The Panos Oral Testimony Mountains Project has been an extensive and successful project thanks to the steady support of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), and the commitment and energy of our partner organizations in 10 countries: Peru, Mexico, Lesotho, Kenya, Ethiopia, China, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Poland. In each country the Oral Testimony Programme (OTP), together with our partners, trained a team of local interviewers, most of whom had no previous interviewing experience. Our partners then coordinated the collection of testimonies (usually between 30 and 40). All partners were supported to develop information outputs based on the testimonies for local and national audiences. The OTP checked, summarized, and analyzed English translations of the testimonies sent by partners and produced a booklet series (Voices from the Mountain) and an online archive ( www.mountainvoices.org) for international audiences. A review of the booklet series will appear in the next issue of MRD.
A guiding principle throughout the international OT Mountains Project has been that process is as important as product. This informed the decision to train teams of local men and women, so that interviews were always carried out in people's first language, by someone familiar to them and with the local context. The belief in process also guided our working arrangements; if participation was to be meaningful, we had to respect the timetables and existing commitments of our partners, which meant that some projects took 3 or 4 years to get to the dissemination stage. Overall, the OTP aimed to encourage partners' ownership of activities. This approach most definitely paid off when the project became a springboard or catalyst for further activities driven by our partners: for example, community radio work in India, further oral testimony work in Poland, and our partner in Kenya becoming a leading national consultant on the methodology.
In IYM 2002 we provided all partners with a seed grant to go towards attendance at an international event or a community development activity. This was a great way to effectively close our formal relationship with partners and resulted in a varied portfolio of activities including participation at an international tourism conference in Mexico, a fuel-efficient stove project in Ethiopia, the construction of an irrigation channel in Pakistan, and the improvement of village electricity supplies in southwest China. Although the project formally ended in December 2003 many of our partners' activities continue.
In India, our partner, the Himalaya Trust, collected interviews in the high valleys of Garhwal in Uttaranchal, and Kinnaur in Himachal Pradesh. The testimonies are rich in environmental knowledge and full of concern about the changing natural resources, increasingly affected by deforestation, monoculture forestry, a decline in traditional agriculture, and infrastructure development (road building and the construction of the Tehri Dam). The impact of education and the related issue of migration are other key themes.
The Himalaya Trust has completed two Hindi booklets based on the testimonies for a series called Eternal Wisdom. The two booklets cover biodiversity and traditional farming practices; a third will focus on the changing position of women. Over the last two years, local coordinator Indira Ramesh has initiated and supported community radio work. This form of participatory communication is particularly appropriate in a mountain region where “80% of village people listen to radio, yet they know nothing about what is happening in the neighboring village 10–12 kms away” (CR participant). The programs aim to break down such isolation and stimulate discussion between and within villages. The Himalaya Trust used their seed grant for a community biodiversity conservation project with the aim of raising skills and income through the sustainable use of economic plants and regenerating natural mixed forests.
The narrators in Peru discuss the impact of the mining industry on a previously agropastoral society. The environmental damage is vividly described, as well as the fundamental changes to lifestyle the industry has brought to communities. One narrator describes the devastated landscape: “The hillsides of the mountain range were pure pasture… now there's a mountain there, but it's a mountain of pure rubbish from the mine.”
Our Peruvian partner, Cooperacción, first mounted an exhibition using extracts from the testimonies to promote public discussion in the local communities. They then produced an illustrated book, Minería y Comunidades: testimonios orales y gráficos (a PDF version of this is available on www.mountainvoices.org). This was widely distributed and continues to be used to stimulate public debate and campaign for environmental improvements. Cooperacción used the Panos/SDC seed grant to allow a community representative to participate in an international mining conference in Canada.
Zdanie ( www.zdanie.org.pl) coordinated an all-female team of interviewers who collected testimonies in the Sudety mountains, southwest Poland. These testimonies show how the complex political history of central Europe over the last 80 years has had a profound impact on a relatively remote highland area. The Klodzko valley once lay within Germany's borders; after World War II it was part of the territory “recovered” by Poland. Questions of identity, conflict, reconciliation and politics characterize this collection, but there is also much material on the changing environment, and perceived shifts in patterns of weather, wildlife, etc.
Zdanie organized an exhibition and catalogue, based on extracts from the testimonies with photographs of the narrators and the surrounding environment—past and present. They went on to gather additional testimonies with local German inhabitants and then worked with a major regional radio station to produce a series of radio programs based on these. A second exhibition and booklet (in Czech, German, and Polish) was organized to meet regional interest. Zdanie used their seed grant to support the Sudety Summit in September 2002, which was recognized as “the most attractive IYM event in Poland.”
The Kenya Oral Literature Association (KOLA) and Interlink Rural Information Service (IRIS) coordinated the testimony collection in Mount Elgon district, Kenya. Given the area's relative fertility, people's concerns were less about environmental change, and more about poor access to markets and development facilities. Economic and political marginalisation was a key issue. One narrator, a male teacher, explains “… when it comes to the sharing of the national cake, nobody remembers us… Our location in a mountainous region can be an excuse to deny us development, but it cannot convince anybody.” The narrators also talk of social change; the tension between preserving a strong cultural identity yet being open to learning from others is a common theme. KOLA published an English booklet based on the testimonies and then went on to produce two KiSabaot books. Being some of the first publications in the Sabaot language, they were quickly adopted by local schools and literacy groups. KOLA used the seed grant to set up a field office and library in Mount Elgon and to hold a local IYM celebration. KOLA have become recognized nationally for their skills in oral testimony and have been asked to contribute their expertise to a number of development projects, including the Chronic Poverty Research Centre's work in Kenya.