A Conversation of Conservation

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Being one of the world’s first civilization has made India well known for its long living traditions. Mostly an agricultural society, to a large extent illiterate, its practices sustaining food, land and medicine have passed orally from generation to generation, preserving a wide, local and small-scale production during the past thousands of years. What we call organic farming, they call nature.

Local treasures like neem and citronella leaves, green chillies, ginger and garlic are just several ingredients of tens of homemade kashayams (medicinal remedies) that were commonly blended and sprayed to help plants fight diseases. Hundred of different millet species were, until recently, known to the country and provided a sturdy, nutritional crop that fed the farming communities. But today well-calculated dynamics between the plants and smart use of the few resources are essential for the recovery of this land.

In the beginning of the eighties, shortly after the green revolution arrived to India between 1972-1974, the agricultural practices shifted. Radio infomercials began speaking of new substances arriving from the West that give great bounty. At first many of the local farmers couldn’t afford such expensive new toys but when one happened to see the field of a neighbour that was blooming on every last  inch of their farm, they were quickly convinced. For some in the state of Andhra Pradesh, the possibility of these chemicals was nothing short of a miracle. This area enjoys only a few rainfalls a year, almost strictly in the monsoon season. Not only are rainfalls scarce but also for a long time they were badly managed. The waters would flood through the region creating an overwhelming amount in very specific parts of the land and the rest would be quickly lost. Here, a full crop and green spaces are a heavenly sight.

Shortly after the green revolution local scientists and governors began advocating for Western seeds and pesticides. Unable to read, many Indians of lower classes are used to believing and deeply respecting the word of those better educated. Slowly but surely thousands began taking out loans and set out to the field with that stuff of miracles. Monocrops replaced the multicrop and groundnut (peanut) began taking over the state of Andhra Pradesh. Governmental subsidies for white rice were simultaneously initiated and the much better millets were no longer crucially needed for survival. Their cultivation dramatically decreased. They now had a white cereal on their plate. Even if some are aware of its meagre nutritional value, it represents to many a mental sense of advancement. They refuse to return to the dark brown, red and sometimes black commodity. To them the white food represents the image of the white man – stronger, richer, and more sophisticated.

At first the revenue was outstanding. Requiring truly minimum treatment provided tremendous profit in the first year and a relief from the land’s difficulties. The same was the case in the second year. But then came the third and with it came crop failure. The soil, poor and undernourished, needed more than they had for rejuvenation.

In siddha medicine India is divided into three temperatures zones: hot, hotter and hottest. In a region confirming to the latter category with no water to spare whole communities of farmers were left empty handed. Thousands who took loans, sunk into debt. The Indian belief in cyclic energy could have never foreseen that what was meant to stop starvation will bring one bigger, wider and harder hunger than ever

Moreover, any Indian doctor will tell you – food is medicine and medicine is food. Adopting western agribusiness practices harmed much more than just income. Finally, over the past 20 years some of the colours so symbolic to this most ancient civilization began disappearing. Food, medicine, and lands were lost.

Today in Andhra Pradesh, 30 farmers from the surrounding villages are sitting in a circle on the floor, shoes off. Men and women, younger people and elders, the conversation of conservation is common amongst them. A patient and attentive exchange begins. It seems calm and well mastered.
They are part of Timbuktu – literally meaning a no-mans land where the earth meets the sky – an organic collective, which, amongst other things, trains and teaches farmers to go back to the practices of their roots. In other villages they conduct water harvesting and forest conservation projects as well. They have been working here for the past 25 years. A process accompanied by more than a little toil and tears. Yet the message began to be passed on. One alone can’t set out to do such a task but together they know that however hard the challenge, it’s better than what their past experiences offered them.

Since 1995 to the current day more than 38,000 farmers have committed suicide in Andhra Pradesh due to crop failure and bankruptcy. Some amazing people are investing great efforts for a change of ways and a re-education of old methods. Others have been working on governmental lobbying which has some recorded achievements. But still, the counting continues and the numbers of people who take their lives over the brown fields grow every single year.

In the past, when western pharmaceuticals were caught testing products on eastern or African populations everyone shouted out – murder. So what do we call the consequences of industrial agriculture?

Picture: Natalie Shafrir

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