The women of Erakulapally – a small village two hours west of Hyderabad, India – spread a blanket onto the dusty ground and carefully made thirty piles of different seeds: their treasure, the symbols of their emancipation. A rich aroma wafts through the air.
For these women – all of them dalit, members of the poorest and lowest social caste in India – seeds are not just seeds. They are the vehicle for a remarkable transformation in their lives, local farming and their ecosystem.
Over the past twenty-five years, thousands of women in small villages in the Andhra Pradesh region of India have escaped from working as low-paid, bonded laborers, to become self-reliant farmers able to grow enough to feed their households. Food was once unaffordable and hunger common. Now the women can feed their families, often without having to buy anything in the market. Despite their status as dalits, they are no longer filled with fear and anxiety, but rather show great confidence and pride in themselves.
A group of us attending the recent conference of the International Association for the Study of the Commons drove out to meet the women last week. We were welcomed with a tasty millet-based drink and a short chorus of joyous singing. Our meeting was hosted by the Deccan Development Society (DDS), a grassroots organization that is helping the poorest rural women of India recover their rich traditions of sharing seeds and community-managed farming. The foyer of the building in which we met featured a “seed shrine” -- dozens of small clay pots filled to the brim with colorful seeds.