By Nnenna Ezera
This week our classes focused on sustainable livelihoods. We spent a lot of time discussing what makes a sustainable livelihood in the Nilgiris and how incomes may come from different sources like non-timber forest products.
One of the research methods we learned about was focus groups. Now, before I came to the Nilgiris, my mental image of a focus group was very different. I had always imagined it as a group of people sitting around a table in a brightly lit room behind a one-way mirror. Researchers would be on the other side of the mirror watching the people as they discussed whether or not they were excited about some newfangled product. Focus groups in the Nilgiris are definitely not anything like that.
On both Tuesday and Wednesday, we did focus group exercises, and each day we spent the most time discussing exactly what to discuss and how to ask questions. “What are we trying to learn? Is that question too specific or not specific enough? Does that sound biased? How many questions can we even fit in the time frame? “
All of the students were broken into three groups. One group stayed to talk with the women at the production center in Banglapadigai village, while the other two groups headed off to talk with landed or landless farmers enrolled in a development program. The group I participated in was assigned to the landed farmers. A while down the road from the production center, we came to a line of houses perched on the hillside. The view was beautiful. I could see all around, down the valley, and to the forested mountain across. Waiting for us there were two of the farmers we had come to meet. A third arrived about halfway through the meeting, but the others couldn’t make it. I learned a lot from the farmers even though we didn’t have the numbers that were originally intended. We sat on the porch of one of the houses and talked about the program requirements, wildlife conflicts, and how the program has affected their livelihood. Here in the Nilgiris, things seem to rarely go to plan but they’re always interesting.
Classes ended early this week, and on Friday the Cornell students got a chance to go down to Coimbatore for the Save the Western Ghats Conference. Descending down the winding mountain roads toward the plains, I was thinking about how strange it is that it’s been almost exactly a month since I got off the plane in Coimbatore and made the opposite journey up into the mountains, marveling at the views, wincing at the narrow lanes and sharp turns, and feeling my ears pop as I adjusted to the elevation. Now I was headed back to Coimbatore with others from the Keystone foundation to go to a conference filled with people working in the Western Ghats, ready to discuss and learn about topics I knew little about only a month ago.