A non-profit teaches a soil education program to combat the farmer suicide epidemic in rural India.
By Tejal Heblekar, and edited by Eileen Mello
A few kilometers from the Bay of Bengal in the Indian state of Orissa, rural farmers have gathered around a microscope to see what lies hidden in the ground. The Hummingbird Project, an American based non-profit organization, has equipped a soil laboratory with a microscope and resources for visiting farmers to test the quality of their farm’s soil and learn specific organic methods for improving its health. Farmers are eager to use the lab resources to test their samples and excitedly look from the microscope to the computer, watching the enhanced images of microbes moving throughout the soil. Proud chemical farmers are shocked to discover their samples — white and chalky with synthetic fertilizer salts and residues and reeking like chemicals — have no biodiversity like that found in samples from farms employing organic techniques.
This discussion is part of a larger training program developed by scientist and activist, Dr. Vandana Shiva, through her organization Navdanya, to educate and empower farmers with the necessary knowledge to return to the more sustainable organic farming processes used by their grandparents.
Farming India’s soil was once considered an honorable living, but in recent decades it has become a curse for small farmers. Where once there was pride in tilling the soil, love in sowing the seeds, and gratitude in harvesting the crop, there is now frustration, grief, and resignation.
Whether in Maharashtra, Punjab, Orissa, Chhattisgarh or Kerala, the states known as the “suicide belt,” the news of small farmers taking their own lives has become commonplace (see here, here, and here). The decades-long crisis plaguing India’s agricultural sector claims more casualties than any war fought at home or overseas. Statistics presented by the National Crime Bureau estimate that between 125,000-200,000 land-owning farmers have taken their lives since 1997 — one life every 30 minutes — a reflection of the agricultural industry’s dysfunction. (This figure may exclude women and other farmers who do not own the land they farm.) Although these stories elicit public outcry from both Indians and international communities, the government has done little to address this national emergency.
The origins of India’s suicide epidemic dates back to the 1970s and the introduction of the “Green Revolution.” Using aggressive marketing and propaganda, the government and international foundations endorsed chemical farming. Impoverished farmers were easily convinced to trade their ploughs for tractors, their earth-friendly pest-management systems for chemical pesticides, and their native seeds that had been perfected for the local soil and environment over thousands of years for Norman Borlaug’s “miracle” hybrid seeds that promised higher yield. Indeed, the farmers did see a higher yield in the first several years of monoculture crops, however, yields steadily decreased while dependency on chemical fertilizers and pesticides grew. Slowly, local biodiversity was destroyed and the beneficial living organisms found in healthy soil were killed. As their soil died, so too did local knowledge of the traditional farming techniques that sustain soil life.
During the 1990s, two decades following the fiasco of the Green Revolution, India’s government privatized the economic system and opened the country to trade liberalization at the encouragement of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Though intending to achieve economic growth, the reforms instead resulted in a major influx of multinational companies, thereby devastating local industries. For farmers, this was an additional blow, as agricultural subsidies suddenly ceased and farmers were left to compete with big global brands — brands that could command lower market rates because of the subsidies provided by their countries of origin.
Cotton farmers were particularly impacted. As they were stripped of their supportive subsidies and unfairly exposed to the global market, their international competitors benefited from reduced tariffs and duties on imports. Abandoned by their own state governments, the farmers sought refuge in the promises of chemical agriculture by purchasing an increasing number of expensive products from the giant multinational corporations conducting business under the new economic policies.
Unfortunately, farmers’ problems increased even after employing these expensive inputs. A notable example is the introduction of Monsanto’s Bollard Bt cottonseed, which has been genetically engineered to produce the Bacillus thuringiensis toxin to combat the common American bollworm pest. Aggressive marketing and advertising — much of which was done using Indian names and Hindu deities — promised higher yields and decreased crop failure without pesticide use. As of 2009, little more than a decade after economic reform, approximately 95% of land in the states of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh has been cultivated with GMO Bt cotton.
But Bt cotton requires both more money and water than farmers understand when purchasing seed. Because it is a hybrid and cannot be replanted by seed saving, farmers are forced to buy expensive seed each year (an expense created by modern corporations and hitherto unknown to farmers throughout the world). The unpredictability of weather may also lead to massive crop failure, as Bt cotton requires more water than indigenous cotton. Since most of India’s cotton farms are rain-fed, a rain-deficient year results in crop failure (irrigation systems are not available to all farmers, especially small farmers). To cover financial losses, farmers seek loans from banks or moneylenders. A failure to repay loans may result in imprisonment, or more likely, in repossession of land.
As debts mount inordinately, farmers are unable to meet their financial and familial obligations. The only way out of crippling debt — sometimes as little as $100 — is to take one’s life. Many will, ironically, resort to a painful death by consuming the very pesticides responsible for their debts.
It was into this world that The Hummingbird Project entered with a microscope, a suitcase full of lab supplies, and intent to make a difference. Two years ago, husband and wife co-founders, Chris Kennedy and Marilyn McHugh, began collaborating with Navdanya in a mutual endeavor to reduce dependency on GMO seeds, training farmers in organic methods, and re-establishing sustainable agriculture throughout India. Their work began by setting up the first “Living Soil” laboratory at Navdanya’s main educational campus, Bija Vidyapeeth or Earth University. Microscope training quickly became part of Navdanya’s existing biodiversity, conservation and organic farm training, which has already been taught to over 400,000 men and women farmers, students, government officials, and representatives of national and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
“The trainers would tell me that they have been talking about the harmful effect of chemicals on the soil for 20 years, but could never actually show the farmers how that looks,” says Chris. The simple yet compelling sight of their own chemically sterile and living organic soils has proved to be a powerful tool in educating farmers and demonstrating the cause and effects of various farming practices and their corresponding yields. Marilyn recalls their first training, “The farmers were literally jumping out of their seats and touching the computer screen where the microbes were moving around. Once the farmers understand the soil ecosystem and the services it provides, all of the organic practices make more sense and it is easy to understand why chemical farming has failed them.”
In 2012, The Hummingbird Project raised funds through the permaculture crowd-sourcing website, We The Trees, to supply a second Living Soil training laboratory at a satellite farm and seed bank in Orissa and recently were awarded a grant from The Pollination Project. In collaboration with Navdanya, Chris and Marilyn trained over 1,000 farmers, trainers, students, and government officials about the soil food web and organic farming techniques in over six Indian states. In so doing, they formed partnerships with several other NGOs that are similarly dedicated to the livelihood of farmers.
The problems faced by India’s rural farmers are daunting. Yet, organizations such as The Hummingbird Project exist to provide farmers immediate access to systems and techniques that will restore the life of their soil and the sustainability of their communities. Marilyn adds, “Farmers are always surprised when we talk that we do not want to sell them anything because they are so accustomed to being pitched the next best pesticide or fertilizer. But our goal is to empower farmers with knowledge and skills.” The Hummingbird Project’s educational outreach programs aim to save lives and rebuild communities — one farm and one family at a time.