Before I write more, let me introduce myself. My name is Maia Fitzstevens and I'm the Program Manager for Kidney Disease Prevention here at Sarvodaya USA. I spent 6 months in Sri Lanka in 2015 to develop and implement public health programs to tackle the major public health threat of chronic kidney disease among rural farming populations in Sri Lanka's Dry Zone. This work arose out of an internship I did with Sarvodaya in 2013, funded by the Madeleine Albright Institute at Wellesley College, where I was tasked with doing research on the epidemic of kidney disease in Sri Lanka, to understand the environmental causes of the disease and what could be done at the community level to prevent future cases and lessen the suffering of current patients and their families. I'll get more into the details of the kidney disease epidemic in another blog post.
Since you are reading this blog, chances are good that you know a bit about what Sarvodaya does in Sri Lanka (if you don't, feel free to check out our "About us" and "Learn" tabs at the top of our webpage), and chances are good that you've not heard of our partner organization, MONLAR, or the Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform. MONLAR is a non-governmental organization that works at the community, national and international levels to promote ecological agriculture, land rights, and agrarian reform. MONLAR serves as an umbrella organization for local community based organizations that teach farmers and their families to cultivate crops with organic methods. At the national level, MONLAR promotes and fights for organic farming policies and organizes farmers in important campaigns. Several recent campaigns include advocating for the land rights of people displaced by tourism development in Panama, Sri Lanka, and fighting against the Seed Act in 2014, which would have made it illegal for farmers to save their own seeds. At the international level, MONLAR represents Sri Lanka in La Via Campesina and the Asian Peasant Coalition, both leading networks and organizing bodies for peasants rights and struggles worldwide.
Sarvodaya and MONLAR, as community-based organizations concerned about the well being of Sri Lankans in the face of threats from toxic chemical-intensive agriculture and the kidney disease epidemic, began conversations in May 2015 on how they could act together for change. The conversations resulted in the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding, which initiated the Sarvodaya-MONLAR Joint Action Program for Kidney Disease Prevention. This is an innovative and unique partnership that brings together the wide bases of these community networks and combines their expertise with top-level national leadership in the field of community development and social change.
This farm project arose in conversations between leadership teams from Sarvodaya and MONLAR over the course of May and June 2015 to answer the question: what can we do, with our current organizational capacities, to address the contamination of our environment and prevent kidney disease, an urgent public health threat? We knew what our highest priorities for kidney disease prevention at the local level were: promoting clean water and organic agriculture, screening communities for early stages of kidney disease, and providing support to current patients and their families.
We knew we had to start small. We had to be realistic about the limitations of our ability to find funding, and thus work as much as possible within our existing organizational strengths and capacities. Getting into water projects, screening people to find new patients and supporting current patients all seemed like too much to start off with, so we brainstormed ways we could work on promoting organic agriculture. Somehow the idea came about that we could develop Sarvodaya's 53 acre land plot in Sri Tissapura near Padaviya, one of the areas of Sri Lanka hardest hit by kidney disease. Sarvodaya agreed to find the labor and provide the land for developing a model organic farm and farmer training center, and MONLAR agreed to provide seeds and develop training programs. Thus, our project was born!
On June 24, 2015, a group of people from Sarvodaya and MONLAR met to discuss the project on-site at Sri Tissapura, an 8-hour car ride from Colombo, the capital city of Sri Lanka. We started the day with a walk around the farm site, taking a look at the organic banana plantation, the agro-wells, and the land that hadn't been developed yet. The banana plantation, although small, was productive and organic. The 3 agro-wells, or wells designed to provide irrigation water, were in great shape and deemed ready for use. The land was assessed for ideal planting locations. I, knowing nothing about any of these farming details, had a lot of fun walking around the land with my new friends from the nearby Sarvodaya Kebithigollewa district center, young women around my age who help run the center there. Between my broken Sinhalese and their English, we were able to communicate and have a good time together. This was a real treat for me!
We then had an AMAZING meal that the staff at Sri Tissapura cooked carefully and lovingly. It was obvious that they had been at work all morning to make this beautiful lunch that featured local vegetables, including wild eggplant curry! The spread is below, and featured in the photo (from left to right) is Thennakoon, the manager of the Sri Tissapura site, and Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne, General Secretary of Sarvodaya.
Check back often for updates on the project and more information about the issue of kidney disease and the importance of ecological farming.