RIO DE JANEIRO –– Sr. Placida Lihinikaduwa, a Sri Lankan member of the Franciscan Sisters of Mary, is an example of how one person can make a difference in the lives of many.

At the U.N. Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development, Sr. Placida told of her project to get families out of one of the largest slums in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Besides addressing a forum on eco-farming, Sister Placida spoke to Catholic News Service of her 10-year work of turning slum-dwellers into farmers.

“When I went to work at the slum, I couldn’t understand how they could live this way,” said Sister Placida. “Their response to me was ‘What can we do, Sister?”

Her unhappiness with the situation only increased. She told Catholic News Service that, after a while, she gave up trying to improve the dwellers’ lives and started to think of ways to move some of the families out of the area.

Sr. Placida said she looked around for land that could be farmed near Colombo and used money from the Tsunami Relief Fund — given to help victims of the 2004 tsunami — to buy 10 lots of land and relocate 10 families. The “New Beginnings” project was born.

In 2006, the first families were relocated.

“It took me almost two years to convince these first 10 families to make the move,” she told CNS. Sr. Placida said they were afraid to move to a new area.

Once on the farmland, the families were taught to clear the land, help build their houses and seed the area. The land is used by these families to grow fruits and vegetables which they consume, trade with other program families and sell in the city.

Since then, Sr. Placida and her helpers have relocated 30 families. The subsequent lots were purchased with private donations from as far away as Britain and Australia. She said the families receive the land’s deed after four years if they have used the land properly and have prospered. Of the 30 families in the program, only three have lost the right to stay and were sent back to Colombo.

Today, approximately 150 families are awaiting a move to a farm.

Sr. Placida said it is the small projects, on a local level, that have the better results, and that is what she is trying to show at Rio+20.

She said that, unlike most who are disappointed with documents agreed upon by government officials in Rio, she is satisfied with the outcome.

“I am encouraged with what I have seen here this week. People trying to eradicate poverty, women having a say in policies … the solidarity I found here has inspired me,” she said.

“It is not the official document that matters,” she said. “It the work on the ground which is important … the work which we can then take to government officials to show them.”

Sr. Placida said she is leaving Rio+20 certain of one thing: “It is we (society) who must take action.”