Blog article

Twelve years of support for co-operatives in the Indian Ocean

Ed Mayo explains the work that has been done in Sri Lanka with support from UK co-operatives in the years since large parts of the country were devastated by the Tsunami.

Co-operators have a long tradition of internationalism. Our values lead us in that direction. One of our core principles is co-operation among co-operatives: working together at local, regional, national and international levels.

On 26 December 2004, a massive earthquake off the west coast of Northern Sumatra kicked off a series of tsunamis that killed around a quarter of a million people across 14 countries around the Indian Ocean.

In response, many co-operatives in the UK fundraised and donated to emergency appeals, channelled as disaster relief through United Nations and charities. Once that was done, a second decision was taken, to work through Co-operatives UK, to collect funds to provide long-term support and reconstruction through co-operatives in the region. Co-operatives in other countries – Canada, Italy, Germany, Japan, Singapore and Sweden – did the same.

If you open Google Earth and turn to find the Indian Ocean, tracing a line with your finger from Chennai towards Singapore, you’ll find a few dots as you start to focus in. These specks are the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, an archipelago of 572 islands. If your mouse drifts just a little bit further over, you will be over the epicentre of the 2004 earthquake.

"This work has been slow and patient, making certain of the value of every pound contributed."

It was in the villages of the Andaman islands that our support started, coordinated by Stirling Smith, an Associate at the Co-operative College. In each village, there is a primary co-operative (called a panam hinengo in Nicobarese). Members sell to the society the produce they collect and cultivate – coconut and areca nut. Behind these sits a dynamic and creative central co-operative, Ellen Hinengo Limited (EHL), which serves them, with distribution and marketing. The villages had all been flattened, the central co-operative facilities all knocked out. But once the villages started to be rebuilt, attention turned to people’s livelihoods and we supported EHL by financing the reconstruction of a central warehouse and the purchase of two large trucks to move supplies and produce to the primary societies.

In Southern India, the co-operative we worked with was the Marakanam Adi Dravidar Salt Workers Co-operative and Sale Society, located in the Villuparam District of Tamil Nadu. What was unusual about this co-operative was its members, who are all are from the ’Harijan community‘ - Harijan, or ‘children of God’, being Gandhi’s preferred term for ‘untouchables’.

The co-operative is situated on more than 100 acres of ‘backwaters’ – large low lying areas separated from the sea by spits of land. Sea water is pumped into the salt pans and the sun evaporates the water, leaving salt. Salt produced by the co-operative is sold through the consumer co-operatives. The tsunami had overwhelmed the salt pans, damaged the co-operative’s warehouse and destroyed the pumping stations. We supported the reconstruction of the warehouse and pumping stations and the rehabilitation of the salt pans.

In Indonesia, we worked with two fishery co-operatives. The Bahari Karya Fishery Co-operative is in the Pante Raja area of Aceh. The business of the co-operative is catching anchovies and processing them – by drying and smoking. It also provided a consumer kiosk, as well as a savings and loans function. As with all our support, what was needed was what the co-operative had identified as essential for long-term reconstruction. In this case, it was facilities to allow members to keep their catch fresh, and so maintain both the quality and market price of their fish.

In the case of the second co-operative, Lembah Lhok Seudu, we supported the building of storage and drying facilities, as well as the construction by members of a replacement for the unique boats that they use. The co-op members catch fish from large boats called palungs. These are towed out to sea for about four miles and stay in one area for up to a week. Most of the catch is then auctioned in the neighbouring province of Sumatra Utara (North Sumatra).

This work has been slow and patient, making certain of the value of every pound contributed. Work in the Andaman islands, for example, one of the most remote parts of the world, was held up for five years by Indian Government regulations, restricting cash payments, despite the best efforts of our global partner, the International Co-operative Alliance.

Sri Lanka was a country that benefited from such patience. Initially, with several other co-operative movements working there, we kept away. But more recently, peace in Sri Lanka opened up the possibility for reconstruction work with co-operatives in what had been a conflict-hit area of North Eastern Sri Lanka that had never received any emergency relief at all.

In 2014, Co-operatives UK gave backing with the last monies raised for reconstruction to a project of co-operative training to be conducted by the Co-operative College. The 'train the trainers' approach meant that over 1,100 people went on courses introducing the co-operative model. Further, three new peanut co-operatives and two new Thrift and Credit co-operatives were established as a direct result. Last year, drawing on the UK Co-operatives Fortnight, Sri Lanka had its first ever Co-operatives Week.

We learned, as we expected, that the challenges of long-term reconstruction are no less complex than the challenges of disaster relief in the immediate aftermath. We learned that the opportunities for positive impact are no less profound. We learned that co-operatives are an extraordinary vehicle for such reconstruction, precisely because through their members, they are able to identify and prioritise exactly what is needed. In every case in which we gave support, our role was that of listening rather than proposing, supporting rather than doing.

"The full impact is what those co-operatives and co-operative sectors can offer over time, as sustainable agents of change and progress."

The impact of our work is not just in the strength today of the individual co-operatives that we have collaborated with across the Indian Ocean, and the support for the livelihoods they offer to their hundreds of thousands of members. The full impact is what those co-operatives and co-operative sectors can offer over time, as sustainable agents of change and progress.

And if we are ever in need, we may find help from elsewhere - it is called co-operation. Co-operative societies in the UK have a long tradition of internationalism. It is a commitment of which we can take pride.

Written by Ed Mayo
Updated: 08/02/2017