The Green Tree Foundation is a small non-profit organization that promotes permaculture techniques to local farmers in the Antapur district in Andra Pradesh, India. The organizations are devising solutions to alleviate serious water scarcity and eroded soil. However, it was Gangi Setty, the founder behind GTF, that made my trip to visit them most memorable.
Gangi, a delightfully peculiar man, is an elementary school teacher, a full-time philosopher and a wordsmith. His vernacular and innovative descriptions were entertaining and insightful. With the advent of internet in his village, he said he became a ‘netizen’ in 2001. He came to know about the merits of permaculture by two questions he posed to a Yahoo discussion group in 2005. “What is the role of greenery and water in establishing global peace?” he asked. “How does it eliminate mental poverty?” Mental poverty to Gangi (another one of his trademarked phrases) describes the reality of a large percentage of people in the West.
“In India, we have physical poverty. In the west, it seems you suffer from a different kind of poverty; a poverty of the mind and spirit,” he conjectured, in one of the first of our many chats in his living room. He made the point that in most western countries, especially the US, the rise in material prosperity is directly proportional to decreasing happiness, unlike developing countries like India where a small boost of extra income can increase an individual’s happiness by providing more food, clothing, improved shelter or comfort for one’s family. After a certain level, when a society reaches Western standards of development, experts are finding that people don’t derive satisfaction from another coffee maker or 180 television channels. Technology, instead of saving us time, has worked to increase our workloads and cut our free time. With the surge in busy schedules, our communities have suffered and eroded. Neighbors don’t know each other anymore. We prefer to sit in our lonely castles with every modern convenience. Depression is a mental illness that has been steadily rising for the last 15 years. Have we indeed become mentally and spiritually poor? If so, this mental poverty should be something that sustainability experts should think about. Along with our physically scarce resources, we also need to resurrect our depleted emotional and social resources.
The question that Gangi asked online started a long discussion, opening up worlds of information about permaculture, rainwater harvesting, and organic farming techniques to him. Members of the Yahoo discussion group theorized that it will take a collection of solutions to bring physical resilience by a caring community of individuals who are reaching out to others for that other depleted resource, happiness. After all, as Gangi reminded me, “man is a social animal.”
That discussion group made a powerful impact on Gangi. He started the Green Tree Foundation to put his newly acquired ideas into action. To alleviate local poverty, he thought that the rain must come by planting trees. Every year his organization distributes 50,000 fruit tree saplings. He also started to invest in Multi Purpose Fast Growing Trees (MPFGT), such as Acacia and Moringa. Now the Green Tree Foundation offers aid, technical support and supplies to local farmers who are interested in organic farming. He is also working on developing an organic seed bank that provides farmers with organic seeds of crops grown locally such as pulses, grains and vegetables.
That discussion group also influenced others from around the world. In 2009, Douglas Barnes, a long time fellow netizen and friend of Gangi’s came to see the work that the Green Tree Foundation had been doing and to help out. In Antapur’s arid climate, Douglas and Gangi set out to design a system of swales to better retain water for the fruit orchard of a local farmer. The farmer, Mr. Bala, is the village chief and had expressed interest in organic farming to Gangi before but remained skeptical. It wasn’t until Gangi and Douglas showed Bala the plans for the swale project and the potential of what he could save from irrigation costs that he welcomed the idea. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” Gangi reminded me, “and we have a very serious need for water.” Some farmers in the community are forced to drill as far as 500 ft for irrigation water. Gangi hopes the swale project can inspire farmers to conserve water through alternative means.
The swale project was largely successful. It was designed, dug and completed within a month. There are four swales and four terraces. When a heavy rain falls the swales generally collect at least 30cm of rainwater, helping to arrest erosion of topsoil. Each swale is about a meter deep and about 6-8 meters long. Swales should be constructed with the mound on the lower side of the slope — allowing water to come into the ditch but not leave. After four years since its inception the swales have mostly held through pretty serious downpours. Douglas admitted to me that he expected them to yield more greenery but for the most part he’s satisfied with the project.
After our tour of the swales, we walked on to see Bala’s other projects. We saw two large traditional ground wells, five meters deep, that fill up with rain after monsoons. He then showed us his vermiculture enterprise. He had four large troughs filled with compost and worm castings. Each trough is set up on a different schedule. First, the worms are introduced to moist soil with a lot of compost. After two weeks, the worms are carefully sifted and removed from the casting rich soil and moved to a new trough with new compost to eat. The soil, rich with worm castings, are then bagged and sold to local farmers at a cheaper price than artificial fertilizer.
Bala was initially introduced to organic agriculture by Gangi and then later by other farming organizations promoting Non Pesticide Management. He is very glad to be an instrumental influence on the community and hopes the whole community can free itself from industrial agricultural practices. “This system provides a better alternative to how farmers have been doing things,” Bala said through translation. This community certainly is a victim of “bio-piracy”, as Gangi creatively describes industrial agriculture. Farmers in the village, like farmers all over India, have struggled with burdening debt after pesticide dealers have raised prices. The kind of debt that eliminates all hope and leaves farmers with no options. Suicides are common here.
On the ride home, we stopped by the home of village doctor and Gangi’s best friend. I asked him what were the most common medical issues in this area. “Blood pressure, mostly.” He said calmly. “Diabetes and asthma, too.” He told how he thinks these ailments have been brought on by modern farming. When input costs are high and outputs are low, blood pressure becomes common as “a large amount of financial stress is put on the farmers.” the doctor concluded.
The conversation drifted some but always remained on current topics and the problems facing their community. I enjoy that about India. Every topic is up for discussion. Education, healthcare, Indian agriculture and the importance for a resilient local economy were all debated. It was this conversation that heartened me about hope for the future. If this one man can reach out to other peers across the world for advice and help on how to change his community’s hardest problems, then there is still a lot to be hopeful about.