I am now into the second leg of my trip to India – I have been with Beth for the last 10 days which is great and we are both back in Jamkhed, Maharashtra teaching on a primary healthcare course (same as the one earlier this year).
My six weeks with the GREEN Foundation was fantastic. The organisation is what I expected and more. Their programs have worked very hard in trying to hang on to, and build on, traditional and indigenous knowledge particularly in terms of agricultural practices and crops grown. They have collaborated with small scale farmers to construct 45 community seed banks which the local farmers (predominantly women) manage and use as the means through which they discuss (usually on a weekly basis) their plans and activities for the weeks and months ahead. This is participation at its best. These ‘sanghas’ (meetings) are not usually peaceful events – one never knows if there is an argument taking place – the noise reaches a crescendo and then finishes with raucous laughter (ahhh, it’s all good).
The community seed bank also holds many varieties of finger millet (ragi – one of their staple foods), other millets, sorghums, tens of varieties beans (green & pulse), vegetables, paddy rice, dryland rice. The varieties are local – and are constantly improved by plant selection and this is also done in a participatory manner (e.g. participatory crop improvement; participatory plant breeding),. There is no multinational creating a high yielding (high input) crop in a faraway land. These crops are improved and adapted for local conditions: rainfall, soil, pests and disease resistance, animal feed requirements etc.
The seed bank is also used for festivals and for income generating projects. Some of these include value adding the crops they have grown: pickles, delicious millet mixes, powders which are used in hot milk drinks; millet popadoms (the best popadoms I have eaten – much thicker than the usual ones, like prawn crackers); and organic open-pollinated seeds for sale or exchange which are becoming increasingly valuable given the destruction the Green Revolution brought to India. Beth and I were fortunate enough to witness a Seed Management Committee (SMC), which consists of two women from each community seed bank from nearby villages. This is the forum through which activities for each community seed bank are discussed as well as marketing and sales strategies are thought through. Many of these women have had some training in marketing. For all products sold, the SMC receives a small amount. It is also the source of microcredit loans for the women’s income generation projects, or other needs they may require. The SMC part of the project is funded by the Seed Savers’ Network in Byron Bay, the organisation through which I became connected to the GREEN Foundation.
The farmers are predominantly using organic techniques (although some are still in the transition phase from chemical farming). This is where I come into play. After trialling a few different growing techniques at the GREEN Foundations’ conservation centre farm, I was fortunate to be asked to re-establish their biodynamic (BD) program with a select group of the best organic farmers. Many of you will be well aware of the value and quality of biodynamic products. If you don’t’ know of biodynamics then perhaps you are aware of Steiner schools, an alternative way of educating. Well, Rudolph Steiner is also the mastermind behind biodynamics.
I started with a full day workshop with a number of their better organic farmers from five or six villages and GF field staff. The workshop comprised of both theoretical and practical sessions. The practical sessions included the making of BD compost, a cow pat pit and BD 500 (cow horn manure). Given the importance the cow plays in Indian culture, and the pivotal role it has in BD, it makes a lot of sense the BD would be grasped by the farmers. At the end of the day we constructed an action plan for my work with the farmers either in individual farms or nearby their community seed banks.
Two days later I was on a bus, then a train, for a thirteen hour journey to a sorghum workshop that GF was holding in the north of Karnataka. Five farmers from the southern project area came, for some, the first journey on a train. It was amazing (and often quite funny) to watch. I gave a short session at the workshop on BD practices (especially in terms of timing) of harvest and grain storage. This was similar to some of the indigenous knowledge, which was reassuring. Many western farmers may have great difficulty in comprehending some of the BD ways, and yet they make a lot of sense to many of the Indian farmers. After three days of a workshop conducted in a local language, we returned to the conservation center for a two day monthly staff meeting in which I again gave a number of sessions to the field staff on BD.
Now to the villages to work with the farmers. Four days of training in five days including long journeys on the back of 100cc motorbikes on some of the worst roads and the nicest landscapes – a bit of balance I guess. We did all the practical – compost, CPP, and BD 500 and in some cases applied BD500 and CPP (purchased from an NGO in India that is has been using BD since the mid 90s). The last day was a bit tricky as India was playing Australia in the final of the cricket so we did not manage to finish the compost. The dedication of that farmer was amazing. As there were not enough materials to finish the compost the night before, my first sight of this particular farmer was him coming though the mist at 7am with what looked like a forest on his head, and from under it, a huge smile (an even bigger one than when I first met him as he had new teeth). This particular farmer has been used as a resource person to teach other farmers practices such as permaculture garden design and vermicompost. Instead of teaching a heap of farmers it was thought best to teach the best farmers who will then teach the others. We finished the compost, had breakfast, had some photos with the family – who, although didn’t speak English, had shown me the most beautiful hospitality whether it be breakfast, sitting with the two sons (who did speak a bit of English and who could give every cricket statistic ever, while watching the cricket on TV and doing homework, all at the same time) and the grandfather who would just sit quietly and read, occasionally looking up with a nice soft smile. People from the west could learn a lot from village people (not the 80s group) – although they had little in terms of material wealth (only 2 acres, a nice small house), their giving and peacefulness was extreme. They are intelligent, patient, and could teach us all a lot.
Anyway, it was then back to the GF farm to share with the staff the sweets we had bought. This was followed by more photos than imaginable. Every staff member, of which there were about 10, wanted a personal photo with Beth and me. Some of these were even taken on the bike. Then we were gone. I think we achieved a lot in a small space of time but this will depend upon the staff ensuring the work continues. I am quite confident that some of the farmers will not need anymore encouragement in the short term – only time will tell.
I must run. I have about five sessions to prepare for this primary health course including development, globalisation, agriculture and the environment. It has been rewarding yet very tiring – I need to get some patience and fast. There has not been a day in which everything has run smoothly – a great learning curve for me. It has given me more confidence in my abilities to adapt though which is great.
If anyone wants to email me I am here until the 16th December. Thanks again for everyone’s support. As well everything on this course I just remembered I have to edit a book entitled: Investing in Indigenous Knowledge, the most recent publication by the GREEN Foundation.
Bye for now