This is Clare Rutz reporting from Vientiane in Laos.
As an In-The-Field traveler I was able to see a side of Laos that most backpackers wouldn’t. I was able to talk to the people, visit their homes, and catch a glimpse of their daily lives. SEDA, a small non-profit that reaches out to many different communities with a thoughtful approach to each, gave me the opportunity to ask what it was the people of Vientiane and the surrounding villages needed. Their response was often exactly what SEDA was determined to help them with.
Some projects help thousands of people, while others help just one, but when given the chance to see the smile that comes from that one person in thanks for what was given to them, you do not question the importance of such philanthropy. Andee is a twelve-year-old girl who was completely paralyzed until six months ago. With physical therapy and medicine that helps rejuvenate her nerve cells given to her by SEDA she is able to show some movement. When asked to move her arms she did with a proud smile immediately following her accomplishment. I was fortunate enough to come on a day where Souly, the founder of SEDA, was delivering a surprise to Andee. We had brought a full set of sheets and a bright pink blanket for her bare mattress. Her simple joy for such simple amenities could easily ground anyone. With the right funding another surprise will hopefully make its way to Andee. Souly is currently looking for a hospital bed that will help her with physiotherapy and exercise!
Jumping back into the car we head towards another project of SEDA’s. We are visiting a woman who is apart of the microfinance opportunity that SEDA provides. When we arrive the first thing I notice is the spinning wheel. It’s the main attraction of the tiny building the family resides in. “Without the spinning wheel there would be no building”, was what I was told after I asked how their lives changed since the microfinance program. It provides them with a job that pays for the necessities. The microfinance project gives three to four hundred women loans in order to start spinning. The women collect old collars and bits of cloth from the factories and spin it back to useable string. SEDA provides the loans and helps the women with marketing. They are required to set up a group of five to ten women with one accountant and one secretary, and as a team they are responsible for repaying their loans. The interest rates compared to the local banks are extremely low, which allow the women to take the risk and begin working. The program provides a sustainable income for these women, and sustainability is a large component to the path towards self-reliance, the greatest goal of SEDA.
Our last stop is a once abandoned house that was previously owned by a USAID worker. The swimming pool is empty and weeds burst from the cracks, but something remarkable is going on in the backyard. A greenhouse full of potted plants is the beginning of a huge step forward for the farmers of Laos. SEDA is researching the most effective farming techniques that can be taught to farmers to increase the quality and quantity of their agricultural goods. They are also researching “cash crops”, which are the crops that are in high demand. Agarwood is the leading product in this field, and SEDA is making long strides to grow this special wood used for medicine and cosmetics, distribute the seedlings, and train farmers on how to tend to the crop. The difficulties of the process include the transportation of the seedlings, which is very costly and the training. Agarwood needs to be grown in a very specific way in order for the quality to be adequate enough to use, therefore, the training process will need to be long and thorough. With each great idea come obstacles! Follow the progress of SEDA on their page on GlobalGiving at: www.globalgiving.com/2219 to check up on Andee and to support the women in the microfinance program go to www.globalgiving.com/2504. To read about the agricultural program that completed its funding goal go to www.globalgiving.com/2012.
When asked what she would tell her friends about this project, Clare said: "Great: They are making a difference."
Last month, many farmers lost their cash crops due to the flooding of the Mekong River. Families have lost thousands of dollars as their livelihood was washed away by the flood waters. The farmers lost their vegetable cash crops as well as long-term tree plantations. The flood affected many districts and damage is in the millions (US dollars).
SEDA followed up with its members after the flood. There are four districts that were flooded, affecting thousands of people who rely on agriculture for their livelihood. SEDA been trying to help set up these families with grants and also help raise funds for a nursery to help them rebuild their farms.
SEDA has also reported to the World Food Program that the flood victims did not receive sufficient food and water. They only received four kgs of rice for three people, three cans of tuna, and three bags of instant noodles.
The areas that were flooded were already impoverished and no are in even more dire conditions. At this stage, SEDA has requested urgent action from international donors to support the flood victims. More funds are needed to help the victims rebuild their farms and provide basic necessities until they have been able to get back on their feet.
To help the flood victims please contact Zachary App who is coordinating the collection of clothes, school supplies and funds in the US by phone (617) 908-1537 or email:firstname.lastname@example.org. SEDA urgently needs more funds and supplies to support their members who have lost their crops in the flood.
This summer SEDA and the Lao Science Team have produced more Jatropha Curas and Agarwoods seedlings for disadvantaged farmers in rural Laos. Last year, SEDA was only able to produce 150 seedlings. This year SEDA expects over a thousand seedlings and new SEDA members. SEDA will support coffee, tea, and fruits farmers, as well as farmers of herbal plants. SEDA and the Lao Science Team plan to provide farmers with seedlings, as well as microcredit and microfinance programs. In some villages, the farmers have already planted the Agarwood tree seedlings SEDA provided. SEDA will provide these farmers with the proper training to improve the quality of the trees and instruct them in how to operate their own social enterprise, such as equipping them with the skills to operate an independent business or farm. SEDA and the Lao Science Team have prepared thousands of seedlings and cash crops to be provided to the farmers by the end of the year.
This summer is monsoon season, which prevents SEDA staff from travelling to rural areas. By the end of October, SEDA plans to visit many rural villages in order to provide more seedlings to farmers, and provide training on farming, business, and marketing. SEDA will provide more Jatropha Curas, Agarwood, and herb plants seedlings, as well as cash crops like rice and beans.
At this stage, the farmers do not have enough crops to sell at the market, so SEDA will continue to focus on the farmers skills and provide seedlings. Until the farmers are on their feet, SEDA will help the farmers to sell their crops to both manufactures and at the market at fair trade prices.
To learn more about SEDA, please visit: www.seda-laos.org or email: email@example.com
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The Lao Science/SEDA Research project has planted 15 Agarwood trees as a trial. The trees are roughly three and a half to four years old. The three year old trees do not produce enough fruit to be profitable, but in the fourth year they produce more fruits and we will see more seeding fruit years to come.
The origin of the Agarwood tree has been traced back to before Hinduism. It produces a strong resin and is a non-chemical plant. Agarwood is very sensitive and needs special care. In Laos it is called Ko Ketsan and its Latin name is Aquilaria. Laotian farmers and investors are still trying to find solutions on how to cultivate, produce more fruits, and improve the quality of the resin. The Agarwood seeds are gathered from the wild and will only survive three or four days if not planted.
The price of the Agarwoord resin is very high on the black market. The wild Agarwood tree became so valuable that it was logged to sell for its resin. Loggers often damaged Agarwood trees that had no resin in their search for this valuable commodity. Today ,there is an international law protecting the wild Agarwood. Destroying the tree could result in a fine of US$10,000 and up. Interested investors can purchase legal Agarwood through local farmers or coordinate with SEDA.
The market demand comes from the Middle East, Asia, Europe, as well as for relegious ceremonies in Islam, Buddhism, Catholicism, and bio-medical and cosmetic companies. The resin in the market ranges from low to high quality and sells from $5000 per/kg up to $25,000k.
The SEDA project is teaching local farmers how to protect the Agarwood trees and cultivate them for the next generation.This is a long term investment and will provide a permanent income to farmers after three or four years. Farmers can also sell the seedlings in order to generate income. Each seeding trees price can be ranges from $1 and up based on the size of the seedling tree.
In Laos, local farmers travel to the jungle to search for wild seedlings and transfer the plants to their farm. They are very difficult to transfer since the Agarwood tree is very sensitive. Lao Science/SEDA is supporting technical experts to train the farmers. The farmers are eager to learn how to protect the trees and expand their agriculture practices as as a long term solution to reduce poverty.
Tit Phua is an 87-year-old Jatropha Curas farmer on the outskirts of Vientiane city. Old he may be, but Tit Phua is healthier and stronger than most 60-year-olds. He has a wife 30 years his junior and a teenage daughter to support. He needs to keep working to ensure a future for his family.
Tit Phua started his Jatropha plantation on his own 2 years ago with just 3 kilos of Jatropha seeds he saved up to buy. From the initial harvest, which generated 3 kilos of seeds, he expanded the plantation. The second harvest generated 20 kilos; some he sold for less than US$1.50 per kilo and some he planted out. His 3.5 hectare plantation now has about 1500 trees. From the third harvest at the end of 2008 it's estimated he will produce around 100 kilos of seeds for the entire plantation, which he can sell for between US$1.50 and US$3 per kilo on the market (prices subject to change). It will be his first income in 2 years and not nearly enough to ensure a stable future.
Tit Phua is a good farmer – he does everything right based on his experience. However, with the right knowledge and growing conditions, he could actually generate up to 100 kilos of quality seeds per tree, and this is where SEDA wants to help him.
As a member of SEDA's microfinance program, Tit Phua will have access to agricultural advice from bio-fuel experts from the University of Florida. The information will allow him to use organic-only methods, such as specialized compost and organic fertilizer, to improve his harvest and the condition of the trees. SEDA will then buy the seeds from him at fair-trade prices – up to US$17 per kilo. The purchased seeds will be given to other farmers who are members of the program so that they can establish similar income-generating crops. In this way, Tit Phua will be producing more seeds and receiving a good price for them, adding to SEDA's seed bank to benefit other farmers and have access to as much farming information as he needs.
Before planting Jatropha, Tit Phua used this land for cash crops. He farmed fish in dams and tried growing banana trees, among other ventures. However, free-ranging livestock damaged many of his crops and the fish did not do well. His Jatropha trees, however, have been a booming success.
Tit Phua spent much of his life in the Lao PDR military. When he retired he received a house and an income of $55 a month from the government. While this may not seem bad in a developing country and he is luckier than many, living costs are high. They must pay $35 a month for electricity and water which leaves them with $20 a month for food, clothes, education for their daughter and emergency and medical funds. Like most people in rural Lao, this leaves them living on less than $2 a day.
Participating in SEDA's microfinance program will provide Tit Phua's family with the security they need to know that after he is gone they will be able to survive. It will also mean that Tit Phua has the best chance of becoming an independent entrepreneur, setting an example in social enterprise for his community.
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