Rebuilding the Indian Ocean communities destroyed by the December tsunami will take money, time… and livestock, which so many farmers in the region rely on for their livelihood. An organization based in Little Rock, Arkansas called Heifer International has earmarked 2 million dollars for programs to provide those animals, along with training and other support. Heading up this effort is Mahendra Lohani, a native of Nepal and Heifer's Program Director for Asia and the South Pacific.
Under the direction of its founder, an Indiana farmer named Dan West, Heifer's first project sent eighteen cows to needy families in Puerto Rico, along with trainers to teach them how to care for the animals. That was sixty years ago. Since then, the organization's principles have not changed, but - as Mahendra Lohani notes - the scale of its assistance has grown considerably.
"We have country offices in thirty-six countries at the moment, on all the five continents," he says. "These country officers receive requests from grass-roots communities who wish to partner with Heifer. The Heifer country office responds to those requests, they do the screening process, and if they find that it is appropriate and technically and financially feasible, they provide the support.
The support continues to be primarily in the form of country-appropriate livestock and training. Heifer provides water buffalo to farmers in India, and llamas to peasants in the highlands of Bolivia and Peru. Throughout the world, it gives geese, pigs, chickens, rabbits, bees, sheep and, of course, heifers to people who will breed the animals and thus be able to sustain themselves, and help their neighbors, as well. Mr. Lohani says a guiding philosophy of his organization's assistance programs is "Pass the Gift."
"If Heifer provides any help to a family in need, then this help should be effective in increasing the nutrition and income of the family, and after some time the family should be willing to help another family that's in need," says Dr. Lohani. "So that the help that Heifer provides to the first family will not stop there, it will rather keep on multiplying. In theoretical terms, any assistance we provide to any family should keep on rolling to other needy families in and around the community."
Mahendra Lohani worked with Heifer International as a volunteer in Nepal for four years before becoming the program's director in that country in 1997. Two years ago he was offered the position of Asia-South Pacific Program Director, and moved with his family to Little Rock, in the southern state of Arkansas. The roots of Dr. Lohani's interest in livestock, agriculture, and the fate of needy farmers go deep.
"I was born in a small subsistence farm family in the mountains of Nepal, about six hours walking distance from the capital, Kathmandu--no road, at that time!" he says. "In order to go to my village from Kathmandu I had to pass a mountain that was about 7 thousand feet (2000 meters). I lived in a family that had a couple of cows, one or two milking buffalos, eight to ten small goats and a few chickens. My childhood was spent just like any other children in the family, taking care of animals, bringing animals to grazing land."
Eventually young Mahendra was sent to school in Kathmandu. After graduation, he won a scholarship to study veterinary medicine in India, and continued his education in the Philippines, where he received a master's degree and a doctorate in veterinary medicine and agricultural economics. Returning to Nepal he worked for some years in a district veterinary hospital, providing veterinary and animal husbandry services to local farmers. In 1990 Mahendra Lohani was awarded a prestigious Hubert Humphrey scholarship for post-graduate study in the United States. He says he remembers his first impressions of this country vividly.
"Yes. It was really overwhelming," he recalls, laughing. "Big cities. I was brought to Austin, Texas for cultural orientation, etcetera, and stayed for six months there. Wow!" He laughs again. "The first thing that I found most difficult was the food. In Asia we're used to eating rice - Nepal, India, the Philippines, everywhere, it's rice and spicy food," says Mahendra Lohani. "Here there was no rice at all! So those were difficult times, a little bit. Another challenge was understanding the language, especially the southern accent in Texas. I was not used to that kind of English."
Although the fast-paced American lifestyle and the individualism of Americans also took some getting used to, Dr. Lohani says that he and his family are adjusting well to their new life in Little Rock. He says that for him, the biggest satisfaction of living in the United States is the ability to help farmers in more than one country, by working in the capacity of Director of Programs for Asia and South Pacific. Just now, in fact, he's on his way to the area hit by the deadly tsunami in December to assess what assistance Heifer International can provide.
"Our staff and our consultants are working with local grass-roots community organizations in the four hardest hit countries - Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and India - as to what kind of support would be appropriate, specifically related to livestock and agriculture-related input in rehabilitation and settlement and future community development," says Mahendra Lohani. "Our focus would be in delivering animals that are appropriate to the families that are affected, training them how to take care of those animals and get the best results and highest benefits. In addition we will teach them how to mobilize their local resources, including the savings and credit among themselves in the long run."
Dr. Lohani anticipates that Heifer International's project to help tsunami survivors will take three years to implement. After that there would be a two-year follow-up period, to assure that the gains and progress made remain sustainable after Heifer's trainers and staff pull out of the region.