by Christopher Howse VILLAGERS in Thailand are now able to take their lives in their own hands thanks to a five year scheme run by four Ursuline nuns and backed by the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development.
Sister Francis Xavier Bell, an American Ursuline, is the project adviser to the scheme in Chom Bung in the Ratchuburi province of Thailand. She is returning to Thailand after a spell of leave.
When she first arrived at the area she found 60 square kilometres of drought ridden land with a downtrodden population. almost entirely Buddhist. The people were working for sugar cane farmers. who picked them up in lorries at 6 am and returned them to their dwellings 12 hours later, paying for the transport out of their 80 United States Cents a day wages.
Now the people. including 100 Catholic families who are integrated with the other villagers, have their own sugar cane cooperative and farm dairy herds. They have started their own milk packaging unit.
"We're doing pre-evangelisation, to promote understanding," Sr Francis said. We have organised credit unions for the people to free them from the middle men. We have been working with 19 villages with health and child development projects. and education and
Among the breakthroughs the project has iichieved is a veterinary training programme, which helps the villagers look after the relatively expensive livestock they have acquired. First. the use of the land had to be changed from woodcutting and charcoal burning. Irrigation was introduced and a dam built by hand labour.
Sr Francis said: "The improvement in quality of life has been unbelievable. And now I see the people taking the reins of their own lives in their hands. They even elect successors to fill community positions. Five years ago, they wouldn't even have known how to say hello." The projects have been given steady support by the government of Thailand. though there have lately been problems. This was an area which had provided a source of terrorists. Now that the villagers can fend for themselves. they are no longer forced to turn to terrorism. LAtely Buqdhist monks have come to take part in training programmes. Sr Francis is working to put herself out of a job there when the programmes can proceed without her.
There have been problems — a close friend and adviser among the people was recently shot and killed by an unknown attacker.
The Chom Bung project is featured in a photographic display at Westminster Cathedral.