Science in Society Archive

Poor Women Farmers' Crops of Truth

Rhea Gala reports from a ‘backward' area of Andhra Pradesh where dispossessed women farmers have regained control of their destiny by promoting a diversity of traditional crop varieties

Pics: Crops of truth. Caption: Salome, Lakshmama and Manjula show me the crops of truth' that had not seen water in four weeks, by Rhea Gala

While in Hyderabad, India, I heard about the work of the Deccan Development Society (DDS) that is a beacon for sustainable agriculture. I took a long and bumpy bus ride to Zaheerabad in Medak District to find out more, and was well rewarded.

The DDS is a 20 year-old grassroots organisation for social development that works with women's sanghams (voluntary village-level associations of poor women, mostly dalits ; the lowest group in India's social hierarchy; sangham means union). Five thousand women from 75 villages in Medak District (60 miles from the Andhra Pradesh (AP) capital Hyderabad) have been helped by the DDS to prioritise their needs and through their own efforts, gain food security, enhance their natural resources, and provide education and healthcare for their communities.

As a result, the women have acquired a new self-esteem and a sense of solidarity, allowing them to regain their natural leadership status within their village communities. After 20 years and many successful initiatives guided by DDS's charismatic Director, PV Satheesh, these thriving communities are now increasingly in control of their natural resources including seed, food production, local markets and media.

On arriving at the main compound in Pastapur village, I was immediately struck by the energy, friendliness and warmth of the community, as individuals went about their business in a relaxed but purposeful way. There was a tangible ambience of vitality and ease. Mr Satheesh was in Europe, and Mr Suresh hosted my visit with inspiring enthusiasm.

“Discovering the core issues and realising the needs of the most marginalised women creates a social strength that can move mountains.” He said. “The women's achievements arise from ongoing discussions that initiate community-building activities. These generate the new skills and confidence that enable more needs to be met as they arise. For example, thousands of acres of degraded agricultural land, common land and forest have been regenerated. There are village crèches that feed young children nutritious local food and teach them traditional games and songs while parents work on projects. And medicinal plants are grown close to villages to provide previously unavailable healthcare.”

That was just the beginning.

Food sovereignty is possible for the poorest people

The Medak District is a semi-arid area that hosts some of the poorest populations and the most degraded agricultural land in the whole of India, so it is remarkable that these women's sanghams have made so much progress. The diversity of the cropping system developed by the sanghams on these highly infertile soils has a huge significance for ecologically sustainable agriculture all around the world; especially as traditional skills have become marginalised and forgotten through national and global market forces.

“When the Green Revolution hit India in the 1970s, it happened in the fertile areas of Punjab, Haryana and AP where high yielding wheat and rice hybrids that required high investments for seed, fertiliser, pesticide, machinery, and irrigation, became the rage for large farmers.” Mr Srinivas, an agricultural researcher with the DDS, told me. “But this change diminished the status of, and distorted the market for local traditional varieties of a multitude of crops, and caused many marginal farmers untold hardship. In spite of this shift to ‘modern agriculture' these high yielding varieties have failed to yield significantly more per unit area than the traditional varieties”.

“In the infertile and ‘backward' areas like Medak, the effect of the Green Revolution was much less. Nevertheless, farming practices have been changing even here and without the tenacity of the dalit women, this diverse and healthful agriculture would also have been swept away.”

The rise of the Crops of Truth

The sangham women have kept traditional biodiverse agriculture alive on their dryland farms because they know that particular crops have the qualities to sustain them for a particular season.

A study was carried out by the scientists at the DDS's Krishi Vigyan Kendra (Farm Science Centre) near Pastapur, working with groups of men, middle class women and poor illiterate dalit women to ascertain their views on the strengths and weaknesses of a given crop, and to rank them in order of preference.

The scientists found a great difference in perception of the crops between the sexes, with men giving much credit to crop status according to external opinion. The men gave priority to cash crops even when they were not suited to local arid soils, and did not value low water requirement or disease-resistance as desirable traits.

There was some agreement between the rich and poor women, although the richer women veered towards the concept of status, introducing cash crops such as cotton and ginger into the discussion, at least partly because their holdings are more fertile , with access to irrigation. However the dalit women had initiated a strong campaign against cotton as early as 1994 because they knew it would deny them continuous wages, food and fodder and invite new pests into the farming system.

Nevertheless the women transcended their caste and class barriers by voting for yellow sorghum, pacha jonna , a nutritious and soil enhancing crop as their first choice; which the men had put in third place. For the dalit women, the perception of each crop came from their long hard struggle with poor land and the survival strategies that evolved from this struggle.

Their parameters for the 20 crop varieties scored included needs for food, fodder, fibre, ritual foods, dietary foods, employment generation, pest and disease resistance and adaptability to marginal lands . The dalit women stated emphatically during discussions that they much preferred their own varieties to cash crops. This is at complete variance with policy makers who argue that poor people should grow commodity crops. Food security, which is the women's first priority, is achieved through conserving the diversity of their traditional varieties, not throwing them away.

Green revolution diminishes social capital

Mr Srinivas further explained how India has historically depended on social capital for the mutual benefit of large and small farmers.

“Landless farmers owning draught animals and skills would liaise with landowners to work their land for 25 percent of the yield, providing timely ploughing, planting, weeding etc; and farmers' extended families would group together to share skills and resources across holdings.” He said. “This system is quickly disappearing in Medak as a more mobile population brings other priorities to bear.”

He also told me that cash monocultures “cause many ripples downstream”: their requirement for synthetic fertiliser and pesticide ruins the soil for other crops. Animal husbandry, which is vital to organic mixed cropping systems is disappearing as manure now has no value, and grazing, forage crops and wild food become unavailable. When farmers from other regions buy tracts of once organic land and drill boreholes to irrigate cash crops such as cotton, ginger, turmeric and sugar cane, they dissolve the social glue that had held rich and poor together in mutual benefit. Government subsidies, agricultural extension programmes, and bank loans for larger farmers are promoting this trend; while poor farmers and their diverse and sustainable crops are left unsupported and in retreat.

India's National Public Distribution System stores and distributes hybrid wheat and rice to the poor at enormous cost to the taxpayer; and often at too high a price for the needy. Whereas a little economic support to local traditional farmers would offer incomparably better value on many levels, not least for maintaining higher biodiversity, social cohesion, and superior nutrition.

God's own crops!

Manjula and Lakshmama, two dalit women, and Salome from the Farm Science Centre showed me a large field of rabi crops ( rabi is the rainless winter season that runs from November to March). The field, acquired from the government by the DDS for landless farmers, showed intercropping of linseed, safflower, sorghum, pea, pigeon pea, lentil, mustard, fodder crops, greens, sunflower and ‘weeds'. All were planted simultaneously in October and have received moisture only from dew for the last four weeks.

“Cereals, pulses, oilseed and trap crops all interact with natural weed and insect ecology to optimise yield. Weeds are not really recognised as such but are seen as a standby for people and animals in times of shortage, or ploughed back into the soil.” Salome, who spoke excellent English told me. “Some or all of these crops will thrive and they are known as Crops of Truth, or God's Own Crops as they require no inputs, not even water, but emerge and grow by themselves.”

The crops looked to me to be in really excellent health; what is equally remarkable is the nutritional value of these crops, in particular, millets such as sorghum are far superior to rice or other cereals.

Traditional millets much healthier than rice

While some locals aspire to eat more factory farmed chicken with their rice, many still enjoy the taste of traditional staples such as millets, and these are promoted in many truly delicious dishes at the DDS's Café Ethnic in the local town, Zaheerabad. Some examples:

  • Korra is a warming food with a wide range of nutritional advantages. It has the highest percentage of protein, minerals and iron of all food, having 100 percent more protein, 500 percent more minerals and 400 percent more iron than rice. It is very high in vitamins B1 and B2 as well as in a range of micronutrients. It is also rich in fibre and can be cooked in many interesting ways to add variety to meals.
  • Samma is a cool food for summer that is low in fat, high in phosphorous, calcium, minerals, protein and fibre (having 3500 percent more fibre than rice) that is most effective in diabetes and high blood pressure in reducing blood glucose and cholesterol levels. It also features strongly in tasty traditional dishes.
  • Taida is considered the coolest and richest millet for taste and nutrition. It is rich in minerals especially calcium and fibre as well as vitamins B1 and B2. Where rice contains 10 mg of calcium per 100 g, taida has an enormous 344 mg per 100 g. It is easily digestible and is one of the most water efficient crops.
  • Sajja is another cool storehouse of nutrition, topping the list of energy giving grains at 361 of energy per 100 g. It has 132 mg of carotene per 100 g where rice has none. It also has five times more vitamin B1 and four times more calcium and 60 percent more iron than rice, and is known for its delicious rotis , a type of bread.
  • Last but not least is jonna, a versatile and delicious millet rich in energy, protein and iron, containing10.4 g of calcium and 4.1 mg of iron per 100 g.

I had been favouring some of these tasty dishes since arriving in India without realising that they were millets. And while the value and potential of these millets is obvious, the Indian government is chasing the mirage of GM crops.

Annual Biodiversity Festivals

To celebrate and promote biodiversity, the sangham women have set up an annual biodiversity festival, using highly decorated bullock-drawn carts to parade and show off their organic seeds from village to village. They now enjoy a dialogue with thousands of local farmers and dignitaries where the pros and cons of different crops and cropping systems are publicly debated. Every year more people turn out for the festival as the women's ideas and inspiration are spread further afield.

The women encourage farmers not to break their traditions but to retain as many as 70 seed varieties within their control while planting as many as 23 crops on a single acre. Village level community gene funds have been created that have retrieved over 80 landraces from oblivion, lending seed out at the beginning of a season to be returned at harvest. And village level community grain funds serve the critical hunger needs of the poor and the destitute without recourse to a centralised public distribution system; or genetically modified crops.

Autonomous Media

The DDS Community Media Trust consists of 17 dalit women working with video and three working with radio to take the voice of their communities to a wider world, especially those that have suffered social exclusion. They have produced dozens of films that highlight development issues, the future of food and farming, the bitter harvest of GM cotton, and agro-biodiversity.

Although illiterate, some of these women have achieved international success through the power and skill of their films. The DDS media trust collaborated with farmers, scientists and communities to produce films such as ‘Bt cotton in Warangal: a three year fraud', ‘Why are Warangal farmers angry with Bt cotton?' (translated into English, French, Spanish, Thai and German) that formed part of a grassroots revolt resulting in the banning of Monsanto Bt seed in AP in May 2005. Some have travelled to Peru to teach poor farmers there how to use video and how to protect their indigenous potato varieties from marginalisation by ‘high status' crops.

I was moved and inspired to meet some of these filmmakers and to hear first hand of their struggle and their pride in the strides they have made, both personally and on behalf of their communities. One married woman told me through Salome: “My husband is proud that I have become well known and well travelled, and he therefore gives me due respect.” Chinna Narsamma, unmarried - an unenviable status in India - told me: “Men are slow to see the relevance of traditional agriculture in the modern world but once converted to its benefits, they offer very strong and committed support.”

And much more

Mr Muti showed me around the beautiful Green School, an innovative resource for child development that serves the educational needs of local children. It provides them with sound and thoughtful academic instruction in the morning followed by practical classes in the afternoon in such subjects as pottery, gardening, bookbinding, woodwork, veterinary aid, and medicinal plants that are relevant within the community, and that also inform the general schoolwork. The children I met there looked happy, healthy and full of life.

Thus while the Green School, the Farm Science Centre, the Millet Factory, Ethnic Café and other resources serve the daily needs of the DDS community; a swathe of campaigns, research projects, networks, programmes and other imaginative and far-reaching works-in-progress are the hallmark of this enterprising and inspiring organisation. And the source of this creative fountain was the gold struck by the DDS when it listened to the concerns of the poor dalit women of Medak.

This model for the regeneration of traditional agriculture could recreate sustainable food production anywhere. I t has evolved from three guiding principles: Gender justice, environmental-soundness and people's knowledge.

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Article first published 09/02/06

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