFAO. It makes one think a little. I wonder who got my motor scooter?

Want to bet?

About Editors' Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we've received from travelers around the world and present it here as our "Editors' Choice." For an archive of these stories go to the Editors' Choice link on The Flying Carpet; for more about the editors, see About Travelers' Tales Staff.

Read more from Editors' Choice, Joseph Diedrich

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