Rooting for change: Building networks for rural transformations through agroecology in Gujarat.
The need for Sustainable transformation in India.
54% of India faces high to extremely high water stress, due in part to the high ecological footprint of agriculture. Even as a significant part of the country's freshwater resources being used for irrigation at an unsustainable rate, degraded lands and depleted soils continue to make chemical farming less responsive, According to the State of Agrarian and Rural India Report, 2020, the ecological base of India’s food production is under threat, with adverse implications for food security, safety and livelihoods. Recognition of these ongoing crises has led to a global call for transformative measures towards sustainable initiatives.
Discussion on climate change such as in the recent COP-26 at Glasgow has focused largely on developed country issues and adaptation and mitigation responses through market, climate finance and insurance mechanisms. Agriculture and food systems has remained marginal in these discussions even though agriculture is currently the 4th largest contributor to GHG emissions and paradoxically also has enormous potential to absorb atmospheric carbon. Therefore, supporting farmers to adopt sustainable farming would entail deep transformations, tackling issues of ecology, social justice, and livelihoods in the process.
Mapping the terrain and understanding the actors
Based on this idea, the Small Farm Incomes team at IRMA and NCNF organised a webinar bringing together the experiences of different actors in Gujarat on October 27th. Farmers practicing natural farming such as Sumitra ben from Anklacch village in Navsari and Suresh Bhai from Bhorya village in Rajkot shared their insights. Proponents of agroecology like Rajendra Khimani, VC Gujarat Vidyapith, Rameshbhai Patel, SRISTI, and Kapil Shah from Jatan Trust reflected on ongoing efforts in promoting sustainable agriculture. Prof. Shambu Prasad from IRMA, in his introductory overview, presented Gujarat's present knowledge around sustainable agricultural practices. Highlighting the various contradictions in policies and the state of knowledge, he flagged the scope for creating a "learning alliance" in Gujarat. In that respect Prachur Goel shared how a collective approach could be taken to creating a vision for transition towards agroecology.
In the moderated panel discussion by Apoorva Oza from AKRPSI, panelists shared insights on practices that could enable a faster spread of agroecology in the state. This included greater documentation of the efforts and outreach as well as having more platforms for dialogues with dissimilar actors like the Government departments and agricultural research universities that are currently not aligned with ongoing efforts of civil society organisations.
The mainstream state agricultural universities often don’t provide enough space or exposure for students to learn the principles and science of agroecological practices. Rameshbhai of SRISTI pointed out the need for scientific validation and collaboration to augment the collective knowledge around agroecological practices. Nafisa Barot from WGWLO, highlighted the importance of the knowledge which resides with women working in the fields. She mentioned that one of the spheres where women have clear advantage, is the nutritional aspects of their produce.
To engage with these issues, Dr Rajendra Khimani explained how Gujarat Vidyapeeth is in the process of designing a course that would involve farmers as teachers, and students would spend the majority of the time in the fields with them. Dr Kandarp Mewada from Gujarat Organic Agricultural University also explained their efforts to mainstream organic farming practices. Such institutional innovations are needed for creating enabling ecosystems for sustainable transitions.
Civic action, context and cumulative changes: A recipe for social transformation
The webinar was the beginning of a deeper engagement of collective learning and action of an informal coalition of actors. The LFI team organised a workshop along with National Coalition for Natural Farming to create an opportunity to listen to similar experiments in other parts of the country and learn together for actors in Gujarat. The workshop was attended by representatives from NCNF's partner organisations from several states - Madhya Pradesh, Meghalaya, Assam, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, and Gujarat on 27th November. They shared the barriers and opportunities for promoting sustainable agroecological practices. The lenses used by the different organisations are also diverse. While some used a food systems lens, others used a water conservation, gender or livelihoods lens. Debashish Sen from People’s Science Institute, Kapil Shah, and activists like Rajinder Chaudhari and Kavitha Kuruganti are closely associated with efforts to mitigate the agrarian crisis and promote sustainable agriculture experience of engaging with farmers.
A visit to Sarvadaman Patel’s farm along with the participants was an ideal start for the conference on the 26th morning, that was followed by a talk on the experience of promoting natural farming in Andhra Pradesh by Mr Vijaykumar.
During the workshop, Rajinder Chaudhari, who is an economist and an activist in Haryana, narrated the story of how a group of farmers in Haryana, have been able to self-finance their transformation to sustainable farming practices. At the heartland of green-revolution agriculture, the farmers have been able to grow organic wheat and compete with conventional farmers. The only support they have received has been in the form of guidance and motivation from a strong network of civil society actors across the country. Building social capital has been the common factor across the initiatives in Haryana and Andhra Pradesh’s Community Managed Natural Farming (CMNF). In AP, as Vijaykumar noted, the community (especially the women) was mobilised through the SHG movement and had continuous support from the civil society organisations. Similarly, Bhogtoram from Meghalaya, who had been associated with NESFAS, explained how their organisation is combining activism around food sovereignty to transform agricultural systems within the local communities, through farmer's markets, cooking classes and spreading awareness about wild foods. In Himachal Pradesh, the movement is centered around conservation of springs and water supplies. For Srijan in Madhya Pradesh and SeSTA in Assam, Farmer Producer Companies and Social enterprises with SHG members are enabling transition pathways.
These go on to show that mobilising social capital through civic action initiatives is an important pre-requisite to sustain interventions such as agroecology, and just getting funds is not enough. To initiate such social action, there is a need to bring together the diverse voices (look at the diversity of terms used for sustainable agroecological practices) and create a knowledge base that respects the context-dependent approaches to agroecology.
The state initiatives, however have marginalized the civil society actors, as many of them lament. Their experiences and knowledge from the field, which could have been crucial for better designing of state schemes have been replaced by a limited number of top-down package-of-practices, derived from very specific contexts.
Towards a growing learning alliance
Platforms for discussion and sharing ideas can be the beginning of creating a learning alliance where the ideas and knowledge of all actors are systematically aggregated for everyone's reference. For the learning alliance to be successful, there is a need to create an agenda for systematic engagement with all these forms of knowledge.
The first effort will be to map the history of the organic agriculture movement, and the actors who are involved in producing and implementing the knowledge in this sphere. This will give us a clear direction to how we can approach the various dilemmas and conflicts, preventing the various actors to work together and create peer learning.
The goal of the learning alliance is to create a level of alignment between the different islands of innovation and knowledge, so that Gujarat can embark upon a common goal. The insights from the alliance can be used to leverage agroecological practices, as Kapil Shah said, to transform the overall production and consumption relations, where the main focus is on the well-being of humans and nature across the rural-urban as well as socio-economic divides.
On the other hand, another economic alliance is being formed, through top-down mechanisms of the government, with the agenda for promoting sustainable agriculture. A learning alliance can feed into this government policy, to push for a more inclusive agenda.
Arnab is a Research Associate with the Living Farm Incomes project at IRMA