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.
Every two years, the universe of scholars who study the commons converge on some spot on the planet to present their research findings, argue about theoretical models and party-hardy. Just kidding about that last one, but it is hard to imagine a more interesting party than 600 people from 90 countries around the world.
I have encountered an Indian economist who has closely studied the role of women in improving the sustainability of forest commons in Nepal (Bina Agarwal), an Australian academic who has written about modern-day gleaning such as “dumpster diving” (James Arvanitakis), a British activist who helped pass a modern-day law to protect British common lands (Kate Ashbrook of the Open Spaces Society), an Indian-American who is studying how language shapes our ability to understand the commons (Vijaya Nagarajan), a Belgian historian of the European commons (Tine De Moor), among many others.
It is quite a pleasant shock to suddenly be around so many people who not only know what the commons is; they can get into some rather arcane and sophisticated arguments about it. The conference is skewed towards academics, however, which means that the policy and activist sensibility is somewhat muted. That’s too bad, but I hope it might change in the future.
There is also an emphatic focus on natural resource commons, with a very limited exploration of so-called “new commons,” by which the IASC academics mean commons that have arisen in unconventional realms such as the Internet. I find this too bad, because there is so much to be learned from digital commons, which are among the most robust commons out there. The phrase “new commons” is also vaguely off-putting because it privileges the natural resource commons so absolutely. Now I have an inkling of how Native Americans must have felt to have been “discovered.”
It is a sign of the predatory nature of markets today that a tradition that goes back 4,500 years now needs to affirmatively defend itself as a common legacy of humankind. Yes, the latest endangered resource is -- yoga.
Yoga was developed in India as a physical and spiritual practice for everyone. The breathing known as pranayama is perhaps the most elemental aspect of human existence. But wouldn't you know it -- all sorts of scheming entrepreneurs now want to convert yoga into "intellectual property."