Turning the world upside down
When Greenpeace visited her, Lakshmi set out on her modest front porch a cornucopia that may hold nothing less than a key to the future of farming if it is to be just and sustainable. From simple woven baskets and clay pots she brought out more than eighty varieties of seeds - part of one of the richest and most diverse agricultural heritages in the world.
When he drops by, Professor Swaminathan will see that this 'community gene bank' is part of a larger picture: Lakshmi manages the seeds for her sangham - a voluntary association of poor women. And her sangham is one of seventy five, each comprising around a sixty families, in the Deccan Development Society (DDS) - an organisation which is turning ecologically-smart, people-centred agriculture into living reality, and demonstrating daily that high-technology, capital-intensive farming is unnecessary and inappropriate for hundreds of millions of the world's poorest people.
Along with the community gene banks, which they stock and control, the women of DDS have established their own food security systems, with grain stores in each village that they control and manage themselves. To support their efforts, a local farm science centre brings together and organises traditional knowledge and helps develop fertilisers and pesticides from natural sources such as the neem tree.
DDS has also built a 'green school' where dalit children, who otherwise face a life of little more than bonded labour, learn practical, income-generating skills as well as academic subjects that allow them to enter 'mainstream' society should they want to do so. And DDS is training women in radio and video production so that they can tell their stories to the wider world. Some of these new video makers are travelling as far as Peru to share their knowledge of ecological agriculture, or 'permaculture', and to learn from others.
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The crops of truth "The fact that dalit women, who are poor, illiterate and marginalised, can manage such complex projects is the strongest political statement of the decade" says P V Satheesh, the Director of DDS.
At first sight, there could be few less promising environments for a sustainable agricultural revolution. These villages - in the Medak district of state of Andhra Pradesh, close to where it meets the borders of both Maharashtra and Karnataka - are on the Deccan, a raised plateau that rolls for hundreds of kilometres across southern India. Rainfall is sparse and uncertain. Most of the soil is poor - often only a few centimetres of dust and pulverized laterite rock which, in the dry season, gives the ground a rusty red colour. Similar dryland terrain covers some two thirds of India. So the success of DDS's work holds lessons for vast areas of the country, as well as for many other parts of the world.
The Deccan is a harsh, unforgiving land, but with care it can be made to bloom. As recently as thirty years ago more than seventy different crop varieties were grown in some farmer's fields. Half a century ago, mangos from this region were so prized that the Nazeem of Hyderabad, hereditary ruler in the district, sent armed guards to protect the caravan of bullock carts that brought the fruits to his palace.
As a small boy, Jayappa showed a gift for learning. Twice his uncle had to drag him away from a local mission school: the family needed even the tiny amount of cash that a young child could bring working for landlords, and education was a luxury they thought they could not afford. When Jayappa was eleven his father died and a local large landowner illegally seized the family's tiny parcel of land. At seventeen Jayappa borrowed some money, took the landlord to court and won, but spent nine years in wage labour to pay off the debt.
For another twenty years, Jayappa worked in different parts of Andhra Pradesh [Medak District] much of the time for landlords embracing high-tech agriculture, always for pitiful wages. "We, the wage labourers, saw the land being killed while we remained poor" he says. Then, in the 1980s Jayappa heard about the fledgling DDS: groups of the very poorest coming together, pooling their small savings, gradually achieving greater autonomy, and adopting environmentally friendly farming techniques.
Returning to his home village, Jayappa set up a sangham with DDS help. He started with other men but found that too many of them wanted loans from the community chest for extravagant and unrealistic purposes. Conflict threatened to tear the sangham apart. The solution, he says, was to turn to the women. They tended to make more modest and sensible decisions.
Beginning with savings of as little as 5 rupees a month (approx. 0.25 euros or £0.08) the women's sanghams in Algol and other DDS villages have gradually brought back into cultivation extremely marginal lands which before could barely yield more than 40-50kg per acre. Now, the rejuvenated lands yield 200-300 kg of sorghum, 50kg of pigeon pea, 50kg of assorted pulses and amaranth, fibre crops, and enough fodder for two head of cattle per acre.
Together, the DDS has generated the equivalent of thousands of new jobs over a decade, and earnings per acre increased up to 12 times. And all this, while eliminating the use of chemicals and increasing the biodiversity in the fields.
Initially, plants such as sunhemp are used to improve the soil. Large quantities of cow manure are also added to increase soil fertility. Simple earthen banks and rock dams help retain soil moisture. Water retention benefits not only the small holders themselves, who are often on the higher and poorer ground, but also their neighbours downstream, who find their wells fuller for a greater part of the year as a result.
Crops are used in combination to maintain soil health. Typically, these will include varieties of sorghum (known locally as jawar), a drought-tolerant crop which extracts nutrients, and leguminous crops like pigeon pea, which add nitrogen to the soil.
Walking across one of these fields one commonly sees a mix of a dozen or more species of food plants. Manemma, a sangham member in the village of Gangwar, has 22 different varieties growing on three acres. These include five varieties of jawar, black gram, green gram and horse gram, finger millet, pearl millet and two varieties of foxtail millet, sesame, three varieties of pigeon pea, cow pea, field bean and bindhi. There are also wild vegetables, which have been eliminated or made toxic on chemical intensive farms. Some wild plants are highly nutritious and are important for local food security throughout the year. Indian spinach, for example, is one of the richest sources of Vitamin A precursor in the plant kingdom.
"None of this is our invention" says Suresh, chief scientist at KVK, the local farm science centre. "Almost all of what we teach are things that some local farmers have been doing in some form for centuries. All we have done is to put the knowledge together in easy to use form, and helped disseminate it more widely".
What is new is the way that the centre has collected and systematised best practice in indigenous knowledge. A good example is a non-pesticide management (NPM) system which KVK disseminates using a 'mandala' display of seeds and treatments. This lays out actions and interactions in time and space which the farmer needs to manage in order to protect their crops through the year without the use of artificial pesticides. It may sound complicated, but the mandala portrays complex information and relationships in a way that is easy for to literate and non-literate alike to understand. Along with community gene banks like Lakshmi's, DDS rates its most important achievement as the creation of village-based, community-owned and managed, public distribution systems (PDS). These stock essential food grains produced by the sangham members, ready for distribution at affordable prices during lean times of year.
The need arose because the government-owned PDS system has been a near disaster: it encouraged the purchase and consumption of rice imported into areas like the Medak district where it had never been a part of the staple diet. "Eating rice became fashionable" says Satheesh. "Communities which had thrived on a highly nutritious diet based on sorghum and millet switched over to a staple that was alien to them. Their immune systems were compromised and they were laid bare to diseases".
"Culture and food are inseparable" he adds. "Denial of indigenous food is a political act, and we must become conscious of it". With a community controlled PDS, traditional foods that were once almost forgotten have become again common in many households. Prices sometimes differ considerably from those in the regular markets. For example coarse millets that fetch very little outside in the 'mainstream', are given a high value in the women's markets.
Even though the rains are poor this year, the women's sangham in Eedulpally village will be able to feed their family three times a day without going into debt. But there is more to PDS than just having enough food to stay alive - it is a matter of human dignity. "We used to be very lonely" says Sundaramma, a leader of the sangham. "We would work all day and then we would be alone in our houses in the evening. Now we meet, work, talk and sing together. We share our burdens. Previously we didn't even know what a bank was. Now we are talking with men and with people in higher castes. We have become ushar (alert, intelligent).
When they started the sangham in Eedulpally, the women could not even afford a second good sari. Now they no longer have to stay indoors while their clothes are drying after a wash, and, in addition to the food bank, the women of Eedulpally have been able to create a balwadi - a shady place for young children of sangham members to be cared for instead of having to sit out in the blazing sun all day while their mothers work in the fields.
Over in the village of Basantpur the sangham has created a medicinal garden that can meet many of the essential health needs of the community. On just 5 acres (2 hectares) of rocky ground flourish 45 or more species of shrubs and trees. Santoshamma, a sangham member who looks after the garden, proudly displays some of its contents: gooseberries, grown for their high content of vitamin C; neem, whose leaves are used to treat scabies and for ailments affecting newborns and young mothers. Extracts from three plants in one part of the garden are combined to make an Ayurvedic treatment effective against coughs, stomach pain and various skin diseases, while pomegranate is used for loose bowel motions and for dysentery. Bandagurja is applied to a snake bite, and will keep someone alive for long enough to get them to hospital even if they have been bitten by a king cobra - one of the world's most deadly snakes.
Mahatma Gandhi called dalits the 'people of God'. The women's relationship to the land is about more than producing food: it is a religious commitment, expressed in daily acts and in festivals throughout the farming year. In Medak district, every season is interpreted as a state of the mother earth goddess. "When the streams and rivers flow full: Mother is bellyful and flows in content" they say. "When land is replete with diverse crops: mother is heavily pregnant. When the ear-heads are forming: mother is in birth pangs. When seed formation is taking place: mother is breastfeeding her children".
One of the greatest challenges is to equip the rising generation of children with the confidence and skills to defend their culture and also be capable of dealing with the modern world. To this end, DDS founded a 'green school' or Pacha saale in 1993 to give a second chance to local dalit who either never had the chance to go for government schools or had to drop out because of poverty and other pressures.
Every aspect of the school - from its physical structure to its curriculum - reflects a philosophy of self-reliance and environmental protection. It hive-like buildings were made with local rock and without precious resources like wood and cement. They cost less than half the average of new buildings in the area, and are cool even on the hottest day.
"We are questioning the construction of knowledge" says Satheesh, Director of DDS "The normal assumption is that it flows down from those with higher education. Here we see much of that reversed".
Another crucial battle for DDS is with, and for, the media. In Andhra Pradesh, like in most of India, television and radio tend to reflect official policy in favour of 'high-tech' agriculture. In response, DDS has trained some sangham members in radio and video production skills so that they can make their own programmes. "With video we can express ourselves" says one determined young women, known to everybody as 'General'. "When outsiders make films about us, they don't understand what we're saying. You film us selectively. We know our own stories".
The women of DDS have shown they can produce more and healthier food from the land with fewer inputs than the methods touted by so-called modernisers. They have reversed the degradation of natural resources, increased their resilience to adverse events, and created, strong supportive local groups. Others are following their example without prompting, and they have won respect from scientists, economists and other professional elites.
So what will Lakshmi tell Professor Swaminathan?
"When we ate hybrids ['green revolution' crops] we found they made our skin itch terribly. The cattle did not relish the fodder from these crops, and did not thrive. Hybrid sorghum extracted too many nutrients from the soil, leaving it dead. With GE [genetically engineered] crops we would have to purchase many different inputs. The technology would come with many uncertainties and with hidden costs. This year the rain is scarce. But even without good rain we are still hopeful of a crop because our varieties can withstand drought, and, thanks to all the manure we add, the soil is full of life. Whenever rain comes, life will return, and some of our crops will pull through because we have such variety".
"I have no interest in or need for genetic engineering because in my hands I have all these seeds, which I can also share with others. These seeds give us good, nutritious food and excellent fodder for our animals. We know them very well. We know our land very well."
Caspar Henderson is with Greenpeace. This article is part of a series of pulications reproduced with the permission of the Deccan Development Society