Sri Lanka's Ampara District hasn't had time to recover from the December 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami: even as rebulding began, violent conflict engulfed the area, plunging already-shaken families into further turmoil and uncertainty.
Mercy Corps, which has helped more than 350,000 Sri Lankans since the tsunami struck, realized that its work had to adapt to meet the challenges posed by disaster recovery and an ongoing conflict. As a result, the agency's Economic Development and Conflict Prevention Program is helping families from different income levels and ethnic backgrounds to find gainful and sustainable employment. By actively working to avoid exacerbating conflict, the program has been successful in helping participants from all three of the district's ethnic groups while supporting peaceful and prosperous communities.
Amith: Selling sweets in Paragahakele
The village of Paragahakele is a small, poverty-stricken hamlet where villagers there struggle to make a living by tilling their rice paddy fields. Monetary returns from rice production are sparse, and family income is often supplemented by selling snack foods made at home - or else by risking life and limb in the armed forces.
N. G. Amith supported his wife and three children in Paragahakele by making ladles from coconut-shells and cultivating rice before he was informed about Mercy Corps' assistance and training project. Mercy Corps, with support from PepsiCo, organized a food processing fair in the district, giving an opportunity to food vendors affected by the tsunami, or caught up in conflict, to network with service providers and gain exposure to new technologies.
However, Amith and most of his neighbors from Paragahkele didn't attend the fair, despite the village's close proximity. Paragahakele is a Sinhala village while Akkaraipattu, where the fair was held, is predominantly Tamil; prevailing tensions between the two communities forbade visiting.
Knowing this precarious situation - as well as the economic strife that both creates and results from it - Mercy Corps reached out to the village of Paragahakele. The agency's strategy was to help form community based organizations (CBOs) in five villages, including Paragahakele, with between 30 and 50 members each.
The assistance to Paragahakele was twofold: Mercy Corps Sri Lanka financed the purchase of equipment, while the Chamber of Commerce carried out training. This training will help villagers work as a community and utilize appropriate technology efficiently. The CBO meets weekly to review its work and plan ahead.
"We train our partners to use technology efficiently and work as a community," said a local offical who helped in the training. "It allows them to realize the importance of working together."
Through the project, Mercy Corps financed food processing equipment for Amith and provided him with a sealer for making plastic packets. This equipment has improved his business, while costing only about US $70 total.
Today, Amith runs a small family business with his wife and children, selling various sweet and savory snacks at the Sunday fair.
"More than everything else it was skills development that helped me," Amith said.
Ahamed and Nasar: Helping rebuild the local economy
Sainthamarithu, a semi-urban town northeast of Ampara, is a world away from pastoral Paragahakele - but unfortunately still intimately acquainted with adversity.
Pakkathamby Ahamed Lebbe, the 56-year-old proprietor of Orange Tea, survived the devastating tsunami that washed away his business. Lebbe and his son Nasar, 27, were processing 12,000 kg of tea a month and employing around 30 people before the tsunami. In the aftermath, they began applying for loans for machinery and other replacements.
"We heard about Mercy Corps' assistance through the radio and newspapers. So we displayed our products at the food processing fair," said Nasar.
They spoke to Mercy Corps representatives at the fair and, because Orange Tea was on-going business capable of providing stable employment, it was selected among the 42 projects to be assisted.
Mercy Corps provided US $2,700 for a separator used to grade tea. The cost of the machine was US $3,200, and to demonstrate their commitment, Orange Tea provided the remainder.
Today, more than two years after the tsunami, Orange Tea produces about 10,000 kg of tea per month - fractionally less than its pre-tsunami production - and employs 18 people from the neighborhood. These employees include 15 women that are responsible for various aspects of the operation, such as sifting, grading and packing.
As before the tsunami, Orange Tea is now sold in nearly all the large towns in the Ampara District. Lebbe is pleased with his business' resurgence, but still looks to the future. He is also committed to using some revenues to help the communities where he sells tea to continue recovery from the tsunami.
"We can expand our business," Lebbe said, "but there is still more infrastructure damaged by the tsunami to be repaired."
Even as Sri Lanka's unpredictable ongoing conflict escalates, Mercy Corps is helping the survivors of disaster and violence provide for their families, strengthen their communities and build a better future in the hopes of peace.