"We created jobs...": The forest peoples of Mayurbhanj

In two and a half years, an innovative ILO project has helped create well over 2,000 jobs, and pull more than 200 indebted families out of a debt trap. This three-year ILO INDISCO project aims at creating decent employment for tribal peoples in the remote forests of Mayurbhanj in Orissa, India, and is well on its way to becoming a replicable model.

ORISSA, India - Forty-three year-old Gorachand Murmu was an agricultural labourer, migrating to faraway places in search of work. Like all of his neighbours in this tribal village, he had no savings in the local bank.

Now, through an income-generation scheme developed as part of a three-year ILO project under INDISCO (see box), Mr. Murmu is enjoying a higher standard of living, and a new sense of self-esteem, social status and economic independence.

"I no longer need to leave my village and migrate to distant places in search of employment," he says, "and I have been able to make my family feel secure with my new income". Gorachand is not alone. Prior to this project, not one single household had a personal savings account. Now, through the project's income-generation schemes, several hundred persons are saving money at the local Baitarani Gramya bank.

The INDISCO project has triggered a process of community-owned and driven initiatives towards decent and productive employment for these tribal peoples. Covering a cluster of 40 villages consisting of over 2,000 tribal households, this expanded project is a sequel to an earlier pilot exercise (1994-1999), which demonstrated the importance of participatory methodologies in tribal initiatives. The present project activities took off in May 2001, building capacities to manage their own institutions, providing microcredit and skills-development for employment.

"In India, tribal people account for 8 per cent of the population, with about 52 per cent of them subsisting below the poverty line," says Dilnawaz Mahanti, the National Project Coordinator of INDISCO in India. "Socially, geographically, as well as economically excluded, they are faced with a steadily depleting livelihood base as a result of depleting natural resources on which they are dependent." Illiteracy and ignorance of the market potential of their resources make them vulnerable to exploitation by external agents, and forced them into the debt trap and distress migration in search of wage labour.

Tribal peoples present a unique challenge because they are difficult to reach. The major thrust of these projects is to generate employment through skills development and upgrading traditional skills with simple technologies, mainly based on natural resource management. "The programme enables the formation of self-supporting cooperatives among ethnically homogenous groups," says Herman van der Laan, Director of the ILO subregional office in India. "This lends a stronger voice, social protection, and organizational strength to the tribals."

The main occupation of tribal communities is agriculture. Most tribals are marginal farmers with an average of one to two hectares of land. Crop failure is frequent in drought years. Deforestation has left large areas barren, provoking soil erosion and loss of income from forest produce, which is an important source of income. The project recognizes and builds upon the tribal people's own indigenous systems of sustainable land and natural resource management, striking a balance between economic utilization and ecological preservation.

The tribal people's cooperatives (which are still in the making), are on their way to all -round empowerment, getting themselves equipped to manage their own enterprises, access support services and obtain fair prices for products. Revolving loan funds provide credit. Women are receiving training in microcredit and accounting.

The project had a considerable impact on expanding the women's income through mobilization and targeted skills training. "While the women's workload remains heavy, they have gained a stronger position in the communities by empowering themselves towards self-sufficiency," says Ms. Mahanti. "Such empowerment has helped boost the morale and esteem of these women, who are now more receptive to new concepts on literacy, savings, health issues, etc."

Revolving loan funds have also been used to start up activities such as pisciculture and animal husbandry. Some persons are running grocery shops, cycle repair shops, beekeeping and garment industries. Training in sal leaf-cup making has helped a large group move into processing the leaves of the sal tree by using machines acquired through the project. A group of tribal youth was given typing training. "It was through the women's groups of the project that I learned about the typing training,"says Saniya Singh of Durgapur village. "I work as a village guard because I could not afford to continue my studies." Saniya now hopes to buy his own typewriter and find a job with some State government office and earn a decent living.

People are now ready for bigger and more ambitious activities. Emerging from the shadows, the women of INDISCO project villages are now equal partners in the decision-making process. Tribal communities identify themselves very closely with their natural habitat and practice their traditional skills in natural resource management. "Our experience", notes Mr. Van der Laan, "has been that any strategy for employment generation with tribal peoples is most likely to succeed if it is based on upgrading traditional skills with simple technology, and utilizing available natural resources". All activities are implemented in consultation with the people, and identified in most part by them. The ILO is the facilitator and provides the required technical support, striking a balance between blending modern and traditional systems specific to the region.

Kiran Mehra-Kerpelman


INDISCO – Interregional Programme to Promote Self-reliance of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples through Cooperatives and Similar Self-help Organizations – is part of the ILO Cooperative Branch and tests approaches to promoting decent employment opportunities in partnership with the people. It is funded by Ausaid, ILO and Danida. INDISCO was initiated in 1993 during the UN International Decade of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples. Today, it is present in various countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America. The programme was started first in India.

In response to the dismal living and working conditions of the estimated 300 million indigenous and tribal peoples around the world, INDISCO offers technical assistance on how to translate the provisions of ILO Convention No.169 on the ground. The strategy includes supporting pilot projects, promoting best practices and linking grassroot experiences with the broader policy environment. The five major elements are: strengthening the organizational capacity, promoting livelihood opportunities, preserving and promoting traditional knowledge, gender and youth concerns, and environmental sustainability.

ILO indigenous and tribal peoples convention, 1989 (No. 169)

The ILO is responsible for the only (two) international instruments which deal exclusively with the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples. ILO Convention No. 169 is unique in that it acknowledges the specific identities, lifestyles and cultures of indigenous and tribal peoples. In other words, it recognizes the right to be different. The Convention covers a number of issues which are of the utmost importance to indigenous and tribal peoples. Some of these are: the right to practice their own culture and traditions; the rights to traditionally occupied lands; the right to natural resources and to participate in the use, management and conservation of these resources; restrictions on displacement and land alienation; and issues concerning education, health and employment. The Convention emphasizes the right of indigenous and tribal peoples to be consulted at every stage of development which may affect them. It also highlights their right to engage actively in the development process, making decisions on matters of concern to them.