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Biogas Technology in India; Computer Technology in Rural Nigeria; Eco-friendly Forestry in Mexico

Aired December 20, 2004 - 16:00:00   ET


RALITSA VASSILEVA: In this edition of GLOBAL CHALLENGES, a burning issue. For years, villagers in developing countries have used the most natural of resources to fuel their fires at a high cost to their health. There is a better way.
Rural revolution, a simple but effective finance and training system revitalizes the Nigerian countryside and reverses urban migration.

Hot to trot, a Mexican community buried by a volcano rises from the ashes to profit from its misfortune.

Welcome to GLOBAL CHALLENGES. I'm Ralitsa Vassileva.

Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the Indian nation, once dreamed of (UNINTELLIGIBLE), or self reliance for India's rural communities. He saw it as a way out of abject poverty.

50 years later the growing use of biogas technology could help bring his dream a step closer to reality.


(voice-over): The women of Baslambi (ph), outside New Delhi, have been doing this for years. And they're good at it. Deftly, their hands mix the cow dung with straw in just the right proportions, kneading it into a paddy and then laying it out to bake in the suns rays.

Soon the paddies will be ready to burn as fuels to cook the meals, prepare the dairy products and heat the dwellings. The leftovers will fertilize the crops. This ritual is a way of life in rural India, where 70 percent of the country's population lives.

Centuries of grinding poverty have forced India's rural poor to make the most of what nature has to offer. 90 percent of them burn biomass, like cow dung or wood, and it wouldn't cost a thing if it wasn't for the smoke.

Many of India's rural women and children are paying for it with their health. They breath in the smoke which chokes their lungs and burns their eyes. The World Health Organization found that dung smoke exposure increases the risk of chronic respiratory disease, cataracts and even some forms of cancer, and respiratory disease is one of the leading causes of death for children under five.

But just a few kilometers away, in Panchgul (ph), the Yatta (ph) family found a better way to use cow dung. It installed a biogas plant to process it.

Kuchna (ph) says the benefit is that they don't have to go out and collect wood and bring it home. The pots and pans don't get black now. The house does not get black and her eyes no longer water.

All she has to do is collect the dung from her cows, make sure she mixes it in the right proportion with water, and feed it down the drain to the underground digester, an oxygen-free tank where bacteria ferments the dung.

It's a daily job of just half an hour, she says.

The highly flammable methane gas separates from the slurry in the digester and the slurry is turned into high quality manure.

Kuchna (ph) is relieved to have this clean biogas fuel which flows freely from a pipe in the digester straight to her stove.

"I can cook for 10 people or run the gas for over an hour and a half with no problems at all," she says. No more hours of collecting firewood in scorching heat, damp rain and cold winter mornings. No more scrambling to pay for gas and electricity when the cow dung is not enough. No more choking smoke. The woods are saved, fossil fuels left alone.

All these benefits are not lost on the Indian government, which has setup a program to push for more widespread bioplant use. The government views it as a way to reduce rural poverty and help women.

Dr. Perveen Damija (ph) is the director of the Ministry of Nonconventional Energy Sources. She says the government biogas program targets women, who have the most to gain.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She changes from a traditional (UNINTELLIGIBLE) to a biogas stove, which doesn't have the ills of smoke, of dirty utensils, and then the time also is saved. She doesn't have to go to the fields to collect wood or to the forest to collect wood. And she can also save time because the cooking time reduces by about 45 minutes per family.

VASSILEVA: But convincing the women is not always enough.

Birmayata (ph) came to check out this government training seminar, but says her husband won't buy it. Literally.

"He says, "You have a wood stove, why do you need biogas? Go and get the wood." But this is a hassle, right? If you can give me money, I will put it in, but I don't have money myself to put it in. If the government pays me money, I will put it," she says.

The Indian government does offer subsidies, but not for the full amount. Kuchna Yatta (ph) had to pay about half of the $100 price herself. She took a loan from a rural development bank for the rest.

But Dr. Damija (ph) says subsidies are on a sliding scale. For the poorest of the poor, the government could offer up to 90 percent subsidy.

(on camera): Biogas technology has enormous potential. It takes only three cows to operate a small facility, and India has more than 300 million.

(voice-over): But some say having cows is not enough. Sometimes farmers are so poor, they may lack the technical know-how or access to enough land or water to operate a plant successfully.

But India's government is determined to keep working at it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We have a potential of 12 million biogas plants based on cattle (UNINTELLIGIBLE). And we have covered about 3.6 million until now. And every year, we have a target of 1.5 (UNINTELLIGIBLE) based on the demand we get from the different states in the country.

VASSILEVA: Even though the government made biogas implementation a priority two decades ago, less than 1/4 of the potential has been realized so far. But India's government may not have a choice but to keep pushing for the wider use of biogas and other alternative fuels.

Energy production is already lagging behind India's rapidly growing demand. Expected to grow by more than 4.5 percent each year, among the highest growth rates in the world, increasing the likelihood that more of India's rural women will get a chance to follow in Kuchna's (ph) footsteps.


Nigeria also has its share of natural resources to tap into, but things don't always go according to plan. Smaller alternative projects are needed to bolster the economy.

We'll have more on that when we come back.


VASSILEVA: Welcome back.

India's population now stands at around 1 billion people. Taking care of each and every one of them is an enormous logistical challenge.

Nigeria faces the same problem. By all counts, Africa's most populous country with its abundance of oil should be in fairly good shape. However, much of that wealth has been squandered. So to compensate, small business and credit schemes are popping up across the country. Some of them are targeted directly at women.


JEFF KOINANGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The tiny village of Kafanjun (ph), deep in Nigeria's Muslim north. Most here are poor, making a meager living on less than $1 a day. Unemployment is high, education standards low, and the only prospects of a better life are to migrate to a big city.

Today is market day and vendors like (UNINTELLIGIBLE) are busy grinding tomatoes and other vegetables to make a sauce that forms part of the staple here.

This antique grinder is her cash cow, thanks in part to a credit facility providing loans mostly to poor rural women.

(on camera): Now it's in this remote village, in one of the most remote corners of the country, that one man's dream has turned to reality, aided in part by the age old saying that if you build it, they will surely come.

(voice-over): His name is John Dada (ph). He was a professor of microbiology at a London University for more than 15 years before he decided to bring his skills home.

With the help of friends, he set up an in-home office credit facility, calling it the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Foundation, dispersing small loans to qualified individuals to help turn their ideas into business.

Initially, they had just 25 clients, but as word spread the list grew to over 4,000 and technology was slow to catch up.

Dada (ph) went looking for help and found it in the World Bank and the U.S. Agency for International Development. They donated money to buy cheap secondhand computers, and in a country where electricity is in desperately short supply, Dada (ph) purchased a solar panel to help boost the output. That didn't last long. The panels proved too expensive and burned out with the heavy load they were carrying.

Dada (ph) found himself dipping into his own pockets to buy a 100 KVA generator.

But this too has its limits. During our interview, the generator had to be shut down due to overheating.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, we do manage somehow. Suffering and smiling. That's the way.

KOINANGE: The next challenge was training locals to be computer literate. Here Dada (ph) sought the services of (UNINTELLIGIBLE), one of a handful of trained programmers in the region.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You're sort of flipping through a number of pages or collecting a heap of files to go through. Since at the moment, we have a network, I can just sit in my office and have access to most of the centers.

KOINANGE: Together, Dada (ph) and Comfort (ph) have managed to train an army of computer-literate students, not just in spreadsheets and Excel but also in computer maintenance, a previously foreign concept.

So popular were the computer courses, they've now introduced an online U.S.-based computer class known as Cisco.

But in order to make that possible, Dada (ph) had to first purchase this 10-meter satellite dish to enable easy dialup on the Internet. The dish alone costs him $2,000 U.S. a month.

And three different streams of classes means a daily flow of more than 50 students through this center. The cost of the classes are minimal, $250 U.S. for a nine-month course. A similar course costs 4-times as much in Nigeria's larger cities. The waiting list is month's long, but what it translates to is prospective students doing what many here thought impossible: a reverse rural urban migration.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You find children coming back to the village, to study in the village. So this is the reverse of the urban migration. They're coming from the urban centers to the rural centers, which shows that if you make facilities available in the rural centers, our children are willing to stay there.

KOINANGE: The success of the program has led Dada (ph) to seek further outside help. Katrina Chan (ph) is a volunteer program support officer working for a Canadian NGO. She says those taking courses are making a smart career move.

KATRINA CHAN (ph), VOLUNTEER: They're getting to apply some skills, valuable skills, and they're grooming themselves for a potential career that is in demand here in Nigeria.

KOINANGE: Former students have gone on to work for large corporations across the country and beyond. Some, though, have chosen to stay behind, setting up this cyber caf‚ adjacent to the foundation. Here locals get a chance to browse the worldwide web or simply check e-mail for a small fee.

Bridging the digital divide here, it seems, is now more a reality than a dream, and another divide is also being bridged, a cultural one, where Muslim women, long confined to their homes, are finding common ground alongside their Christian colleagues.

Next up for Dada (ph), repeating the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) experiment in villages across the continent.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I can tell you, this can happen anywhere. And once we can have islands like this all over Africa, I think we are well and truly on our way to breaking the yolk of poverty.

KOINANGE: Hope springs eternal for John Dada (ph) and his technical dream in Nigeria's rural north.

For GLOBAL CHALLENGES, I'm Jeff Koinange, Cadula State (ph), in northern Nigeria.


VASSILEVA: After the break, an indigenous community in Mexico finds a way to protect the environment at a healthy profit.

We'll be right back.


VASSILEVA: Profit and preservation, two words that are not usually associated with one another. But there are ways to live off the fat of the land without bleeding it dry.

We'll take you now to a tribe in Mexico which has risen from the ashes after a devastating volcanic eruption.


HARRIS WHITBECK, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Juan Ventura's sir name means fortune in Spanish, which is appropriate since this Purepecha Indian from the Central Mexican state of Michoacan is working hard to preserve the good fortune his community has enjoyed for decades.

Juan is one of the tribal leaders of the Purepecha of San Juan Nuevo. For the last 20 years, these Indians have implemented an innovative system for managing the forest on their ancestral lands, earning accolades from international development agencies and serving as a model of sustainable development for other indigenous communities in Latin America.

"Our purpose is to create jobs," says Juan, "and to reinvest our profit so we can grow other businesses."

San Juan Nuevo's forestry businesses generate about $3 million in profit a year. Not bad for a community of just over 1,000 families in one of the poorest regions in Mexico. The community's goal is to manage the forest's resources without destroying it and working together to ensure healthy profits.

The origins of today's success lie in the terrible destruction of the Purepecha's original town.

(on camera): The old San Juan was in the path of a very violent volcanic eruption back in 1943, when residents had to leave here and rebuild the new San Juan, San Juan Nuevo, they kept with them a very strong sense of community, a sense of community that they are capitalizing upon today.

(voice-over): The force of the volcanic eruption literally wiped away the old San Juan. Rivers of lava hardened into volcanic stone on what were once fertile crops and forests.

A modern-day Pompeii, the town itself lay encased under the volcanic debris. The old San Juan was literally wiped off official maps. Mexican authorities decreed the disappearance of the town in 1944, leaving the Purepecha with nothing but an intangible yet intense desire for self reliance.

After the eruption, the state government granted the Purepecha land for a new town at a safe distance from the volcano, but they retained the rights to their original land, which with time regenerated into fertile forests. Tribal leaders decided to diversify their resources. They built a new sawmill, but leaned to harvest more than just trees.

Today rosin from the Purepecha lands in Michoacan is exported worldwide. Shrubbery and tree branches are used as sawdust and fodder for fires that generate steam for energy and land has been set aside for ecotourism. Small cabins in a forest clearing serve as jumping off points for guided tours to the old volcano's crater.

According to the tribe, their cooperative businesses have turned a profit every year since 1986. Tribal leaders say the key to sustainability is in fully using the forest resources.

"We use practically 90 percent of the tree," says Juan, "Even small branches are used as organic compost for the forest."

And in never forgetting the future. Tracts of land that had been covered in volcanic ash and lava during the eruption are planted with new trees. And trees are harvested for the sawmills in decades-long cycles that permit regeneration in the forest.

Part of the profits from the logging business are set aside to send young members of the community to colleges and technical schools. Jorge Campoverde (ph) is the president of the Purepecha community.

"As we moved forward, we began preparing our youth, sending them to school," he says. "We now have technical directors who do all of our environmental impact studies and design plans for future development."

Knowledge and resource is developed from within.

"If we had not done this, our situation would be that of other communities around here," he says, "with little progress and no set course for the future. Those other communities are using their resources up and soon they will have little left."

Campoverde (ph) and his deputies say they are ensuring that the lands of the old and the new San Juan will continue yielding benefits long into the future. 20 years from now, he says, if his community is just as it is now, things will be just fine.

For GLOBAL CHALLENGES, Harris Whitbeck, CNN, San Juan Nuevo, Mexico.


VASSILEVA: If you want to contact us about any of these stories, e-mail us at

I'm Ralitsa Vassileva. See you soon.



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