Rural India - Thriving Through Organic Agriculture (Kabini)

Gandhi's vision for India was of a confederation of self-governing, self-reliant, self-employed people living in village communities, deriving their right livelihood from the products of their homesteads. Maximum economic and political power - including the power to decide what could be imported into or exported from the village - would remain in the hands of the village assemblies.
 
Thinking about Gandhi’s vision for India, I’m wondering if maybe Mani Chinnaswamy, founder of Appachi Eco-Logic Cotton, has been cut from a similar cloth? Even after knowing Mani for a couple of years now and travelling with him solidly for two days, I’m still not sure what drives this man. But clearly something does and it’s not financial wealth.
 
Mani and his wife, Viji, are most famous for their work with handloom weavers (see the Ethicus, Future Shapers, case study). Not only is this work helping to revive the art of fine handloom weaving but their insistence on telling the story via product labels means their customers get to learn more about the artisans behind their purchase. Telling the story, I’ve learnt from Mani and Viji, is an added value and an essential part of the job. As consumers we really need to better understand what we are buying and how we can make a difference through our purchasing decisions.
 
Alongside handlooms, Mani is passionate about the Western Ghats; a UNESCO heritage listed, eco-logically sensitive zone, filled with wildlife forest reserves, close to Mani’s home, in Southern India. The Kabini Reservoir region, where Mani is promoting the “Appachi Eco-Logic Project” is surrounded by 5 forest reserves, most of them are notified tiger reserves now. The Western Ghats is one of the eight "hottest hotspots" of biological diversity in the world. There are 5,000 species of flowering plants, 139 mammal species (including the Bangalore tiger), 508 bird species and 179 amphibian species. At least 325 globally threatened species occur in the Western Ghats. Alongside some of India’s most endangered species, the Western Ghats was home to hundreds of thousands of “Tribals” living fairly traditional lifestyles of food and honey gathering along with some agriculture/food cultivation.
 
above: Western Ghats - elephants venturing down to the reservoir at dusk
 
I knew a little about India and its Tribal populations but it wasn’t until I visited Kabini that I learnt of the eviction and relocation of the Tribal people for the development of a huge dam/water reservoir, primarily built to meet the growing power and drinking water needs of city dwellers in Mysore and Bangalore in the 1970s. One of the positive side effects of the dam project was a reliable source of water for the animals surviving in the forests and vast grasslands, especially the migratory elephant population during the summer season. But, as you can imagine, the forced relocation of so many people must have been hugely distressing.
 
This story started many years ago, and today views differ on whether it all was a success or not. Needless to say, it’s a complex situation.  Today, the Tribal communities are more or less settled into rural village clusters on the boarders of the forest, most of them taking up life as farmers on the 2.5 acres of land they were provided with by the government as compensation.
 
above: organic agriculture offers new opportunities for Tribal farmers 
 
Farming was not an occupation the Tribals engaged in much before they were forced to move. But agriculture, alongside supplementary jobs, such as laboring outside of the family farm, became a source of income and a way to “fit in” to their new lifestyles.
 
Enter Appachi (led by Mani and his long-term partner and project coordinator, Mr. Anand Patil) who saw the opportunity to help the Tribal farmers of Kabini through the uptake of organic agriculture and, at the same time, protect the great ecosystem of the Western Ghats.
 
above: Mani's partner at Appachi, Mr Anand Patil
 
The task is not easy, not only do Mani and Anand need to build the trust (and skills) of the Tribal communities, but they are having to “compete” with the forestry department and local traders who are actively promoting the production of crops (such as bananas) right up to the edges of the forest. Not only is this single crop/monoculture mentality not as sustainable as mixed cropping but it also increases the risk of animals (such as elephants) wiping out entire plots, and puts farmers very lives, not just livelihoods, at risk.
 
One of the things I like about organic agriculture is the applied-systems thinking. So, where the elephants are concerned, solutions lie in “co-existence,” where the interests of all are valued, rather than erecting hard barriers. As Mani explains it, if the land on the borders of the forests is managed as a buffer zone – and fodder for elephants is considered in the mix – there will be a better chance of farmers co-existing with the elephants. As soon as we start competing with these great beasts, we will come out second best.
 
FIRST DAY - THE VOTE
 
On the first day of my visit, Mani had arranged for me to join one of the farmer meetings. The invitation had been extended to all interested farmers from 12 Tribal hamlets. Mani and Anand had been planting the seed of organic agriculture amongst the farmers of the region for almost three years now and 150 farmers had joined the project. Leading up to this season’s sowing date, Mani and Anand were hopeful (and anxious) about the reception they might receive today. I could tell from Mani’s preoccupied looks that his mind was running ahead to the meeting we were about to attend. Until now, I had not fathomed the significance of the occasion.
 
The elders and leaders of the “host” village greeted us at the entrance. At this point we were asked to sit, drink tea and generally give our hosts the necessary attention before proceeding into the bigger meeting. It was here I first laid eyes on Mr. S.R. Sumdara-Raman, president of the Organic Farmers of Tamil Nadu, whom Mani had brought to meet the villagers.
 
 
Mr. Raman was possibly one of the most impressive individuals I have ever met. He must have been 75-80 years old but when he spoke (in whatever language you please) it was like he was singing to his audience – be it one individual (such as me) or an entire group of meeting attendees (as I was to experience later). Centre stage he accompanied his song-like voice with dance-like movements.  I was thinking that if this man lived in Europe he would be classified as a “national treasure.”
 
At the end of this first greeting, we all headed down to the central meeting space. As we approached the covered area all decked out with ceremonial decoration I could see Mani’s face relax as he took in the crowd of about 60 to 70 people gathered in the shade of the roofed pavilion. Mani had mentioned to me earlier that each village was to be represented by its village leaders and head farmers. So, along with the many members of the host village, it looked like a promising turn out from the surrounding Tribal communities.
 
above: Mani greeting the villagers
 
It was also clear that the process was not to be rushed. The Appachi team (including Mr. Raman) spent a good deal of time explaining the strategy and how they would be supporting the farmers every step of the way. In return, the village leaders wanted to express their interests and share their stories of commitment. All the while, more and more people arrived at the meeting, which was now overflowing into the “standing room only” perimeters of the space. Of course, turning up at the meeting could have been out of sheer curiosity and numbers attending might not necessarily translate to votes for the project.
 
I managed to catch the essence of the conversation, thanks to the patience of my translators. So to give you a flavor of the meeting, I’ve summarized some of the points raised. Unfortunately it was impossible to know each farmer by name so I’ve had to refer to them as Farmer A, B, C, and so on…
 
Farmer A, new to the project, wanted to confirm that he would grow one acre of cotton and the other he could dedicate to food crops. He also wanted to be reassured he would be paid on time.
 
Farmer B presented a long (written) list of farmers from his village who wanted to join the project.
 
Farmer C explained to us that it is better when farmers get paid for quality as well as volume. If farmers are paid just by the kg (of cotton) they don’t take care to remove the trash but, when they get a higher payment for quality, it results in a better situation. Wives work with husbands to pick only ripe bolls and, once home; they carefully remove trash, resulting in a higher-grade product of higher value. He wanted Appachi to continue this approach.
 
Farmer D said his village was pleased with their relationship with Appachi because now they didn’t have to market their product alone.
 
Farmer E shared with us that his village members were healthier and believed their drinking water was safer since going organic.
 
Farmer F was happy that middlemen could not exploit them anymore.  Before they had no control of their sales - or their future – and now they do.
 
Farmer G wanted Appachi to continue the youth project they started last year. They were pleased with the opportunity provided to their youngsters to be trained and up skilled, so they could invest in their future. He asked if Appachi could continue with the program again this year.
 
Farmer H had a question about marketing. He wanted to understand how they might learn more about it and be even more active in this stage of their business.
 
Farmer I stood up and proudly stated that Tribals are closer to organic because they are closer to the land. Organic was attuned to their culture and heritage. He said that organic was empowering for Tribals and protected their heritage.
 
This last point was greeted with nods, smiles, and murmurs of agreement from the crowd. Another farmer stood up and elaborated the point by saying organic was “close to his heart” but that it was not a new approach since it was based on a philosophy close to their tradition. He believed it would lead to their autonomy and that their future will be more independent as a result.
 
As tears pricked my eyes, I couldn’t help but feel the weight of responsibility on the shoulders of Mani and his team… What an incredible exchange!
 
above: farmer having his say
 
FINALLY - the vote. Mani had 50 farmers two years ago, 150 last year, and was hoping for at least double that this year. Hands were going up all over the place and I could see Mani and Anand’s eyes darting round the room intent on catching every vote. I could also see grins widening as the final tally came in at over 300 tribal farmers, that amounts to 500 acres under cotton (of the 750 acres land holding)! From 50 to 300 in three years: with whole villages pledging to go organic. It was the end of a hugely successful day – we were all elated. 
 
above: the vote!
 
Candles were lit at the shrine in the center of the space, I placed an offering of a handcrafted blue glass jug and then tea was served. The first day of “business” would begin tomorrow – with an introductory training session, led by the wonderful Mr. Raman.
 
above: my special moment... if only I could get the match to light!
 
SECOND DAY – POWER TO THE MICROBES
 
The next day began quite early down at the Appachi HQ. Farmers, both men and women, had to go to great efforts to arrange a day away from their usual commitments and household chores. Some of them travelled 20 km or more by auto-rickshaw to get there. As they approached, dozens of people appeared to pile out of each small vehicle. Soon the meeting area was crowded with men and women eager to begin the day’s lessons.  
 
The men tended to sit together, as did the women. All were here to learn more about their new role as organic farmers and technicians. Mr Raman had seeds, herbs, leaves, ghee, and concoctions (such as cows urine and whey) laid out at the front ready for demonstration. The training was to be done in both English and Kannada, the local dialect. Although the English was for our benefit, whether it was English, Tamil, or Hindi it would need to be translated into Kannada for the farmers.
 
above: Mr Raman in full flight!
 
To get everyone started, Mani explained how Appachi would pre-finance the farmers 500 rupees per acre to go towards ploughing, heritage seed varieties (non-Bt and non-hybrid seeds), and other initial start-up costs. But, this was not a handout.  It would become a revolving fund, and many of the families (who had members working outside the farm) were expected to make re-payments quickly - others might take a little longer.
 
Appachi and the Government of India would co-finance the procurement of 50 battery-powered sprayers. This offer was available to all farmers; the difference being that the Appachi farmers would be using theirs for botanical sprays rather than chemical ones.
 
Some division of labor was encouraged and agreed to by the group. For example, five young men from the villages would be commissioned to help with the spaying operations. This was heavy work and older farmers welcomed the opportunity to have the support of the young men.
 
above: ladies were here to learn new skills and build business opportunities
 
The other significant spin-off industry went to the ladies. They would be in charge of making up the seed treatments, bio-fertilizers, botanical pest deterrents, and other concoctions. Already organized into self-help groups, the women were eager to begin their next revenue–raising enterprise. They were here today to learn the recipes and application quotas so they could sell to the farmers. This was more than simply making up the treatments (no mean feat in itself) but, eventually, the women would be the holders of plant knowledge, be able to diagnose the symptoms for the men, and supply the appropriate organic remedy.
 
above: attentive village leader
 
This is where Mr. Raman steps in with his animated and lively presentations, preparing the men and women for their new venture. To accompany Mr. Raman, and be an ongoing resource and support to the women, Mrs. Nagarathna stepped up to translate to the women.
 
above: Appachi co-ordinator, Mrs. Nagarathna, assists Mr Raman during the demonstration
 
Every farming family would maximize the diversity of their 2.5 acres. The objective was to spread the risk. One acre would be allocated to organic cotton, an acre would be dedicated to organic food crops (millet, red grams, black grams, and other pulses) – up to ten different crops, and the remaining 0.5 acres would be turned into agro-forestry. The biomass resulting from this strip of “forest” would go into compost, building up the soil, and the trees would also act as soil stabilizers and pest traps.
 
I wish I could recount Mr. Raman’s words. In fact, we plan to record his lessons and provide video recordings so more and more farmers can benefit from his instruction. His mix of wisdom and passion is difficult to describe. At one point, a bottle of fermented coconut milk fizzed over as he opened it – “look,” he laughed, “it is the power of the microbes!
 
For me, the synergy of organic agriculture as a form of nutrition was dawning. Just like the human gut, the living soil needs a thriving ecosystem of good bacteria and microbes to maintain health and vitality and ward off disease. To ensure a good balance of microflora and microfauna in the soil Mr Raman demonstrated the use of fermentation to create a source of probiotic, much similar to what happens in the human gut.  Neena, our photographer/nutritionist explained it for me “We generally take probiotics in the form of a pill" she said, "but unbeknown to many, it is much more effective to make fermented food and beverages to create more beneficial bacteria.” 
 
above: farmers engrossed in learning 
 
This was not news to Mr Raman as I could clearly see by his fizzing fermented concoctions.  The use of cow dung and urine, jaggery (as the sugar/feeding source) and whey makes this process occur.  These are readily available to the farmers and are a great way to keep the sustainable mixture brewing. Having such wisdom to draw on from Mr Raman is invaluable to these farmers as their organic livelihood depends upon it. The decomposition of organic matter by soil organisms has an immense influence on soil fertility, plant growth, soil structure, and carbon storage.  Thus making this step crucial to successful, prosperous, organic farming.
 
Organic agriculture demands a working knowledge of ecosystems and how they interact. For the farmers of Kabini, this will, no doubt, be the first of many occasions to build and share knowledge. Textile Exchange will be following the work of Appachi and the Kabini farmers with great interest, and we will be reporting progress along the way.
 
above: Mani's last word at the end of a long day
 
I’ll end my blog with the advice Mani gave the farmers:
 
Be proud of your heritage. Stand firm on your own two legs. There is no need to be dependent. Let’s set an example for organic farmers all over the world.
 
Advice, I think, Gandhi would have been very pleased with…
 
above: follow the progress of the kabini farmers 
 
We conclude this trilogy next blog with a report from Chetna Organic’s long-standing programs in Andhra Pradesh.
 
 
Written by Liesl Truscott
European & Farm Engagement Director
Textile Exchange
 
All photos taken by Neena Rae, travelling with Liesl in India