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.
The initial, short-term goal of the DDS project, when it began in 1983, was simply to enable the women to eat a second meal each day. But that goal has expanded into larger, long-term enterprise of self-empowerment. The women have created an extraordinary commons-based system of “food sovereignty” and “food security.” They directly control their own seeds, grow their own food and manage their own lands – an achievement that has enabled them to escape the high prices and volatility of food markets while growing more nutritious, local organic foods.
Indian food prices are now soaring at an 18% annual rate, causing growing social unrest and hunger throughout many parts of the country. But the 5,000 women in 75 Andhra Pradesh villages remain virtually untouched by the crisis. They not only have plenty of food for their needs, they have achieved food security without having to rely upon genetically modified seeds, monoculture crops, pesticides, outside experts, government subsidies or distant food markets. Their story is all the more remarkable because they are outcasts in multiple ways: They are rural, poor, women and socially shunned dalit.
The march to food sovereignty began with the village sanghams, self-organized voluntary associations in which the women share their seeds and farming knowledge, and educate each other and their daughters and granddaughters. As we sit on the ground next to the village pre-school, talking to the women through a translator, we learn how the Erakulapally sangham revived traditional ways of growing food.
During the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, there was a big push to introduce large-scale commercial rice and wheat production. This ambitious project may have helped to mitigate hunger, but it also introduced subsidized monoculture crops that are alien to many Indian ecosystems, require harmful pesticides and are vulnerable to drought and market prices.
The Green Revolution displaced the traditional millet-based grains that generations of villages here had once grown. In the process, the cash crops led many farmers to abandon their fields. The land went fallow and local farming cultures disappeared.
It turns out that traditional crops are far more ecologically suited to the semi-arid landscape of Andhra Pradesh and its patterns of rain and types of soil. But to recover the old ways of biodiverse farming, the women had to find dozens of old, nearly forgotten seeds. They asked their mothers and grandmothers, who often had small bags of seeds, and they searched in private storage spots.
Eventually, they acquired enough of the seeds to multiply them through many rounds of cultivation. Soon they had enough to grow their own crops, for free. They didn’t need to buy proprietary seeds, hybrids or genetically modified seeds every year. They didn’t need synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.
Recovering the seeds wasn’t enough. Because the land had lain fallow for so long, the soil was of very poor quality. So the women started a major effort to restore soil quality through vermicomposting (with worms). They put livestock manure and biomass into the soil, and used neem tree leaves as a natural pesticide. As a DDS brochure describes, the efforts have borne great fruit over the years:
“Since 1985, the women of DDS sanghams have used between them about 1.2 million eco-employment days to bring back under active cultivation over 10,000 acres of degraded agricultural lands. Consequently, they have been raising over three million kilos of grain every year, which is six times more than half a million kilos of grains they used to produce earlier.”
The recovery of traditional agriculture did not come through “technology transfer” or expert agricultural research promoted by the Indian government. It came through a process of recovering the “people’s knowledge.” Instead of trying to grow marketable crops, the farmers worked to adapt to the local ecosystem and produce subsistence crops. They relied upon “mixed crop” plantings of six or seven different plants combined in the same field.
Mixed planting acts as a kind of “eco-insurance” in the event the rain comes too early or too late, or if the rain is too plentiful or too little. The mix of particular seeds varies depending upon the type of soil being used (“red” or “black”), and by the season in which planting is done. Under this system, at least some of the seeds will thrive no matter what the whether, ensuring that there will be enough food for a family to survive. The agro-biodiversity also renews and sustains the soil.
The agriculture is totally rain-fed, and does not rely upon any irrigation. And it requires few inputs. Yet it is highly productive. “Information technology has made us so arrogant,” said P.V. Satheesh, one of the founders of DDS and the Director of the Zaheerabad Project, which includes the village of Erakulapally. “People act as if previous generations had no knowledge about agriculture.” He scoffed that so much science-driven agriculture knowledge is “information based,” not “knowledge based.” Growing local food requires sophisticated local knowledge, he said, not just “information,” he said.
In seed-sharing villages, every farmer has a complete knowledge of all the seeds used and everyone shares their seeds, as needed. Every household has their own “gene bank,” or collection of seeds at home. “Our seeds, our knowledge,” is how the women describe it. Every seed is a capsule of their knowledge. As if to respect the life-giving value of the seeds, no one is allowed to buy or sell them. They can only be shared, borrowed or traded.
The seeds are not just a means of production, however -- a mere “economic input.” Villagers have a social “relationship” with the seeds, which is a subtle reason for the success of their many village commons. “Every crop has a meaning in a women’s life,” said Satheesh. “The seeds are a source of dignity.”
The promotion of genetically modified Bt cotton, for example, has deprived farmers of their agricultural knowledge. Bt is a monoculture crop that requires high inputs of chemical pesticides, fertilizers and water, and any production knowledge comes from Monsanto. By growing GMO crops, farmers become dependent upon the vagaries of markets, debt and outside experts. They don’t own their seeds and forget their traditional ways of life and culture.
The introduction of proprietary seeds and competitive agriculture markets in India are often blamed for the epidemic of 200,000 farmer suicides between 1997 and 2007 – an average of 20,000 suicides per year. Farmers unable to earn enough money from cash crops often feel trapped, socially isolated and despondent. Yet many Indian officials have ignored this crisis, seemingly more determined to live up to India’s reputation in the foreign business press as an “economic tiger.”
The vision of agriculture pioneered by the dalit women may seem quite modest compared to grand market-driven schemes, but they are in fact a more realistic, sustainable and socially attractive alternative. Community-controlled farming avoids most external market dependencies while providing genuine security and hope.
Besides its seed-saving, the sanghams have pioneered what they call the Alternative Public Distribution System, a system for cooperative crop storage and distribution. Villages create their own community grain funds, which serve as critical sources of food at times of shortage, especially for the poorest people in each village. The sanghams have established food kitchens for the hungry within their own communities, feeding the five or six people in a village who are too poor, disabled or elderly to raise their own crops.
The dalit women have even established their own “mobile market” which travels from village to village to sell their excess production. Each of the 280 women who have invested in the “mobile market” has earned an impressive 100% return on their investment. Making money is emphatically not the primary goal of the villagers’ farming, however. The key goal remains mutual support and food sovereignty. The women realize that their intedependence as commoners remains vital to their long-term food security.
Their success has strengthened their hand in dealing with landlords who hire wage labor. Twenty years ago, dalit women earned only 5 rupees per day of toil in the fields, for example. But now, with their own supplies of food, they have been able to bargain with landlords for higher wages, earning as much as 100 rupees.
Interest in the Deccan Development Society model of self-sufficient traditional farming is growing. In coming years, DDS hopes to bring its empowerment model to 40 more villages so that it will reach 9,000 families and 50,000 people. It is also reaching out to conventional farmers. At a recent “Biodiversity Festival” – a regular event that celebrates their seeds and farming culture -- the dalitwomen spoke with thousands of farmers to explain the advantages of their farming methods.
Perhaps the most astonishing outgrowth of the DDS sanghams has been its invention of “community media.” Using camcorders and video-editing equipment, the non-literate women have produced several videos that help educate each other, challenge the myths about genetically modified crops, and celebrate their culture. They have produced some 70 films to date. Many have been translated into French, Spanish, Swahili and other languages, and distributed internationally. One of their films that takes on Monsanto and GMO seeds, A Disaster in Search of a Success, is particularly popular.
During our visit, an eight-year-old girl showed a short video that she had shot and edited herself. It featured her learning about traditional farming and included an admiring tribute to her 81-year-old grandmother, who sat beaming in the room during our meeting.
Developing inter-generational connections is especially important for the village sangham. “If they lose their connection to the soil, they’ve lost everything,” explained Satheesh. As we talked, a barefoot young woman in a blue sari was shooting our conversation with a Panasonic camcorder on a tripod – raw footage for a future video.
In the industrialized West, the commons is often regarded as a metaphor for shared management of resources. Here the commons is vital not just for subsistence, but for survival. But once the commons takes root, as the women of Erakulapally and other villages have shown, an upward spiral of new emancipations begins.
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