Resources Research

Culture and systems of knowledge, cultivation and food, population and consumption

Posts Tagged ‘natural resource

India’s new agricultures, clean and local

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The new issue of Infochange India’s journal, Agenda, is about India’s new agricultures. I’m delighted to have edited and compiled this volume, the contributions to which you can read on the Infochange India website. It is in my view a nicely balanced volume, with insight and knowledge from practitioners and academics, government officials and activists. Here are the contents:

Infochange Agenda journal on New Agriculture, coverTowards a new agriculture – With roughly 45,000 certified organic farms operating in India, there is finally a rejection of resource-extractive industrial agriculture and a return to traditional, sustainable and ecologically safe farming. All over India rural revivalists are rejecting the corporatised, programmatic, high-input model of agriculture and following agro-ecological approaches in which shared, distributed knowledge systems provide ways to adapt to changing climate and a shrinking natural resource base. Rahul Goswami explains.

An evolutionary view of Indian agriculture – Farmers work with knowledge systems that evolve with time and circumstance. They learn and unlearn, choosing the appropriate knowledge in their struggle to earn a livelihood. While scientists rely on averages, the knowledge of local people is dynamic and up-to-date, continually revised as conditions alter, writes A Thimmaiah. The integration of scientific knowledge systems with indigenous knowledge systems is vital to make agriculture sustainable.

Tamil Nadu’s organic revolution – With chemical farming becoming uneconomical and grain yields declining, more and more farmers are switching to organic agriculture, says natural scientist G Nammalvar in this interview with Claude Alvares. Nammalvar has been training organic farmers and setting up learning centres in Tamil Nadu for three decades. Trainings sometimes need to be held in marriage halls in order to accommodate up to 1,000 farmers.

Return to the good earth in Sangli – Jayant Barve used to market chemical fertilisers and pesticides and practise chemical agriculture himself. In 1988, he switched to sustainable agriculture, and has never looked back since. In this interview he emphasises that despite much lower input costs, organic farming does give the same yield as chemical agriculture, sometimes even more. An interview by Claude Alvares.

Gulmohur trees in bloom, May in Maharashtra

Gulmohur trees in bloom, May in Maharashtra

The new natural economics of agriculture – Farmer Subhash Sharma watched the decline of his soil and agricultural yields before he let nature be his teacher and understood the agro-economics of agriculture. He abandoned insecticides and chemical fertilisers and relied instead on the cow, trees, birds and vegetation.

Climate change and food security – Rice production in India could decrease by almost a tonne/hectare if the temperature goes up 2 C, while each 1 C rise in mean temperature could cause wheat yield losses of 7 million tonnes per year. A recent national conference on food security and agriculture deliberated strategies to protect agriculture, food and nutrition security in the time of climate change. Suman Sahai reports.

Local solutions to climate change – In developing countries, 11% of arable land could be affected by climate change. Indeed, farmers are already facing the impact of climate change. The need of the hour, say Sreenath Dixit and B Venkateswarlu, is not to wait for global agreements on mitigating climate change but to act locally, intelligently and consistently, as is being done with water harvesting solutions for rainfed agriculture in Andhra Pradesh.

Tackling climate change in Gorakhpur – The people of Gorakhpur district, UP, have come to expect heavy rains followed by long dry spells as a consequence of climate change. But they are no longer allowing climate change to affect their crops. At shared learning dialogues, they are learning about the benefits of multi-cropping, alternative farming, soil management and seed autonomy. Surekha Sule reports.

In the state of Goa, western India, new residential blocks loom over shrinking fields.

In the state of Goa, western India, new residential blocks loom over shrinking fields. The produce from such fields once fed the capital city of Panaji, which now imports food 130 kilometres from the neighbouring state of Karnataka

Agriculture at nature’s mercy – In recent decades, market forces have prompted farmers in the Sunderbans to choose modern, high-yielding varieties of paddy, oblivious to their sensitivity to salt. Cyclone Aila, which caused a huge inundation of salt in the fields, proved that this was a costly mistake: every farmer who sowed the modern seed ended up with no produce, while those who planted traditional salt-tolerant varieties managed to harvest a little rice. Sukanta Das Gupta reports.

Resilience of man and nature – Cyclone Aila seemed to have broken the back of agriculture in the Sunderbans. Most observers, including Santadas Ghosh, felt it would be years before agricultural activity got back to normal. But just three months after the cyclone, salinity notwithstanding, seeds were sprouting and the freshwater ecology stirring with life.

Animal farms – The Green Revolution impacted livestock-rearing as well as agriculture. Farmers were encouraged to shift from low-input backyard systems to corporatised capital-intensive systems. As a result, write Nitya S Ghotge and Sagari R Ramdas, there was an artificial divide between livestock-rearing and agriculture, leading to the further crumbling of fragile livelihoods of small and landless farmers. Organisations such as Anthra are now working with communities to revitalise and re-integrate livestock and agriculture.

Women farmers: From seed to kitchen – Women contribute 50-60% of labour in farm production in India. There is evidence to suggest, writes Kavya Dashora, that if agriculture were focused on women, outputs could increase by as much as 10-20%, the ecological balance could be restored, and food security of communities improved.

Local grain in Mapusa market, North Goa

Local grain in Mapusa market, North Goa

Empty claims of financial inclusion – Government has been broadcasting its success in doubling institutional credit to the agricultural sector. But these numbers have little meaning: 85% of accounts opened were inoperative, 72% had zero or minimum balance, and only 15% had a balance over Rs 100. It is paradoxical, writes P S M Rao, to talk about ‘inclusive growth’ when our policies and practices tread the path of exclusion.

Natural farming, tribal farming – In major parts of India, agriculture is in crisis, with very low returns and large-scale destruction of cropped lands. Conservation agriculture can help small and middle farmers escape the downward spiral that impoverishes them even as it destroys the soil and ecosystem, writes Vidhya Das. Tribal farmers in particular have an intuitive understanding of natural farming techniques, Agragamee discovered during its nascent initiatives in organic conservation agriculture with tribal farmers in Orissa.

The home gardens of Wayanad – Wayanad, which has been in the news for the high number of farmer suicides, is also known for widespread homestead farming. A typical home garden integrates trees with field crops, livestock, poultry and fish. Home gardens form a dominant and promising land use system and maintain high levels of productivity, stability and sustainability, say A V Santhoshkumar and Kaoru Ichikawa.

Small farmer zindabad – More than 80% of India’s farmers are small and marginal farmers. It has been empirically established that small farms produce more per hectare than their larger counterparts. It is therefore imperative to protect the interests of small farmers through measures that help promote and stabilise incomes, reduce risks, and increase profitability, and at the same time improve availability and access to inputs, markets and credit. Extract from the report of the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector (NCEUS), ‘The Challenge of Employment in India: An Informal Economy Perspective’ (2009).

The tired mirage of top-down technology – India’s large and complex public agricultural research and extension system, obsessed with the area-production-yield mantra, is geared towards harnessing technology to close the yield gap, while overlooking ago-ecological approaches entirely. This has been an error of staggering proportions, says Rahul Goswami.

The gap between field and lab – In India, publicly-funded research shapes the choices available to farmers, food workers and consumers. But farmers and consumers are only at the receiving end of agricultural research, never involved in it, says Anitha Pailoor. Raitateerpu, a farmers’ jury in Karnataka, wants to ensure that citizens are involved in decisions around science, technology and policymaking.

Kudrat, Karishma and other living seeds – Prakash Raghuvanshi has developed dozens of high-yielding, disease-resistant, open pollinated seeds, distributing them to 2 million farmers in 14 states. He also trains farmers in the basics of selection and plant breeding at his small farm near Varanasi. His aim is clear: to conserve and protect desi (indigenous) seed varieties, thereby freeing the farmer from the stranglehold of foreign seed companies and the cycle of debt and dependence. Anjali Pathak reports.


The advance guard of climate change

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Winter sky over the Deccan plateau, India

Winter sky over the Deccan plateau, India

From late 2003 to early 2005 I was part of a small group in south Nagaland (in India’s north-east region) conducting a study on natural resource management and the prospects for tourism in the region. The study was funded by a Indian central government ministry, was ‘supervised’ by the state government and was made possible by the village community of Khonoma, in the Naga hills.

At around the mid-point of our study, when the time had come for the paddy seedlings to be transplanted, that the convergence of climate change and scarce labour resources became obvious. The seedlings were not ready to be moved at the time of year they were usually expected to be. By the time they were, the extra labour each rice farming family had mobilised in preparation for the hard work ahead, had their regular jobs and occupations to return to. The hill villages were in turmoil. Practically every single family that had a plot of terraced rice field to attend to was caught in a dilemma.

If they insisted that those who had come to the villages to help them – daughters, sons, cousins or aunts – stay back to complete the work, those helpful souls would certainly lose salaries and wages. If they let them return, they would have to look for very scarce hired labour, whose per day wage was high and which would certainly rise given the scarcity of hands available and time. It was for most families a Hobson’s choice, and by either reckoning only made the socio-economic cost of rice cultivation dearer. This was the most dramatic impact of climate change that I saw at the time, for the shift in transplanting season was considered very odd indeed by the villages, almost unprecedented.

Extracting riverbed sand in North Goa, India

Extracting riverbed sand in North Goa, India

We know now that local observations of direct effects of climate change by tribal populations and indigenous peoples corroborate scientific predictions. In a very real sense, indigenous peoples are the advance guard of climate change. They observe and experience climate and environmental changes first-hand, and are already using their traditional knowledge and survival skills – the heart of their cultural resilience – to respond. Moreover, they are doing this at a time when their cultures and livelihoods are already undergoing significant stresses not only due to the environmental changes from climate change, but from the localised pressures and economic impulses of global trade and movement of capital.

The United Nations University’s Institute of Advanced Study has just released an advance copy of what promises to be a goldmine of such observation. The volume is entitled ‘Advance Guard: Climate Change Impacts, Adaptation, Mitigation and Indigenous Peoples – A Compendium of Case Studies’. The 402 case studies summarised in this densely packed volume mention a host of specific vulnerabilities and early effects of climate change being reported by indigenous peoples (and these include cultural and spiritual impacts): demographic changes, including displacement from their traditional lands and territories; economic impacts and loss of livelihoods; land and natural resource degradation; impacts on food security and food sovereignty; health issues; water shortages; and loss of traditional knowledge.

: Climate Change Impacts, Adaptation, Mitigation and Indigenous Peoples

The cover graphic of the UNU-IAS compilation 'Climate Change Impacts, Adaptation, Mitigation and Indigenous Peoples'

Impacts are felt across all sectors, including agriculture and food security; biodiversity and natural ecosystems; animal husbandry (particularly pastoralist lifestyles); housing, infrastructure and human settlements; forests; transport; energy consumption and production; and human rights. The entire range of effects on habitats and their biomes are supplied: temperature and precipitation changes; coastal erosion; permafrost degradation; changes in wildlife, pest and vector-borne disease distribution; sea-level rise; increasing soil erosion, avalanches and landslides; more frequent extreme weather events, such as intense storms; changing weather patterns, including increasing aridity and drought, fire and flood patterns; and increased melting of sea-ice and ice-capped mountains.

“In spite of these impacts,” states the UNU-IAS compilation, “indigenous peoples also have a variety of successful adaptive and mitigation strategies to share. The majority of these are based in some way on their traditional ecological knowledge, whether they involve modifying existing practices or restructuring their relationships with the environment. Their strategies include application and modification of traditional knowledge; shifting resource bases; altering land use and settlement patterns; blending of traditional knowledge and modern technologies; fire management practices; changes in hunting and gathering periods and crop diversification; management of ecosystem services; awareness raising and education, including use of multimedia and social networks; and policy, planning and strategy development.”

From Asia, I’ve picked out three cases which illustrate just how important it is to observe and learn from these responses:

BANGLADESH | Indigenous forecasting in Maheshkhali, using meteorological indicators and animal behaviour to predict cyclones. Maheshkhali Island is situated off the Bay of Bengal coast with an area of approximately 60 square km. Cyclones are the greatest disaster threat of coastal people. Research has revealed that certain indigenous prediction capacity possessed by the local people always helped them to anticipate cyclones and take necessary precautions. The indigenous cyclone prediction is even more important as it was revealed during interviews with the Maheskhali islanders that they do not understand the modern warning system with its different numerical codes (1-10) and elaboration on wind direction, as explained in the warning bulletins.

Buffalo at work, Kolhapur district, Maharashtra, India

Buffalo at work, Kolhapur district, Maharashtra, India

INDIA | Indigenous forecasting in India using meteorological indicators, plant features and animal behaviour. Researchers from Gujarat Agricultural University have evaluated eight indigenous forecasting beliefs between 1990 to 1998. For each year, the data was tabulated and analysed on the basis of Bhadli’s criteria. Based on the findings the researchers concluded that many of the beliefs are reliable indicators of monsoon. The study has helped to restore the people’s confidence in their own traditional knowledge and skills. As climate change occurs, these traditional forecasting indicators may change. Locals have to continue their observations and adjust their predictions accordingly to ensure that correct coping mechanisms will be applied.

INDONESIA | Customary Iban Community. This study examines the social and institutional practices of a sedentary Iban sub-tribe in the upstream part of the Kapuas system in governing their life. In 2008, the Sungai Utik community acquired a formal, recognition of their institutional capacity to live at the center of one of the most complex ecosystems that is the tropical rainforest of Kalimantan. The Indonesian Eco-label Institute provided the community logging practice of the Sungai Utik Ibans its “seal of ecological appropriateness”. The Sungai Utik life-space is part of the bigger climatic zone just north of the Equator that has been predicted to experience higher precipitation over the course of climate change in this century, particularly in comparison with the last three decades of the last century. It means that the community should learn to adapt to a transformed rainy season—the duration of which and the timing of its start and ending are also subject to change—for the crucial nugal (planting) rituals.