Skip to main content

Originally published March 16, 2013 at 8:02 PM | Page modified March 18, 2013 at 7:21 AM

  • Share:
  • Comments ((0))
  • Print

Seattle-based nonprofit plants seeds of hope in India

Seattle-based nonprofit Landesa teaches girls in impoverished villages of India how to garden small plots of land, in hopes they can help their families and, for some, forestall early marriage.

Seattle Times business reporter


Mamata Barui, 16, hopes her garden will produce enough money to stop her father from marrying her off. Mamata was taken out of school at age 12 because money was tight. She was sent to work as a maid, but returned home after describing mistreatment.


Seeds of hope, part 1

Funding for international reporting by The Seattle Times is provided by a grant from the Seattle International Foundation.

More from this series:

Part 2: For decades, Landesa founder Roy Prosterman has pushed to change landownership practices to help lift some of the world's poorest people out of poverty. Read story →

Mamata Barui hopes her garden can save her.

When the 16-year-old is not cleaning, cooking or otherwise caring for her four younger siblings, she waters and weeds patches of garlic, radishes and green chilies. She harvests bay leaves and tends pumpkins, beans and bottle gourds that grow near her family's cow shed.

Mamata's garden produces all the vegetables her family eats. She hopes the surplus will generate enough cash to stop her parents from marrying her off.

"I feel afraid," she said. "They say, 'You're not doing anything tangible.' If I can sell whatever I grow, they might think of delaying my marriage."

Mamata got that idea — and her gardening skills — from a weekly girls group she helps lead.

Rumpa Barui, 12, waters her family's garden in West Bengal. Her sister Mamata expanded the garden and helps lead a Landesa girls group.

Ruma Chatterjee leads a girls group in rural West Bengal. They discussed teasing, the role of police, land rights, rape and abuse.

The group is part of a pilot project of the Seattle-based nonprofit Landesa, a new twist on that organization's decades-long effort to use access to land as a way of pulling people out of poverty in India, China, Africa and elsewhere.

The project, underwritten by the Nike Foundation and a private donor, is part of a new girls' empowerment program run by the Indian government. In 299 villages in far northeast India, Landesa's program has taught roughly 7,800 girls how to garden in hopes of increasing their economic value to their families.

The idea is that if they are considered assets rather than extra mouths to feed, the girls might complete their educations and break out of the poverty cycle. Even if they do not, they will know how to grow food on even small plots of land, improving their nutrition and that of their future children.

The gardening skills also come with extensive lessons in women's rights, which Landesa hopes will encourage girls to fight back against child marriage, as well as rape, prostitution and other forms of abuse.

If India decides to go ahead with Landesa's gardening project, it is expected to roll out nationally with the rest of the girls' empowerment program next year.


Women in Mumbai's red-light district shield their faces to hide their identities when they see a camera. Girls from rural communities, including West Bengal, are sometimes taken across the country by human traffickers so they cannot easily reconnect with their families.


Families live on railway land in Cooch Behar, West Bengal. Landless families in urban areas often have more employment options than those in rural regions, where living off the land can be the only means of support. Urban families sometimes send money to poorer relatives who live in the country.

Girls are "the next generation, in terms of land rights," said Gregory Rake, who directs Landesa's work in India. "Mamata knows somebody else will ultimately make a decision over her life, but at least now she knows there is a different way."

Although child marriage is illegal in India, almost half of girls under age 18 are married. They typically stop going to school and often have children at young ages, which compromises the health of the girls and their babies.

The U.S. State Department says India is a destination for child-sex tourism, and UNICEF estimates 1.2 million Indian children are prostitutes or enslaved.

Landesa faced opposition to the girls project in one predominantly Muslim community, just as it faced resistance in some parts of India to educational programs that discuss women's legal right to inherit land. The nonprofit does not force communities to accept its programs.

Click to enlarge map

In general, Landesa wins the ear of officials in India and elsewhere who want to give land to destitute families to help alleviate poverty. Governments often ask Landesa for help in identifying landless families, which can be difficult because many are not registered.

Landesa also helps to change land laws and to match families with land. In some cases, the land is government-controlled — for example, old colonial land in India. In others, it belongs to landowners who agree to sell it at market rates.

And Landesa helps poor people register the land, so it cannot be stolen by companies or developers.


Shanti Kungor, 35, and her daughter Ratna, 15, live on a micro-plot of land they received from the West Bengal government through a Landesa-designed program. The land title allowed Shanti, who says she was in an abusive marriage, to focus on a better life for her daughter.

Click to enlarge graphic

Although the nonprofit has a low profile in its hometown of Seattle, many consider Landesa the world's premier nonprofit group advocating for land rights. The group estimates its efforts have led to more than 100 million families having secure rights to land.

Roy Prosterman, a University of Washington law professor, started Landesa's work in the '60s. Originally called the Rural Development Institute, it sprang from Prosterman's belief that stealing land from the rich to give to the poor was a recipe for violence.

He made a case for buying land at market rates and giving it to poor people. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) hired him to try it out in South Vietnam, where his program distributed land to a million families during the Vietnam War. Prosterman expanded his efforts in different forms to other areas, including China, Africa and India.

That kind of high-level policy work is unusual among anti-poverty nonprofits, said Scott Jackson, CEO of Global Impact, a grant-making nonprofit in Washington, D.C.

Most groups start with specific programs, then add policy work. Landesa is the opposite, giving it a much longer-term horizon before change is accomplished, he said.

"It might take 10 years to change policy in a state in India on land reform, but when they do, millions of families benefit," Jackson said. Global Impact recently added Landesa to the roster of nonprofits to which it contributes.

Landesa's largest funders last year were the Omidyar Network; the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; and the Skoll Foundation. (Among Landesa's other funders is the Seattle International Foundation. That foundation also provides a grant to The Seattle Times to support coverage of international stories, including this one.)


Chandana Barman, 14, rides her bike to fetch drinking water for her family. Between school and chores, Chandana attends local girls group meetings as part of the Landesa Security for Girls Through Land project. Chandana's mother has seen her daughters' self-confidence increase since they started attending the groups.

Bulbuli Barman notices major changes in her daughters, Chandana and Santana, since they began attending girls group meetings in 2011.

"Earlier, they were very shy," she said, sitting on her dirt porch wearing lavender flip-flops and wrapped in a large red shawl with gold-threaded embroidery.

Now, the girls "communicate with others and have become very free," their mother said.

Chandana, who is 14, does most of the gardening and, like Mamata, produces most of the family's vegetables — peas and bottle gourds and leafy vegetables.

Kashinath Barman milks his cows after a long day in the fields. His family once lived in this cow shed and struggled with starvation.

Morning commuters ride bikes and buses through the early-morning fog in West Bengal, where agriculture is the main source of jobs.

Bulbuli Barman threshes rice with others in the fields near her home. A lifelong field worker, Bulbuli wants an easier life for her daughters.

Bulbuli Barman uses a "kulo," or narrow basket, to separate straw from rice grains. A micro-plot of land helped the Barmans out of poverty.

The girls' father, Kashinath, figures the produce saves the family about $109 a year, or 7 percent of their annual income, because they rarely have to buy vegetables. The savings covers school fees and tutoring for the girls and their younger brother, Koushik.

Their father never gardened on the land before because, as a field worker, he did not realize such a small plot could make such a big difference.

None of it would have been possible without the tennis-court-sized plot of land the Barmans were given by the West Bengal government through a Landesa-designed program four years ago.

Until then, they lived on a small plot that flooded during monsoons, forcing Bulbuli and her children to sleep on a neighbor's porch.

Their earth-dug oven filled with water, which meant they went hungry for about two months every year.

Although their old home was only a 15-minute walk from where they live now, neighbors rarely dropped by to tell Bulbuli when there was field work. And she worried about leaving the children alone that deep in the woods, anyway.

Their new, less-isolated land allows Bulbuli to work regularly, sometimes threshing rice across a wooden stump for eight hours a day before coming home to milk cows, cook and clean.

The land does not flood, and the Barmans keep their cows in the bamboo and jute-stick hut in which they lived on the old, flooding property. They built a new room to sleep in and a separate room for cooking.

Santana, who is 12, sometimes visits the old plot. "I don't like it at all," she said, but she likes to touch the trees they planted around it.

The Barman children and their neighbors talk and play in the field outside their house, the youngest girls turning cartwheels while the boys wheel old bicycle tires with sticks.

Bulbuli is surprised to hear people still let their daughters marry young.

"The day has changed," she said.


Chandana Barman, 14, bathes with a friend near the rural village of Nakarkhana 2. Many homes in this part of rural West Bengal lack electricity and running water. However, families prize the security of owning their land and having it in a good location.

Click to enlarge graphic

But her modern thinking may not be as widespread as she believes.

Child marriage remains prevalent among India's poor. Giving a girl away young can lower the dowry payment her parents are forced to give the husband and his family.

Just seven years ago, Bulbuli's next-door neighbors — who did not receive their land through a Landesa program — married off their 13-year-old daughter, also named Chandana Barman. (Barman is a common last name in this village.)

"I could have gone to school and gotten a better life," said Chandana, now 20 with two daughters of her own.

She rarely makes it to girls group meetings. But her brother, Prasenjit, frequently attends and brought home the knowledge that child marriage is illegal and avoidable.

When his sister married, Prasenjit "had a bad feeling, but didn't know how to stop it."

At the meetings, he learned that a girl can complain, if necessary, to the police. Now 16, he has made a pact with his friends to help any young girls they know who are unwillingly led into marriage.

His family is proud.

"We made a mistake," admits his mother, Phanibala. "We're poor, and we married her early because there was not much demand for dowry."

Chandana wishes her family had discussed child marriage openly before.

"I wouldn't have gotten married," Chandana said while nursing her youngest, Rakhi. "I will never allow my daughters to be married young, and my parents and my brother would oppose it."


Sambhu Barui, 45, believes he has little choice but to marry off his eldest daughter Mamata, 16. "It's a daughter, so what can she do? Nothing much. I have to marry her, " he said. Although child marriage is illegal in India, the practice is still pervasive. Poor families often have a financial incentive to wed their daughters early to avoid dowry or offer them as maids so the girls can earn their dowry, according to Landesa.

A boy walks past a statue of the Hindu goddess Kali in rural West Bengal, which is bordered by Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh. Landesa's pilot program has focused on 299 villages in far northeast India.

About an hour away, near the border of the tea-growing state of Assam, Mamata Barui waits to learn whether her father will change his mind about marrying her off early.

At one point this winter, she thought he had stopped inviting potential husbands, then another one appeared. They come about once a month.

Meanwhile, she helps lead the weekly girls group, one of hundreds of girls trained by Landesa to show their peers how to grow everything from eggplants to mushrooms.

On a tour of her garden just before preparing the family's lunch, Mamata points out a mahogany sapling that was a gift from Landesa.

Someday, it will be worth a lot of money as lumber.

The tree cannot grow fast enough to forestall her own marriage.

Mamata lives on land that has been in her family for generations, but it has not saved them from poverty or hunger or the fear that drives parents to send away their young daughters.

When Mamata was 12, her parents pulled her out of school and sent her to Assam to be another family's maid. She returned home after complaining the woman threatened to beat her. She has not returned to school.

"She does nothing," explained her father, Sambhu, a carpenter who built the two-room house where the family of seven sleeps. "It's a daughter, so what can she do? Nothing much. I have to marry her."

Working the land is Mamata's only hope — but she is far from certain.

Although she despairs about her situation, Mamata said, "I can't blame my parents. I'm blaming my fate only."

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or Twitter @AllisonSeattle.

Erika Schultz: Twitter @ErikaJSchultz.


Working well into the twilight, Bulbuli Barman sweeps up rice at her home in West Bengal. Bulbuli and her husband, lifelong field workers, want an easier life and literacy for their daughters. "We don't want our children to be there in the darkness as we are," father Kashinath Barman says.

No comments have been posted to this article.