The price of Illiteracy and the cost of literacy


We have recently started plantation activities in south western Myanmar – Ayyerwaddy state. We had to plant seedling and clones this rainy season. Typically for our plantation trees 1’x1’x1’ pits are ideal. Bigger ones are like babysitting your child till they are 35 years old – a sure way to spoil them. The roots should have it easy for the first few days and after that they should work towards fortifying their hold themselves – that’s when we get optimum results (or so I have been told).

We had to recruit local labour for digging pits and planting. Wages had to be negotiated. We saw that in nearby local plantations – first timers – teams of 4 working together were digging about 15 pits (2’x2’x2’) in a 8 hr working day. We calculated that for our size they should be able to dig about 120 of them –digging 1’ deep top soil is far easier than going deeper and of course the pains of moving the equipment from one pit to another. The going rate of labour per day was about $ 3. Accordingly we suggested similar wages for 120 pits per day.

There was an immediate outrage. They argued that it should only be 30 pits since a 2 ft pit is twice as large. Our first attempt failed since we withdrew under fear of violence. A day or two later we had explained the stuff to the local interpreter who himself had problems in understanding the issue. Then complaints of rude behavior. For such a peaceful society even our (indian) normal decibel level is rude. Meanwhile the other work was going on. After we thought they had cooled down (i.e. a few days later), we went with some flip charts and drew some pictures and tried demonstrating that a pit of 2’x2’x2’ yields 8’ of earth and our size is about 1 cu feet of earth and hence the number. No effect still after explaining to the labour, the contractor and some referees nearby and some people from nearby plantations, in 3-4 attempts over a week.

We bought some buckets (some large and some small) and tried filling it up with the loose earth and shown them the measurements. After about 2-3 weeks, they were softer in approach but had complaints about our being greedy and deceitful. I guess they realized that they may be wrong but how wrong was difficult to prove to them. It was also difficult to see if they actually understood but were play acting as a bargaining tool. For in the jungle they had no other work to do.

Though we started our negotiations early, we were slowly running out of time and hence had to settle at a steep discount. We agreed for 55 pits a day with an incentive for every pit at the same rate for more numbers. But it has taken nearly 40 days for us to learn our lessons. I have no way of knowing whether they learnt theirs. What cost illiteracy? So what would we do next time – go for pneumatic diggers next year not the ideal solution by labour nor my own orientation; but what choice?

The cost of literacy

The plantation is vast and near the north west boundary is an elephant sanctuary with an estimated population of 110. They live there for about 8 months and travel eastward during Jan – April when the sanctuary area is short on water. Their path cuts across our area in its northern part. Our crop is not their fodder and hence does not create much problems; but their trip itself can be a source of nuisance since they trample on plants. The areas affected could be vast and hence we had to find some solutions. We had engaged some international experts (from some other work) who had worked in similar areas of East Asia and Indonesia – the best and experience based solution they came up with was to dig/build a trench of 4-5 ft right along the border (or) erect a electrified fence. The first one was a very costly exercise – would have cost us $ 2-3 million. We were not keen on the 2nd alternative – a nasty one we thought, might kill other animals and inconvenience others living in the area (though very sparse), besides the erection costs and electricity charges.

During one of the visits, when our team was discussing various issues some curious local tribal who were eavesdropping told the interpreter that they knew how to tackle the elephant menace. After all they were living right on their migration path. They suggested that elephants are afraid of bees and ants and chilli powder. They suggested that we ‘soak’ strings in chilli powder and tie them along the boundary. Looked silly and in any case had to be done every week or so. Can work around a single village or s small nursery – not over a vast stretch.

Bee attacks can be quite painful and we were hesitant. Similarly if ants get into their trunks or ears, it is havoc since elephants tend to go wild after that. The locals assured us that elephants see/sense these things from quite a distance and pass on the information to others and generally avoid them. Actual incidents are quite rare. So they grow some trees which attract ant colonies and sometimes nurture bee hives which takes care of their problems. And resort to chilli treatment when the time is too short (to grow ant colonies or bee hives) and area is small (like rice nurseries).

So after due discussion we are outsourcing the work to them – to grow bee hive trees every 100 meter or so where we don’t want the elephants – ants we felt should be left out. It is a boon to the locals – they will take the honey and wax + some token payment from us. We need to grow wild bananas along the path we want the elephants to take – some of the valleys are difficult to work for plantation and we would do it along the corridor. Would cost us some money in 1-2 rounds of plantation after which it is self-generating.

The solution of the literate and technology would have cost us at least a couple of million US$. What value tribal or local knowledge. And what cost literacy???

Same kind of people, same area, 2 vastly different lessons!!!

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