Friday, May 30, 2008

Asia's Recent Tragedies: Reflections, Comparisons, and How YOU Can Help

Jerry and I have just returned from a trip to Asia. It’s always interesting to us to get local news from within the country and compare it to how it is interpreted and presented in the U.S. While we were there two devastating natural disasters occurred. On May 2nd, a Cyclone Nargis in Burma killed as many as an estimated 127,990 people, according to a recent tally by the International Red Cross and another 56,000 are missing. The death toll is expected to rise further, as the situation in remote areas becomes clear. In Irrawaddy's Labutta township, 75% of buildings collapsed and 20% had their roofs ripped off.

To contrast the magnitude with that of one in our own country, two years ago, on August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the US Gulf Coast. The official death toll from the storm stands at 1,836, with many more lives never accounted for, and damages sustained in the hundreds of billions of dollars. More than a million people were displaced, many never returning to their homes to this day. Still, this death toll is 10% of that suffered in Burma.

Just 10 days later, on the afternoon of May 12, 2008, an earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale hit Sichuan Province, a mountainous region in Western China. By the next day, the death toll stood at 12,000, with another 18,000 still missing. Nearly 2,000 of the dead were students and teachers caught in schools that collapsed. To contrast the magnitude in terms of the 7.1 magnitude Loma Prieta Earthquake that occurred on October 17, 1989 at 5:04 p.m., that quake killed 62 people throughout Central California, injured 3757 and left more than 12,000 homeless, again, just a fraction of the human cost of the China quake.

These are two places we have been fortunate to visit in our travels never thinking about what the impact of such a disaster might be on people in these places where life is simple and without anything beyond basic necessities.

While we can somewhat imagine what the people in Burma and China are going through, the one difference in the future of the people suffering there as a result of these events is that it is unlikely that most ever will recover from these tragedies on a personal level. And many that were not killed in these natural disasters will die in the aftermath. The people in Chengdu who lost their children when the earthquake destroyed the schools lost their only child due to China’s one-child policy. And this being a relatively poor rural area, they probably also lost their homes. For now they are living in tent camps.
We saw the live news coverage of these tent camps that consist of row after row of cots covered by plastic sheeting “roofs” and no walls. While the Chinese government has been very responsive in the recovery effort, there is much to be done to find, identify and properly bury those killed in the quake and to clear away the amazing rubble that was once a small village and attempt to rebuild it.

The small family-owned businesses we deal with who are middle class by Chinese standards are sharing what they can by donating money to the relief effort. The Chinese government actually declared a 3-day period of mourning while we were there, and while people only stopped for 3 minutes of silence one of those days, it was a touching sign of honor and respect to those who are suffering and will be struggling to rebuild their simple lives in these rural villages.

The situation in Burma is quite different. The military junta that controls the government was totally unresponsive for days after the cyclone and even then was obviously unprepared to deal with a disaster of this magnitude. And to make matters worse, they were uncooperative with countries and aid agencies who attempted to assist in the recovery effort in fact thwarting their efforts by delaying approval of entry visas and insisting that the Burmese military be in charge of and oversee their aid efforts…a task for which they obviously had no training.


Again, we watched live newscasts of dead human and animal bodies floating on the banks of the delta at the edge of the devastation with no aid in sight. You can imagine the potential for disease (cholera and dengue fever) this alone creates. To make matters worse, the delta is one of the most fertile areas of the country and just before the cyclone farmers were ready to see their crops. The storm not only washed away much of the farm land, but the farm land that survived, turned into swamp and the seeds were soaked then cooked by the sun and are now sprouting. We saw an interview of a farmer who said that these seedlings cannot be planted so will become animal feed, or potentially human food as there is no food aid, no shelter and no fresh water being delivered to these remote areas. One farmer I saw interviewed by a BBC reporter who had crossed into the country illegally to get information said, “We will die here, and not from the cyclone, but from starvation. We have no food and no water and no way to get it.”

To say we have so much, and they have so little is both trite and true. What they do have that we have experienced in meeting people all over Asia and particularly in primitive rural villages, is the beauty of living a very simple life. For the most part, life in these villages is about simply doing what it takes to sustain life -- whether that is farming their land, selling what they grow at the local market or what they make such as hand woven baskets, or tin trays, etc. They own almost nothing other than that which they need -- a mat to sleep on, a pot or two to cook with, a few plates, cups and utensils and a few items of clothing.

So what happens when all the very little they had to begin with is now gone, and in some cases their family is also gone? Is there some way we can share our good fortune with these people in a way that a very little will make a big difference? Yes, there is. We have identified 2 organizations to whom we are donating 10% of our profit for the month of June and ask that you consider a small donation as well.

Late last year we had planned a presentation by the Executive Direction of the Foundation for the People of Burma to speak at Harmonique Home but that event was postponed. Now this person is on her way to Southeast Asia to do what she can in conjunction with similar local organizations to help the survivors of this disaster rebuild their lives. You can donate directly to this organization plus if you purchase anything at either Harmonique Home or Harmonique Garden in June, 10% of the sale of Burmese products will be donated to their efforts.

While we have not specifically showcased items from Sichuan province in the store, many of the Miao tribal textiles are from this region, but everything in Harmonique from China is purchased by us directly from small family businesses who depend on our interest in their culture to sustain their way of life. Harmonique will also be donating 10% of sales of all furniture and home d├ęcor items from China to Mercy Corps China Earthquake Relief Fund and welcome your direct donations to this organization or to it through your purchases.

Jerry and I believe it is through developing one to one relationships with families and family business around the world and sharing their crafts with you we can make the world a more caring and understanding place. We are really all the same.