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Field Notes: On the road to regeneration with the women of Timbaktu

On the trail of successful regeneration projects, Lush Times reporter Katie Dancey-Downs visited Lush Spring Prize 2017 winner The Timbaktu Collective in Andhra Pradesh, Southern India. She knew the regenerated landscape would be impressive, but what surprised her was an inspiring example of social regeneration.

Against a backdrop of birdsong and buzzing insects, women are singing. Their call-and- answer song is a lyrical description of the unity and community so vital to their way of life. These are the leaders of one of the four women’s Cooperatives at the Timbaktu Collective, where sustainable development has changed the face of a drought-prone region in Andhra Pradesh. As the natural world is being regenerated, something is happening to the people too.

Today, this important community building song is for our benefit, but the meeting about to follow is serious business. Maneelamma, the President of all four Co-ops, steps outside the meeting to talk to us. We soon learn that this Cooperative is not just about gender equality. It is about eradicating caste, economic background, religion, and providing access to better education too. Maneelamma is not educated, she is not rich, and she is from a low caste, but none of that even comes into consideration here. This marginalised group of people is fighting hard for equality against all odds, and is succeeding.

“We are strong. We have strength and courage and we can speak freely,” Maneelamma tells us in her native language Telugu, which Molly (the daughter of Timbaktu’s founders) translates into English.

Maneelamma has complete access to her own finances here. Not only is she equal to men, but she does not need to go to banks or other external sources if she needs to borrow money. This is because the women here have rejected traditional economic systems, and created their own - they have built a community-based savings programme.

Maneelamma, The Timbaktu Collective

Usually, women would be expected to hand their salaries over to men, but these women are doing things differently. Around 30 women each started saving 10 rupees a month (about 12 pence), and collected it all together. Eventually, they had a system where they could offer out low-interest loans to each other, where borrowing was based on trust.

This is wholly organised by the women. There are no men sitting at the top pulling the strings, and there is no political agenda. The sense of empowerment the women feel is immediately obvious, and there are now over 21,000 women in the group of cooperatives.

In a time before the Timbaktu Collective, a lot of people had to take out bank loans to be able to cover their living expenses. Maneelamma tells us that in that time, there was no sense of having your own life. In the end, many people left the area, and a high number of farmers under pressure commited suicide.

Maneelamma is clearly, and quite rightly, proud of the achievements of the Collective. She says: “We’ve come together to a state now where a rural woman is able to access a loan of 100,000 rupees [£1,162]. In the future, she should be able to access 200,000 [£2,324]! In the future a woman should not have to rely on anyone.”

This ethical cooperative banking system based on honesty and collaboration seems like an idea that could be replicated all over the world; as long as people can learn to cooperate with and trust each other.

And this is not where the lesson in social regeneration ends. Nestled in between trees (which did not exist 25 years ago) on an experimental farm, we are shown another example of how The Timbaktu Collective is challenging social structures.

We’re taken to meet a group of children, who are busy rescuing turtles. These are the children from the Nature School, and the story is bittersweet. While the children appear happily immersed in the nature around them, they are only here because they have nowhere else to go. They have no-one else to care for them, or those who are supposed to care for them have been abusive.

Now, these children have an incredible environment in which to learn; the school is in the middle of a forest, and nature is intertwined in everything they do. They are cared for completely by staff on site, and will be here until they are old enough to be reintegrated into the Government school system.

Seeing The Women’s Cooperative, the Nature School, and everything else at The Timbaktu Collective is a reminder of the importance of equality. In a place where nothing could grow - resulting in poverty and migration - finding a better balance for both people and nature has given this community renewed strength.

The work here proves that equality is not a luxury... it is a necessity.

Read more about regeneration at The Timbaktu Collective

Find out how to support The Timbaktu Collective

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