India: Bright shades of green - Mercy Corps and DHAN Foundation help farmers reclaim fields and income

by Roger O. Burks, Jr.

With every step, the people of Piryakootai are reminded of ocean waves that deluged their village over six months ago.

The telltale crack of salt-encrusted soil greets each step and a layer of greyish-brown dust coats shoes and feet. These were once vibrant, green rice paddies; the tsunami reduced them to lifeless hinterlands where not even weeds will grow.

Across this region of coastal India, last December's tsunami was merciless to agricultural communities. Thousands of acres were poisoned by salt and sand. Since then, already-poor families have faced the grim prospect of lost harvests. They feared that not only would their pockets be empty, but their kitchens and tables would be bare.

In the tiny village of Piryakootai, where only a few dozen families live, farmers are determined to recover their spoiled land - and reclaim their lives.

Mercy Corps, through its local partner the DHAN Foundation, is providing support for agricultural activities to over 10,600 people in India's still-reeling Nagapattinam district. Agricultural restoration projects include drainage and de-silting of salt-damaged crop fields, rehabilitation of contaminated village ponds and digging of canals. As of June, over 600 acres of cropland had been reclaimed.

A few of those recovered acres are in Piryakootai. Cleaning each acre is a back-breaking process: men with rudimentary hoes must scrape the salt and sand crust, which is as deep as three feet in some areas, from the surface. The contaminated soil must then be transferred in wheelbarrows to an adjacent field, where it waits to be carried off for disposal by heavy machinery rented by Mercy Corps.


On average, it's taken a group of nine men about three days to clear an acre of land. All their work is done under a brutal sun, with temperatures reaching well above 110 degrees Fahrenheit.

Neither forbidding weather conditions nor the disheartening sight of dozens of acres yet to be cleared intimidate the men of Piryakootai. They're determined to get their cropland back.

"This work will continue until the monsoon rains come," said one of the farmers. "Even then, we will work when we can."

Agricultural experts estimate that it will take between twelve months and two years to reclaim the tsunami-corrupted croplands in this area. Even after the farms start producing again, Piryakootai's farmers anticipate two to three years of stunted crops.

"We had four years of drought here and then, last year, good rains came and we had a bumper crop of rice," explained another farmer. "Then, weeks later, the tsunami hit and took all of our hard work away."

It's easy to see how farmers in villages like Piryakootai could be discouraged - but they're not. One of the biggest reasons why is that they work and depend on each other as a group. Mercy Corps has trained farmers in the district how to organize and pool their resources and efforts.

These fields, once reclaimed, will flourish with rice and a local leafy vegetable called djinjeli.

As they labor hard and long together, it's evident that Piryakootai's farmers are already seeing that future, painted in bright shades of green.

Roger Burks is the Online Managing Editor for Mercy Corps.