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Understanding livelihoods in remote communities around the world

If you would like to see the draft virtual visits which we are developing in conjunction with the radio series Making Ends Meet, please click this link: Making Ends Meet virtual visits.

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Local Communities and the Wechiau Hippo Sanctuary, Ghana

A hippo sanctuary has been set up on their land: are the livelihoods of the Lobi of Northern Ghana benefitting?

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Mila 23, a fishing community in the Danube Delta, Romania

The people of the Danube Delta in Romania are finding it hard to accept interference from outside conservationists.

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Gosh, an Armenian mountain community

The livelihoods of the people of Gosh in the mountains of Armenia are suffering from the collapse from the Soviet system

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A Community of Buddhist nuns in Upper Myanmar (Burma).

The nuns of the Sagaing hills in Burma depend entirely on others for their livelihoods: making merit for their donors through study and prayer.

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Making Ends Meet is a multi-media project which is a collaboration between the Natural Resources Institute and the BBC. Funding for NRI's participation in the project has been provided by DFID. The project has at its core a series of radio programmes, which were first broadcast on the BBC World Service in August 2002.

Our intention is to explore the lives of people in remote communities around the world, to look at how they make a living and how their lives and livelihoods are related to those of people in the outside world. We've chosen four very different communities in different parts of the world, with different kinds of livelihoods and different kinds of relationship with the outside world: a fishing village in the Danube Delta, Romania; Gosh, a mountain village in Armenia; a community in Northern Ghana which has had a hippo sanctuary set up on their doorstep; and a community of Buddhist nuns in the Sagaing Hills in Upper Myanmar (Burma).

We've tried to bring out issues which are particularly important to the livelihoods of people in these communities, and which have relevance beyond the community chosen. Some of these are:

  • How to balance conservation of the natural environment with the livelihoods of human communities, which is important to achieve both environmental and socially sustainable livelihoods
  • The importance of interdependance between people in remote communities - what is sometimes called social capital - both within the community and beyond it
  • The relative importance of self-reliance on the one hand and of links with the outside world on the other hand, for remote communities like these

We intend to develop educational materials using the Making Ends Meet, including 'virtual tours' using panoramas like those displayed here, still images, audio and text. We'd be happy for the material to be used for teaching materials, at the moment through downloading the notes and playing back the audio from the website. Please do let us know if you are doing this - we'd be interested in any feedback.

Monica Janowski

  • A Community of Buddhist nuns in Sagaing, Upper Myanmar (Burma) Open or Close

    Thinking points

    • We've likened the monastic communities in Sagaing to households, because they share resources and recruit children, though not, of course, biologically. What do you think about this comparison? Can religious communities belonging to other religions be likened to households? What are the differences between true households and religious communities?
    • We've emphasised the importance of interdependance between people - not just materially but also on a level which is cultural and spiritual - as a source of security, stability, well-being and happiness. Think about the importance of interdependance between religious communities belonging to other religions and the lay community around them. What kinds of parallels can be drawn between the kind of interdependance we see in Sagaing and that between within the lay community - for example between kin or neighbours and between those who work or trade together?
    • Sagaing is a remote place but it is important in the spiritual life of Myanmar. Places which are remote from centres of population are, in fact, often seen as spiritually powerful. Why do you think this is?

    Setting the scene

    In the Sagaing hills 12 miles from the ancient capital of Mandalay in Upper Myanmar there are hundreds of pagodas, stupas, monasteries and nunneries (see panorama). This is a very special place - remote but also, from a spiritual point of view, a focal point of worship for Buddhism in the country. The very fact that it's remote has always attracted meditators, recluses and hermits, generating a kind of religious myth about the place that has attracted pilgrims from all over Burma. The high level of spirituality is expressed in the presence of thousands of nuns and monks in the area, living in groups in nunneries and monasteries - making the area the 'abode of sage recluses'. There are also lay people living in Sagaing - some scattered among the monasteries and nunneries, and most in the market town of Sagaing about half an hour's walk from the monastic community.

    Monastic livelihoods and 'households'

    The monks and nuns make ends meet in a very distinctive way - they are entirely dependant on lay people for their daily existence, living from hand to mouth on donations. Unlike Christian nuns and monks, Buddhist monastic communities are not supposed to involve themselves in any form of livelihood activity, but must be kept by donors, who by giving donations build up spiritual merit for their next life - and wordly success in this one.

    Nunneries and monasteries don't just consist of adults. Although all members are celibate, they live in groups like families, including small children as young as five. Some of these little children stay a week as temporary monks or nuns; others stay their whole lives. The days of the monks and nuns are taken up with prayer, study, household work, chanting and meditation, making merit for themselves and their donors. Monks wear dark red toga-like robes; nuns dress in orange and pink robes. They possess very little of their own. Each group of monks or of nuns is tightly bound together, leading a highly disciplined but serene and happy life.

    Monasteries are not divided within themselves into smaller groups, but nunneries are usually split up into a number of separate households, called 'pots' because they share all their food. When donations are made to the monasteries, they are always pooled. But a donation to a nun is made to the pot to which she belongs rather than to the nunnery as a whole, and only within that pot is it shared fully (though there is good deal of informal sharing with neighbouring pots, as happens in a normal village).

    We visited two nunneries, one split up in the usual way into a number of 'pots' - the Thameikdaw Gyaung nunnery, founded early in the 20th century - and the other operating an innovative, 'one pot' system, more like the way monks live - the Sakhadhita Sathin-daik nunnery, founded in 1998.

    Like most other nunneries, the Thameikdaw Gyaung nunnery is like a little village, made up of groups of nuns living in individual houses, often built by the family of one of the nuns. The whole community is led by an abbess who is the 'landlady' of the whole nunnery. One of the nuns we spoke to is Daw Saranawati, who is 86 and heads one of the pots in the nunnery. Each of these is like a household, and Daw Saranawati has a handful of young nuns living with her. She used to have a best friend, another nun with whom she led the pot, but her friend died some years ago. Daw Saranawati used to work as a telephone operator and speaks good English, since she was educated when English was widely used in Burma, as Myanmar was then called.

    In the Sakhadhita Sathin-daik nunnery, by contrast, everything which any of the 52 nuns in the nunnery receives is shared among all. So the whole nunnery, instead of being like a village, is like a huge single household (see panorama). The Sakhadhita Sathin-daik nunnery is renowned for its scholarship, although it is so new. We met the abbess, Daw Zanaka, and the four other senior nuns who teach the younger nuns, including Ma Kusarawati, and Ma Pawanateri - who are best friends - as well as talking to younger nuns, including little nuns like 6-year-old Ma Khinsana.

    We also went to meet and interview donors. One of the nuns from the Thameikdaw Gyaung nunnery took us to visit Daw Tin and Utun Gyi, her kin and donors, who live in the village of Shangalei-Chun near Sagaing. Other donors are wealthy townspeople, like Daw Yee Yee, who owns a small cottage factory in the town of Sagaing making cheroots, a kind of local cigar. Yet others come from far away, from the city of Rangoon or even from other countries. The Sakhadhita Sathin-daik nunnery, in particular, with its innovative system and high level of scholarship, has attracted funding even from abroad. One foreign donor is Dr. Hiroko Kawanami, a Japanese specialist in Buddhism who bought the land for the nunnery.

    The networks of donors on which the nuns and monks of Sagaing depend show how important a strong set of social relations is to people's livelihoods - what is sometimes called social capital. The interdependence between nuns and monks on the one hand and lay people on the other seems to be one which benefits both sides, and expresses the trust and reciprocity which exists between them.

    The monastic communities may also be said to have something we might call 'spiritual capital'. The monks and nuns are happy people. The fact that they are interlinked and dependant on their donors is something which gives them a sense of strength and of being needed, and this is almost certainly important in giving them a sense of peace and stability. But their spirituality is also important in establishing their own serenity. It also ensures that donors will keep giving to them.

    Donors benefit from the relationship with the monastic community in terms of their own state of mind. They get a sense of security and stability from donating, because they believe that they are building merit for the next life and material wellbeing in this - and also because donating to the monastic community builds up their social in the lay community in which they live.

  • Gosh, an Armenian mountain community Open or Close

    The village of Gosh

    Much of Armenia is mountainous. Gosh is a fairly typical mountain village, surrounded by forest interspersed with grassland. The traditional livelihood of households in the community is a mixture of arable and pastoral agriculture, with a system of transhumance, taking animals to high pastures in the summer and bringing them down to the village in the winter. Gosh has a special status as the place where the Armenian legal code was written, at the monastery set up here in the 11th century. The monastery was later sacked by the Mongols but the ruins of the buildings remained and the site was eventually resettled by people from further north. The monastery buildings were renovated in the 1950s and are at the focal hub of the village, although the church is not functional (there is no functioning church in the village). Although some visitors are brought fairly regularly up from Yerevan to see the site, they visit only briefly and don't contribute, at the moment, to the livelihoods of the village. There are plans to make Gosh a site for the development of ecotourism through a World Bank project, drawing on the presence of the ancient monastery buildings and the forested mountains. This may mean some benefits to local livelihoods.

    Meeting people in Gosh

    To find out how people were coping with the situation, we visited and interviewed a number of families and individuals in Gosh, and went with them to their fields, the forest and the pastures to learn about their livelihoods. We met people like Hasmik and Manvel Grigorian, who returned from Russia in the early 1990s so that Manvel could fight in the war against Azerbaijan but who find it impossible to make ends meet, often having trouble getting enough money to buy bread. They live in the old village steam baths, which was state-run but has now closed because no-one can afford to use it. Manvel, who calls himself a 'child of nature', spends a lot of time in the forest and he and his sons collect mushrooms there to sell. Someone else who depends on the forest, taking his small herd of pigs to pasture in clearings, was Shura Vartenian. We met Arsabek and Kishmish Minasyan, an old couple in their 70s who can no longer manage on their pensions after a lifetime of hard work. Like so many families in the village, they have a family member - their son - in Russia, working to send back some cash to his family. Another old person we met was Amelian Eznah, who has to manage on her own since her husband and all her children have died and is finding it very hard. We met her carrying firewood from the forest. Norik Sargossyan, the village leader, hopes very much that things will get better. Like most Armenians, he is very attached to his homeland and does not want to leave. The headmaster, Haykaz Amirkhanian, was not too hopeful about the prospects of his students for getting work or for leaving the village. There is, he says, almost no work available - either in the village or in towns. But we found that there were others who were more hopeful of the future - people such as Zinawora Arzimanian, Edik Daftian and Gayane Amirhanian, who have started taking their animals up to the high summer pastures again and feel that they are taking control of their lives.

    A bit of background

    The Soviet system, introduced in the 1920s and 1930s, collectivised the organisation of agriculture in Gosh as in other parts of the country. Not only arable farming but the keeping of animals was organised on a collective basis. Transhumance continued but it was collectively organised, with families taking turns to spend time in the high pastures in summer and animals looked after communally. The Soviet system increased the productive capacity of the village, and improved local livelihoods, by bringing new lands into cultivation. Until Soviet times, households cultivated land quite close to their homes. Under the collective system, households continued to cultivate that land individually but lands at some distance were cultivated by the collective farm. Individuals received cash as well as income in kind from working on collectives. Cheap transport to town made it possible for the produce of the collective farm to be sold and also enabled people from the village to work in towns nearby like the spa town of Dilijan. Electricity was introduced and the state introduced services and amenities. These included a secondary school, health services and amenities such as shops, baths and a hairdresser. With the collapse of the Soviet system and independence, the people of Gosh have seen their livelihoods collapse back into self-sufficiency. The lands cultivated by the collective farm are too far away for most people to be able to transport produce from them and in any case it cannot be marketed because the transport system has all but collapsed and there is a very reduced market in town, where there is much less cash, and practically no possibility for export any longer. Most households simply cultivate the land around their houses, and eat the produce. They have practically no possibilities for earning any cash. The village is surrounded by forest which could add significantly to livelihoods through the use of wild resources, or through ecotourism. However, the area is now protected forest and the penalties for hunting are severe - we were told by one villager that the penalties for killing an animal are greater than those for killing another person. Pasturing animals is a problem around the village, because taking animals through the protected forest is prohibited. There is an ancient system of transhumance in the area, with animals being taken to high pastures for the summer months, but this all but broke down in the early 1990s, when the collective farm was disbanded.

  • Mila 23, a fishing community in the Danube Delta, Romania Open or Close

    Thinking points

    • The people of the Delta have been living in the Delta and managing its resources for their own sustainable use for centuries. Should the regulations be different for local fishermen than for sports or commercial fishermen - and how could this be set up?
    • What do you think about the attitudes of people in Mila 23 to poverty - that poverty is not having access to the natural resources to make a living by oneself, rather than not having access to employment?
    • Think about the relationship between the people of Mila 23 and the outside world. They want to be self-reliant - but they're interested in the outside world. Do you think this is typical of people living in remote communities?
    • Would you like to stay with a Lipoveni fishermen or a Cossack pastoralist if you visited the Delta, rather than in a hotel? Would you be interested only in the 'wild nature' of the Delta or would you like to get to know the people of the Delta as well?

    Setting the scene

    The Danube Delta is both remote and wild. Marcian Bleahu, leader of the Green Party in Romania, described it to us as 'a textbook of biology, of geology, of nature, a textbook open for each what are able to understand something from all this special life. It is a land in continuous transformation, a land growing from the water...'. The Delta is a huge area thinly populated by about 12,000 people whose ancestors came here as refugees from other parts of Europe, finding a hiding place here where they were safe and could scrape a living. There are Lipoveni from Russia, Cossacks from the Ukraine and shepherds from other parts of Romania. While the Lipoveni live in the wettest parts of the Delta and rely mostly on fish; the Cossacks and Romanians, who live where there is more dry land, keep animals too.

    Under the Ceaucescu regime, until 1989, there were all sorts of experiments to try and make the Delta more economically productive. But immediately after the Revolution of 1989 the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve was set up, with the aim of reversing what Ceaucescu had done and 'saving' the unique ecology of the Delta. Now much of the Delta is strictly protected, and this has meant that the people of the Delta are restricted in how they can use its resources.

    But one benefit of the Biosphere Reserve is that 'ecotourism' is growing in the Delta, with visitors increasingly coming - not just from Romania but from other countries too - to experience the rich animal and plant life. This provides the possibility for local people to make an income by taking in visitors, since there are very few hotels.

    Household livelihoods in the village of Mila 23

    To find out people make ends meet in the Delta, we visited Mila 23. It's a fairly typical Lipoveni community. Practically every man in the village is a fisherman, while the women care for small strips of garden on what dry land is available amidst the winding waterways of the area, and process vegetables for use in the harsh winters (see panorama). Fishing is the hub around which their lives revolve. Fish makes up most of what they eat - as the writer Anton Radu Roman told us, 'They have very very small quantity of vegetables, they have enough fish, that means you make a soup with one onion and fifteen kinds of species of fish. You put an onion and you put after ten, eleven, twelve, twenty kilos of fish, carp, pikes, etc. etc'. Traian Gherasim, a young fisherman in the village, considers that 'A man needs around one kilo fish per day, a strong man.'. Although it can be dangerous, particularly in winter, the oldest inhabitant of the village, Fyodor Butelkin (see panorama), told us he that believes nature to be benevolent to the fisherman - that 'a fishermen is close to nature and nature won't hurt the fisherman except when the fishermen is drunk'.

    Livelihoods in the Delta are complex. People in Mila 23 also hunt the birds, some of which compete with them for fish. But they are selective as to which ones they hunt. Volodia Butelkin, a fisherman from the village (see panorama) told us that ' he doesn't hunt pelicans and swans because these birds are very beautiful and he doesn't have the heart to do that. He says that the pelicans are the monument of nature....'

    The people of Mila 23 are fiercely independent. Even under the socialist system their livelihoods were not collectivised, and they are not used to depending on outsiders, and don't like outsiders interfering in their livelihoods. As Anton Radu Roman - who was exiled to the Delta under Ceaucescu - told us, 'they are alone with nature ... nobody gives them nothing, nobody, since years and years and years...'. But Anton also emphasised that 'they love the foreign people, they love strangers, they are so alone there...' - though he told us that you have to know how to talk to them!

    There is little cash in Mila 23. But this doesn't mean that the people consider themselves poor. For Pina Butelkin, 'Everyone can fish and have a garden. Here, the people have enough access to land and to fish. Only people who are drunk or lazy have to be poor'. For people here, poverty would be having to live without the natural resources to make a living by oneself - so it's easier to be poor in town than in the Delta.

    Before 1989, some people from the village did take up jobs in the town of Tulcea, three hours away by motor boat. But now, the economic situation in the country is bad and there is very little work. Many people are returning to villages in the Delta like Mila 23, coming back to the traditional livelihood of their parents where they can depend on their own resources rather than relying on unpredictable and unreliable outside sources of income. Doina and Dan Burungiu have moved back from Tulcea and have taken up a mixture of fishing, vegetable and fruit growing and animal-keeping to make ends meet, in Stipoc near Mila 23, where Dan's parents came from - they were evicted under Ceaucescu to make way for a scheme to drain a huge area of land for an agricultural 'polder'. For Dan, 'the better style of life it's here, not in other places. He was in a lot of other places because he was a driver before but he decided to move here and has his family and his gospoderia (household) here, in this place.'

    But there are problems in making ends meet in the Delta. First of all, the Biosphere Reserve regulations are imposed more strictly now than the regulations about the use of Delta resources under the socialist period. There is a strict three-month 'Prohibition period' when the fish are breeding. This is a serious problem for the people of a village like Mila 23. Traian.Gherasim told us that 'the ecologists must understand that the local inhabitants are depending on the fish and if they don't fish they don't have enough to eat'. Old Fyodor Butelkin objected to the fact that the 'ecologists' - which is what the locals call those who run the Reserve - have cut extra channels through the reeds in order to race out around in fast motor boats, 'checking' the plant and animal life and, he believes, actually disturbing the ecological balance.

    Another problem is land tenure. The people of the Delta fear that the Biosphere Reserve may mean that the authorities want to remove the people from the Delta, particularly from areas which are considered particularly in need of protection. So the fact that they haven't got legal title yet worries them. Doina and Dan don't have title for the land they are using, even though it was Dan's family's. The people of Mila 23 don't yet have title even to the land on which their houses are built, though they have been there for centuries. Volodia Butelkin and his wife Pina were so concerned that they took us to meet the mayor of the area in the village of Crisan nearby, asking us to try to find out when they would get title (the mayor promised that it would be 'soon').

    Anton Radu Roman emphasised that the Delta is precious to him for its people as well as its nature. He told us: 'I don't accept a Delta without people, I don't imagine Romania without Danube Delta and I don't imagine Danube Delta without people from the Delta, without Lipeveni and Ukrainians from the Delta. It's impossible for me to imagine that.'

  • Local Communities and the Wechiau Hippo Sanctuary, Ghana Open or Close

    Thinking points

    • As we also see in Gosh in Armenia and in the Danube Delta in Romania, the setting up of protected areas, usually in remote places like these, often means that local people to have to give up livelihood activities which are important to them. What do you think about this - how do we balance the needs of conservation and the needs of human communities?
    • In Ghana, as in other parts of Africa, there is a collective system of land tenure in which the ultimate 'owner' is the paramount chief of the 'landowning' tribe. Quite often, this tribe is not the same as that of the people living in an area, and decisions can be made which are not entirely in the interests of the 'tenant' tribe, as has happened with the Wechiau hippo sanctuary. How should outside bodies like those who set up the hippo sanctuary deal with complex land tenure situations like this?
    • The people of Telewona want a school, to give them the means to find out about the rest of the world and get in touch with people in other places. Think about the role that education plays in increasing the possibility of information flow and communication between remote communities and the outside world.
    • If you were a visitor, would you like to stay in a Lobi home rather than a tourist lodge, even if it is very different from what you are used to? Would you be interested only in the hippo sanctuary or in the lives of the local people?

    Setting the scene

    The Wechiau hippo sanctuary is near the town of Wa in the Upper West region of Ghana. It's a stretch of river about 40 km long, with a 1½ km strip each side of the bank, which was set up in 1997 and is run by a Peace Corps volunteer. A few tourists now visit the sanctuary and Earthwatch volunteers visit a couple of times a year to assist scientists who carry out studies of various kinds based at Wechiau. The Lobi people, with a few Hausa and Dagaata fishermen, live in the area immediately around the sanctuary. But the land itself belongs to another tribe - the Wala - and the Lobi pay tribute to the Wala chief for the land they use.

    While the Wala community of Wechiau, after which the sanctuary is named, is connected with the outside world through its market, its access to education through its school, and the trading activities of its inhabitants, Lobi communities in the sanctuary area have lives which are much more remote. This is not only because the roads are bad - it's because they have no schools to learn to read and write and to learn English, the language used in education and trade in Ghana, and because they don't have markets of their own but travel to those of Wala communities. Lobi children almost never leave their villages, and even adults only go rarely to market, since this usually means going on foot, which takes several hours to the nearest market. Lobi livelihoods are related closely to the natural resources around them - they grow crops and use wild resources from the land and the river.

    Although the sanctuary is described as a community initiative, the community which has been involved in setting up and running the sanctuary is not the people who live in the sanctuary area but the Wala, the 'landlords' of the area. The Wala have benefitted from the sanctuary in terms of employment much more than the Lobi, although a few Lobi, Hausa and Dagaata are now employed there. Lodges have been built for visitors, so the Lobi unfortunately don't make money by putting up visitors in their homes.

    Local livelihoods and the sanctuary

    Hippos are a sacred animal for the Lobi, and so they support their protection. They believe themselves to be closely connected to hippos in various ways, including as messengers to their ancestors. However, they have lost out from the setting up of the sanctuary - they've been excluded from using the river for a number of livelihood activities. The handful of Dagaata and Hausa fishermen in the area have been stopped from doing any more fishing, though they have been given caretaking roles at the sanctuary, and they earn some money acting as boatmen for visitors (see panorama).

    We visited Telewona, a Lobi village near one of the visitors' lodges, to meet some of the people and find out how feel about the sanctuary, and we went down to see the river itself. In Telewona, we met Suleimani and his family. Suleimani is one of the few Lobi who has a new job as a ranger at the sanctuary. Like all Lobi, he lives in a large and complex household with his two wives, his brothers and their wives (see panorama). He and his wife Insip told us that they are very pleased about the money and the bicycle he is getting. But Dauba Diri and Abena, his brothers' wives, told us that they were not happy about not being able to use the sanctuary area, and in particular about not being able to collect oysters any more, which are important sources of food and are also something to sell in the market. Abena told us that: 'we are organizing to send a word to the people who are managing the place to allow us to do oyster collection.'

    But Abena, and all of the children we talked to, were hopeful that maybe the sanctuary would mean that Telewona might get a primary school. All the people we spoke to in the village were keen to communicate with the visitors and to find out about the outside world - at the moment the Lobi are almost all illiterate and cannot speak English, the language used in education and trade in Ghana. Abena told us 'I would be very happy if I could speak English and I could always speak to visitors to understand their living and their way of doing things and we could communicate very well'. We visited Wechiau, the Wala community which is the headquarters of the sanctuary, to meet the chief of the village, Wechiau Na, and also talked to Grungu Na, the financial secretary of the sanctuary (see panorama). He too emphasised his hope that the Lobi may get schools.

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