[permaculture] (fwd) Turning the world upside down: Genetic security in native seed-baskets

Lawrence F. London, Jr. lfl at intrex.net
Tue Jul 2 07:37:53 EDT 2002

Date:         Mon, 1 Jul 2002 10:26:19 +0200
 Reply-To:     wiegand at lufa-speyer.de
 Sender:       Sustainable Agriculture Network Discussion Group
               <SANET-MG at LISTS.IFAS.UFL.EDU>
 From:         Klaus Wiegand <wiegand at LUFA-SPEYER.DE>
 Organization: LUFA Speyer
 Subject:      Turning the world upside down

 the article below, from the india together website, focuses on
 Lakshmi and the work of the Deccan Development Society (DDS) -
 an organisation which, as the article says, "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."  maybe a bit long to read, but a quite nice
 example for SUSTAINability

 Turning the world upside down

 Genetic security in native seed-baskets

 May 2002: As a dalit, Lakshmi is at the very bottom of India's
 hierarchy of castes. It wasn't long ago that people from Lakshmi's
 background were seen by many as fit for only the most menial jobs
 and not even worthy of a name. But one of the most influential
 agricultural scientists in the country, M. S. Swaminathan, a
 pioneer of hybrid rice and regarded as the father of the 'Green
 Revolution', will soon be beating a path to her door in the tiny
 village of Humnapur in Andhra Pradesh.

 When [the author] 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.

 "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
 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,
 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

 "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
 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
 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

 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,
 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
 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
 May 2002


Lawrence F. London, Jr.
lfl at intrex.net 

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