After the Tsunami

A talk by Bernard Carré, Vice-Chairman of Southampton Fair Trade Group and founder and organiser of Vandamanu Fair Trade, on 9 July 2008.

Vandanamu, Bernard told us, means ‘Your arrival has brought us joy’, and this must surely have been the case in the village of Chinna Mudaliar Chavadi, in Tamil Nadu in South-East India. He had already visited and made friends in the village early in 2004, and had agreed to try to find outlets in England for some of the craft goods manufactured there. A year later he visited again, within three weeks of the Boxing Day tsunami. The Indian government had achieved a lot in securing the basic health of survivors, but these people had always lived on the edge and their livelihood, such as it was, had largely disappeared.

Well-wishers had given Bernard money to take with him to spend on medicines, but he found this was not the greatest need. Instead he acquired three second-hand sewing machines and arranged for some of the local women to make cotton bags, initially for sale in the Fair Trade shop in Southampton.

What was so interesting about the talk was that it was far from just a celebration of good news, and Bernard shared with great honesty the problems which had beset the project. He had had little experience himself of running such an operation – indeed he was clear it needed and ought to be run from the village. The women too were inexperienced, and the first bags to be sent over were not suitable for sale. Sadly there were some problems with those selected to lead the project locally. Nevertheless the operation has flourished. Orders and sales are all arranged from Southampton, and entirely by volunteers, and the women are now making about 2500 bags a month, with designs provided by the customers. The women work for a guaranteed wage, with regular supplements. Support had also been given to a local evening school.

By coincidence we had heard earlier in the week that Hilliers had decided to sell organic cotton alternatives to plastic carrier bags, and that these were to be made by Vandanamu Fair Trade.

Bernard provided some further food for thought on the subject of Fairtrade cotton tee-shirts sold by various of our supermarkets. Many of us have been amazed at the low price for which these sell. He told us that in some cases the shirts are indeed made from fairly traded cotton, but that the actual making of the shirts may not be done in a fair-trade environment..

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