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A Global Village

by Brewster Kneen
The Ram's Horn

(Monday, Jan. 6, 2003 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- How does one measure ‘standard of living’ or ‘quality of life’? Does one count material possessions, from an automobile and a TV to a string of pearls and am overpowered speedboat? What quality of life does a $60,000 SUV provide? What about culture, and community?

Who has the higher ‘standard of living’: the capital-intensive industrial monocrop farmer with a debt that can never be paid off and no neighbours and not enough cash to buy food for the family – or the well-nourished subsistence farmer and her family with no debt, in a village with no paved roads, minimal electrical power, no piped water and virtually no cash income?

Surely the farmers driven off the land by the Green Revolution in India and now sleeping on the streets of every big city begging, providing casual labour and buying what food they can ‘afford’ are not the signs of progress that the government of Andhra Pradesh state in India would choose to proclaim among the promises of its Vision 2020 program to ‘modernize’ the state’s agriculture. What Vision 2020 calls for is more of the Green Revolution: industrialize agriculture with the aid of Monsanto and biotechnology and eliminate tens of thousands of small and subsistence farmers. It makes no promises for the redundant farmers, not even that biotech will feed them.

The subsistence and small scale farmers do, however, feed their families and communities, as illustrated by the 5000 women members of the Deccan Development Society (DDS) living in 75 or so villages in the Medak district of Andhra Pradesh, about 100 km north of Hyderabad. (Hyderabad, the state capital, is a city of more than 5 million pretty well in the centre of south India. Andhra Pradesh has a population of around 60 million.) The DDS has been working in this area for two decades.

I was there at the end of November thanks to the offer of P.V. Satheesh, director of the Deccan Development Society, to host the annual board meeting of Barcelona-based GRAIN – Genetic Resources Action International – of which both he and I are among the members.

From what I saw and heard of work of the DDS, it is based on biodiversity, community collectives (sanghams) of Dalit (‘untouchable’) women, and intense local democratic-communal processes. As Satheesh explained it, being in a sangham means ‘surrendering myself to the community.’ The sanghams meet weekly and become the basic unit of life and an ‘autonomous food community’ based on an amazing diversity of local crops, including 150 varieties of volunteer greens (‘weeds’) as well as livestock. The livestock (bullocks for work and water buffalo raised for meat) are essential as providers of dung for the vermiculture-based compost, which itself is essential in the poor, red lateritic soils of the region. The foundation of the ‘autonomous food community’ is the village seed-keeper and her seeds.

Seed-keeper with a collection in potsOne village seed-keeper showed us samples of the 25-30 varieties of seeds (no wheat or rice) that she cares for and grows on about one hectare of land. The basic staple crops are a diversity of millets and sorghums. Millet seeds are tiny (we would recognize them as bird seed), but they do well in the dry Deccan plateau. We asked her to identify some of the seeds for us and it was fascinating to watch her identify them from her sample pots rapidly either simply by sight, or by sight and feel between her weathered fingers. All had their value for both food and cattle fodder and together provided a balanced diet. As a seed-keeper, she does not own the seeds, and others in the village ‘borrow’ seeds from her, returning 1 1⁄2 to 2 times the quantity of seeds borrowed after harvest. Thus the village stock of seeds grows and diversifies.

The DDS has worked hard over the years to restore millet to a place of honour socially (one could also say, politically) as well as agriculturally by encouraging the women to see millet as an expression of both cultural identity and pride: millet is beautiful; Dalit is beautiful. This is a none-too-subtle attack on the Indian caste system.

“Two festivals in the Deccan are pure celebrations of diversity. The Soonyam Panduga in December is heralded with a visit to the farm by the entire family of the farmer. They go singing around the farm. One song urges the sorghum to grow well. Such songs are sung to propitiate Bhootalli (the Mother Earth) ‘who is pregnant at the time’ and bears a host of crops. . . It is that time of pregnancy when the Mother Earth craves to taste different things. To satisfy her craving, people cook Bajjikoora, a fascinating dish in which all the available vegetables and tender grains are cooked together and offered to the Mother. The singing is also to please the Mother.

“The expected result of all this is to persuade the Mother to think: ‘These people are making such an effort to keep me happy. Therefore, I, too, should keep them happy by making the harvest bountiful.’ Though this is the expected result, it is not negotiated as a crude business act. It is an act of love. And Act of gratitude. An act of worship, and, finally, an act of celebration.” (Crops of Truth - Deccan Development Society)

A notable expression of a community-controlled ‘autonomous food system’ is the alternative Public Distribution System (PDS) that the DDS has implemented. The national PDS is based on only two crops – the irrigated rice and wheat of the Green Revolution, neither of which is grown in the dryland, rainfed areas – while the alternative PDS is based on the local crops of millet and sorghum. Just as essential to the life of the community as the actual distribution of food to the destitute, the landless and the very small (less than one acre) farmers, in that order, is the democratic functioning of the local PDS. Distribution is decided by the sangham through a collective evaluation of need based on personal knowledge of the situation of all the villagers and their ability to feed themselves. This alternative PDS is actually recognized by the government, which buys the village food for distribution this way.

Surrounding the villages are vast tracts of fallow land – that is, land that was previously cultivated but was abandoned when farmers could not compete in the marketplace with the highly subsidized rice and wheat of the Green Revolution. In Medak district there are some 700,000 hectares of land suitable for cultivation, but less than half of this is now cultivated because the farmers are now in the cities.

In an effort to increase awareness of the wealth and diversity of their communities, DDS has been organizing Village Biodiversity Registrars. We were able to observe one session underway in a village.

A grid had been scratched out in the earth. Around it were gathered the men and women of the village. Up one side of the grid were samples of all the biodiversity on the village. On the shorter side were pictograms of the uses to which the plants could be put. Stones were used to indicate the ‘value’ the villagers placed on each plant, bush or tree. A sample would be held up, discussion ensued, and then some very informal consensus reached on how many stones to put in the appropriate square for food, fodder, furniture, fire etc. While this was going on, two ‘scribes’ were carefully making a written record of the proceedings and it was being video-recorded. We asked how long such a session might last: a day, or two, or as long as it takes. The whole process is another example of autonomous democratic community building.

The recording of such a village biodiversity registry does raise questions, however. Is this establishing ‘prior art,’ thus denying TNC’s the ability to patent, or is it simply making local knowledge more readily available – or both? A non-monetized seed system may be beyond threat by any ‘plant protection’ legislation, but that does not place it beyond bio-piracy. Much of our discussion in India centred on these crucial issues. In a village society based on collective identity, as in the sangham, where seeds are borrowed but not owned even by their ‘keeper’, how can one even think of ‘property rights’ or patents? What language can we begin to use that does not presume the categories of rights, protection, security, ownership, property etc.?

There is also a science centre (where the GRAIN board meeting was held) where scientists from mainline institutions can come and carry out research. They are not allowed to make any recommendations to the farmers, however, only to listen to them, since the farmers have been doing research for centuries and have a great deal of knowledge, knowledge which is now being given status as ‘traditional knowledge’.

For example, ants live in the red soils. When insects become a problem on crops, the farmers spray the plants with a molasses solution (sugar cane is a local crop) that attracts the ants to climb the plants and eat the insects. Or, seeds are pounded with neem leaves before storage since neem oil is an effective insecticide. A the same time, this ‘treats’ the seeds for planting. Or, because mung beans are large and leave spaces between them for insects to thrive when the beans are stored, mung beans are stored with millet, which is a tiny seed that suffocates any invading insects.

Another inspiring aspect of the DDS work is the school for out-of-school working children, particularly girls, from age 9 to 15. The school consists of a number of connected beehive-shaped classrooms built by the initial students entirely out of natural materials to be found within a 2 km. radius of the school. 90% of the costs of building the school were labour. The school runs a five-year program with fluid classes of varying ages and the curriculum is designed to prepare the students to return and contribute to their communities. They learn basic skills, including carpentry, pottery, masonry, herbal medicines, agro-ecology, tailoring and book-binding. We observed one class learning traditional dance. Literacy is not the primary concern, since a skilled carpenter may be quite illiterate, and in an oral culture, reading and writing are not essential. This is where radio and video come in as teaching tools.

Near the school a community radio station is in place, all set to start broadcasting as soon as it gets a license from the state. In the meantime programs are being produced and circulated on tape (narrow-casting) to promote local/traditional knowledge. In the studio of the radio station we took time to watch one of the videos produced by the community about the use of video in overcoming the shyness (traditional oppression) of the women and to increase their sense of self-worth, partly by bringing out the extent of their traditional knowledge and skills. Some of our own activities and meetings were filmed by the two young women who seemed to be everywhere with their video camera and microphone. Everything is grist for their mill. (Notice the video team in the photo of the community biodiversity meeting. The villagers, including the children, are obviously used to their presence and pay no attention to them, even while the mike is being just about stuck in their face.)

One video project currently underway is a series monthly interviews with cotton farmers accompanied by filming of their transgenic Bt Cotton crops as they have been growing over the current season. Even before the season is over, the videos are recording the changing mood of the farmers as it turns from enthusiasm to disappointment. Once the cotton is harvested (if there is still cotton to harvest, the results have been so poor so far) the video will be used as part of the campaign against genetically engineered crops.

A preliminary report has already been prepared by three scientists and reported in New India Express. On the same day, The Hindu reported the suicides of three farmers.

The work of the DDS is inspiring. The choices facing the people of Andhra Pradesh (and the rest of us) are stark: the preservation or reconstruction of autonomous local food systems and biodiversity, or dependence of the wealthy on the monoculture of a single globalized TNC-controlled industrial food system, while the poor are left to beg on the streets. The government of Andhra Pradesh is calling for the latter, with Monsanto and biotechnology playing a major role. The DDS and the women farmers of the Deccan plateau are working on the former.

These choices are symbolized by water: in the village the water we drank came from their own unpolluted wells, while in Hyderabad it seemed that the only drinking water available was Pepsi’s Acquafina. The village is the globe, not a global village occupied by Pepsi.

Enroute to India I enjoyed a stopover in Singapore, where I spent half a day in the wonderful botanical garden, established by the British Empire in 1822. “The Garden’s main task was to evaluate for cultivation, crops which were of potential economic importance, including those yielding fruits, vegetables, spices and other raw materials,” according to the introductory leaflet. (For a fascinating account of this custom, read Alfred Crosby, Ecological Imperialism – The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900, Cambridge Univ. Press 1986) In addition to a stunning bit of rain forest, a display of amazing bonsai and the ginger garden (did you know that ginger, turmeric, cardomon, bananas, plantains and arrowroot are all members of the ginger family, Zingiberales?), there is a stunning orchid garden containing 700 species and 3,000 hybrids of orchids. I was almost transfixed by the variety, complexity and delicacy of the flowers and thought to myself how crude and simplistic genetic engineering is by comparison.

This is the lead article in the December 2002 issue of The Ram's Horn (http://www.ramshorn.bc.ca