Disaster Relief: KIRF’s Nepalese Earthquake Supplies Delivery in May 2015

Kirwin International Relief Foundation logo (registered)KIRF co-founder and disaster relief volunteer Mark Kirwin is flying out to Nepal with a disaster relief volunteer from Ventura Rotary next week, May 12, 2015.

Mark Kirwin’s May 2015 field report from Nepal has been posted on KIRFaidblog.org >

Mr. Kirwin is Cultural Anthropology Adjunct Professor Angela Kirwin’s husband. The Kirwins created their volunteer disaster relief non-profit charity, called “Kirwin International Relief Foundation,” or “KIRF” for short,  after surviving the Andaman Sea tsunami disaster with their children on the coast of southern Thailand on December 26, 2004. After using their own funds and volunteer efforts to help families who lost everything in Thailand, they realized that with the right disaster zone connections and cultural knowledge, they can deliver effective, efficient and locally needed disaster relief. Also, they realized that getting needed disaster supplies into disaster zones quickly and efficiently is still a huge un-met need among the poor and marginalized communities worldwide. Very often disaster relief supplies are diverted away from these communities due to national and local social and political pressures.

Donations made to “KIRF” for Nepal’s earthquake relief will go directly to earthquake survivors in the form of requested building and emergency supplies that will be locally purchased and delivered in Nepal with the donated funds. By purchasing locally, the funds will also help local business owners and their families hit by the earthquake disaster recover. The Kirwin International Relief Foundation is a registered 501(c )(3) non-profit charity in the State of California. Donations are tax deductible.

Updates and photos about this relief effort will be on KIRF’s social media: Twitter.com/KIRFaid  and KIRFaid.org and KIRFaidblog.org

Heritage seeds as a sustainable solution to water scarcity, food scarcity & global warming

TanzaniaAs a sustainability response to climate change and increased desertification, one strategy that you don’t hear about a lot is farming using heritage seeds. Heritage food plants are plants native to an area that propagate naturally (as apposed to sterile hybrids or patented genetically modified seeds). Heritage seeds are culturally and biologically native to many arid and drought-afflicted regions such as the American Southwest, northern India and East Africa. As such, they are more likely to be adopted (or re-adopted) and grown successfully by these rural communities as a food source. And, as a native food they can be considered a validation of a local native cultural heritage and identity as well as a practical and drought-resistant agricultural product. The photo above is of Angela Kirwin, KIRF Co-Founder, at a soil remediation project in Arusha, Tanzania. Local farmers are trying to re-claim farm land ruined by soil erosion by planting indigenous trees and food plant varieties.

The effects of global warming have caused widespread droughts, malnutrition and starvation. An estimated 25,000 people (adults and children) die every day from hunger and related causes according to the United Nations Food Programme (2009).

As radio journalist Sam Eaton reported in his segment titled “Sowing seeds that will take the heat” from the “Sustainability Desk” for Marketplace on National Public Radio, “…as a warming climate threatens mainstream agriculture, these unique genes in these little known seeds could turn out to be crucial for feeding the planet. (Eaton 2009).”

Unfortunately, heritage or non-hybrid seeds are becoming rare: in 1981 there were anestimated 5,000 non-hybrid or heritage seed varieties, by 1998 the number has gone down to about 600 according to environmental activist Barbara Kingsolver, co-author of the book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (Kingsolver 2007:52).This is compared to an estimated 80,000 plant species that have been eaten in human history according to Indian crop ecologist and heritage food conservationist Vandana Shiva (Kingsolver 2007:49).

Today, due to industrial monoculture farming, three-quarters of all human food comes from just eight species. And, of those eight species, most come from only three plants: “genetically modified corn, soy, and canola” according to Kingsolver (Kingsolver 2007:49). Furthermore, 98 percent of seed sales worldwide are handled by only six very huge and very politically influential companies: Monsanto, Syngenta, Mitsubishi and Dow (Kingsolver 2007:50).These food plants are produced for traits more suitable for large scale agricultural production and distribution: increased yield, longer shelf life, and uniformity of size. Unfortunately many are not produced with survival traits that can adapt to climate change such as drought resistance. What is even more troubling is that many of these hybrid plants are sterile so (1) they can’t adapt to changes in climate and evolve more successful strains and (2) these plants increase the costs of farming for economically disadvantaged communities who depend on these seeds for food and income.

Ethnobiologist Gary Paul Nabhan is one of many scientists, botanists, and backyard gardeners who are committed to saving indigenous plant food varieties by collecting and sharing their heritage seeds. They do this for many reasons: in response to global climate change, to preserve native traditions and foods, for more nutritious plant food varieties, and for potential pharmaceutical discoveries. From a business point of view, heritage seeds seem to answer the market’s current demand for organic, flavorful and exotic and heritage (also known as “heirloom”) varieties of plant foods. And, consumers are increasingly willing to pay more for them, too.

Gary Nabhan has been writing about the correlation between chronic diseases such as heart disease, obesity, and diabetes and the consumption of non-traditional processed and fast foods by Native Americans in the Southwest for over thirty years (Nahban 2004: backcover). He published some of his findings about the correlations between health, adaptation and diet in the book Some Like It Hot: Food, Genes, and Cultural Diversity. As Nabhan explains, “…each ethnic cuisine reflects the evolutionary history of a particular human population as it responded to the availability of edible plants and animals through local foraging and through trade, and to the prevailing frequencies of diseases, droughts, and plagues within each population’s homeland (Nabhan 2004:1)”

Nabhan is the co-founder of the Renewing American’s Food Traditions (RAFT) Alliance, a program of Slow Food USA, and is the Director of Center of Sustainable Environment at the Southwest Center of the University of Arizona (SlowFoodUSA). He is working with other scientists such as the Suzanne Nelson for Native Seeds/SEARCH to distribute seeds of native Southwest crops such as maize and beans to local Native American farmers in the hot Southwest deserts (Eaton 2009).

Another scientist who studies the correlation between diet and indigenous diets is medical doctor Daphne Miller. She writes extensively about the Tarahuma Native Americans (“Running Indians”) who live in the Copper Canyon network of Northern Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains in her book The Jungle Effect: The Healthiest Diets from Around the World…. They subsist on native foods they have cultivated for centuries. Among the Tarahuma communities who abide by their traditional culture, subsistence and eat their traditional foods, there are virtually no instances of obesity, heart disease and diabetes. These same chronic diseases plague neighboring Native American communities in northern Mexico, Arizona, and New Mexico who have adopted a Western diet of processed and fast food. For the details, recipes and sources of heritage foods check out Miller’s book.

So as long as the costs and yields of heritage seeds are similar as those of hybrid and GMO seeds, they seem like a good option for local small farmers and for increasing our food supply’s resilience to the changing climate.  According to journalist Sam Eaton, these heritage seeds are thriving in the desert heat while the conventional hybrid varieties are not. Sometimes progress is looking backward and re-claiming traditional ways in order to adapt and survive change. Native seeds are once again producing good food in their native land.


Easton, Sam
2009“Sowing seeds that will take the heat”, Marketplace
, National Public Radio. http://marketplace.publicradio.org/display/web/2009/08/25/pm-seed-savers/, accessed August 27, 2009.

Kingsolver, Barbara with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver
2007 Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life,
New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, pp. 370.

Miller, Daphne
2008 The Jungle Effect: the healthiest diets from around the world–why they work and how to make them work for you,
New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, pp. 370.

Nabhan, Gary Paul
2004 Some Like It Hot: Food, Genes, and Cultural Diversity,
Washington, DC: Island Press, pp. 232.

Native Seeds/SEARCH
Southwestern Endangered Aridland Resource Clearing House. http://www.nativeseeds.org/ accessed September 2, 2009.

Seed Savers Exchange
2009 A
non-profit organization of gardeners dedicated to saving and sharing heirloom seeds. http://www.seedsavers.org/ accessed September 2, 2009.

Slow Food USA
Renewing America’s Food Traditions (RAFT) Alliance. http://www.slowfoodusa.org/index.php/programs/details/raft/ accessed August 27, 2009.

United Nations World Food Programme
2009Hunger Stats. http://www.wfp.org/hunger/stats accessed September 1, 2009.

KIRF gets media coverage in Ventura County Star "Ventura family fulfilling needs worldwide"

KIRF got some publicity yesterday (finally!). Journalist Alicia Doyle wrote a nice full page article about our “KIRF work” that was published in the Communities section of the Ventura County Star newspaper.

The article wrote about our “client-driven/ informal aid network” direct relief model of helping others help themselves. KIRF gives in-kind donations and services directly to those in need with the help of local and informal experts such as teachers, medical workers, etc.This model ensures that people who need help the most also get exactly what they need to regain economic self-sufficiency and a life with dignity that is also within their own cultural norms and beliefs.

They printed the photo of us and the kids standing with chai dealer Naseem and his large family at his extended family home that was taken in Bodhgaya, India on December 25, 2006. The photo was taken by Mark’s mom, Diane Kirwin. The other photo showed the Mark providing food staples and living supplies to Moken (aka “Sea Gypsies” of the Andaman Sea) several months after they were stranded on a deserted island by the tsunami without adequate food and water. You can read Mark’s poignant field report about tsunami relief and helping the stranded Moken at KIRFaid.org.

The article mentioned disaster relief projects that KIRF has undertaken all over the world since its inception in January 2005.

The article also mentioned KIRF’s latest project helping the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project (HCPP) in Washington, DC last month. KIRF purchased educational toys, art supplies and furnishings for HCPP’s play room at the NCFN Shelter in DC. We got to deliver the supplies and play with some of the young beneficiaries of the new toys at the transitional living shelter, too.

The HCPP non-profit serves homeless and chronically ill children by giving them a safe and enriching place to play after school. The “wish list” supplies were purchased with funds donated by KIRF’s generous supporters here in Ventura. The airfare and hotel expenses are paid for by us out of our personal funds–like always.

Our “photographer” for this article, Diane Kirwin is an inspirational person in her own right. She is the Director of KIRF India which is a separate non-profit (and certified Indian Charitable Trust with an Indian board of trustees) that is devoted to providing primary and secondary education in rural villages, job training, medical care and public health resources such as clean drinking water and nutrition to landless peasants and street children of the Dalit caste in and around the famed Buddhist holy place and World Heritage Site of Bodhgaya, India.

Click here to read the Ventura County Star article about KIRF online >

Click here to read a copy of Ventura County Star newspaper article about KIRF, February 18, 2009 (PDF, 10.3 MB) >

Photos from Burma of KIRF school supplies at IDP camps

Disaster relief supplies for survivors of Cyclone Nargis in Burma

Basic living supplies for IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) refugees and survivors of Cyclone Nargis in Burma, 2008.

We just got two envelopes of photos that were taken inside of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). The photos show children and their teachers at two IDP (Internally Displaced Person) refugee camp schools with the new school supplies we sent them via our local partners. We paid for textbooks, writing supplies, art supplies, mats, mosquito nets and medication for these internal refugees that live on despite the military junta’s animosity and terrorizing behavior against them and their native villages.

KIRFaid.org will be updated soon with a status report and a few of these poignant photos of the modest school houses built of bamboo with thatched roofs and walls of woven matting. My favorite is of a group of about 25-30 kids standing around their teacher, all smiles and with their candy-colored plastic flip-flops lined up in neat rows in  front them. Beautiful.
Here’s one of Mark and I’s favorite quotes:
“Nobody makes a greater mistake that he who did nothing because he could do only a little.” — Edmund Burke

Helping People Help Themselves in Tanzania

“Helping People Help Themselves” sums up best KIRF’s philosophy and method of disaster relief and sustainable development. We aim to develop long-term self-sufficiency that enhances natural resources in the communities we assist.

Relating to our philosophy of “helping people help themselves” I have read several books  about the downfalls of humanitarian relief in Africa which end up causing more harm than good. A last one I read was particularly disturbing:  “Famine Crimes: Politics & the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa” by Alex de Waal. Mr. de Waal is a long-time self-described member of the “international humanitarian aid elite. He has worked for the Peace Corps, Save the Children and various other non-profit organizations (NGOs) with a presence (and a large expense account) in Africa. The book’s depiction of corrupt “NGO economies” that support a few elites at the expense of the poor seem to be similar to the situation Mark witnessed in in Phenom Phen, Cambodia. The NGO economy (also known as an aid-driven “dual economy”) has one set of prices for Westerners and tourists (at least 100% more expensive that local prices) and another set of prices for locals. I am experiencing a similar situation in Tanzania now.

The book’s thesis maintains that famine relief coupled with no local or national government accountability or support, has helped ruin some of the nations of Africa. It has in fact, created more famines and poverty and violence. The author maintains that by giving aid to people who are victimized by their own government’s corrupt policies, actually prolongs unjust rule and the suffering of its victims. Chronic poverty is a political problem and can only be solved by political solutions and social change among the local stakeholders.

Humanitarian aid to Africa has increased over the past generation, sanctioned as the morally right thing to do and used as a tool of diplomacy, tax right offs for donor corporations and means to subsidize American agriculture. It is used by both the recipient nations (if you concede to our demands and turn a blind eye to corruption we will allow you to save lives and publicize your efforts so you get more donations) and the giving nations (if you concede to US oe UN demands we will send shipments of aid that will enrich your administration and ensure short-term political stability) but the famines and suffering seem to have gottern worse. Why? I believe it is because not all of the humanitarian aid’s stakeholders are outcome-orientated. According to de Waal, the sincerely caring humanitarian individuals who disperse aid, often do so without the will or support from their organizations to end the dependency on their aid. It’s an unsavory fact that often journalists gain access to the worst areas only through NGO contacts who they are beholding too. In return for the career assistance, journalists take photos of of the aid’s most pitiful and helpless recipients brings publicity which brings in increased revenue and are loath to critize their NGo hosts practices.

This July I will be exploring how best we can help in the east African country of Tanzania. Through my consulting work for the Jane Goodall Institute I have been been introduced to several citizens of Tanzania who are making a difference for good in their country through their own volunteer efforts. In many of the drought afflicted communities in northern Tanzania near Mt. Kilimanjaro and the Serengeti Game Preserve, long-term quality of life improvements like sustainable farming techniques and habitat conservation are taught already in the community through youth groups like Roots & Shoots. Through these respected locals in the community, “bridges” between me and my culture to their culture, I hope to be able to make a difference in Tanzania.

Mark is off to Thailand May 10th for tsunami relief

Five months after we came back from helping tsunami survivors get aid in the coastal city of Ranong, Thailand, my husband is leaving again for his third trip doing tsunami relief. Mark Kirwin (co-founder of KIRF) is off to Thailand in a couple of weeks. He will meet with several colleges to see about delivering our educational scholarship funds into a scholarship account for Tsunami Orphans at one of the local colleges. Since, the young tsunami victims who lost one or both of their parents are from predominantly working class and impoverished villages along the Thai coast north of Phuket, we will most likely choose one of the local colleges. We were told that these kids would not be able to afford to live in Bangkok and go to one of the universities there. While in Phuket Mark is considering the viability of visiting another Moken village to assess if some of these poor people are still in need after the tsunami hit. The Moken are nationless sea gypsies who live aboard their boats and for short periods stay at one of the numerous small tropical islands dotting the Andaman sea. We have seen that the many non-Thais in the country illegally–Moken or, most commonly, illegale immigrant Burmese migrant workers, are either afraid to ask for assistance for fear of being deported (a death sentence for many Burmese) or have asked for help and have been refused.

Mark visited an island of Moken in May of last year–5 months after the tsunami hit, and the situation was desparate. The head of the village told Mark that the Thai Navy put them on the island and they had only one boat left after the tsunami hit and it wasn’t enough to support over a 100 people in the village. His people were hungry and children were dying of malaria and other treatable illnesses. The villagers were surviving by scrounging for edible items they could find on the island and swim to like mussles (the areas between the living platforms and wooden decks were covered with broken and sharp mussel shells). They were also being supported with bags of rice and some old clothing from a local church community in Ranong. The Moken children Mark saw seemed thin and listless. They showed signs of malnutrition (bloated bellies and reddish hair color). No sanitation in village, no electricity and people seemed in general depressed and hungry.

KIRF was able to deliver a large fishing boat to this village with nets, an engine, petrol, rain water catch basins for drinking water supply and living supplies like cooking utensils, sarongs, and healthful food staples like rice, cooking oil, spices and fresh vegatables. The village people can now provide more nutritious food and an income from fishing to sustain themselves.