SUCCESS STORY: An Indian village says 'no' to pesticides

Posted: 29 September 2004

Author: Kavitha Kuruganti

In 2003, a small village in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, declared itself pesticide-free. Since then, its farmers have stopped using pesticides for crops like cotton, Bengal gram, chilli and paddy - all known to use notoriously high quantities of pesticides. Kavitha Kuruganti reports on the greening of this village.

The pesticide-free status of Punukula, a predominantly tribal village, is creating ripples in Andhra Pradesh (AP) which, in the past five years, has had frequent spells of drought and reported thousands of farmer suicides. An estimated 1,200 suicides were reported in the period June-August 2004. One of the reasons for the rise in suicides has been the crushing burden of debt: many farmers buy expensive seeds and pesticides and when the crops fail, their own survival becomes difficult.

But Punukula farmers of the Khammam district claim that they are able to save up to Rs 3 million (1US$=Rs 46) every year on agricultural inputs by adopting eco-friendly methods towards pest management. There is a total of 600 acres of farmland and, on every acre, they have made a saving of at least Rs 5,000 since reducing their dependence on expensive pesticides.

Resistent pests

Their success in eliminating the use of artificial pesticides from cotton fields has been the most remarkable. Farmers who migrated from Guntur district brought the cotton crop to Punukula more than 15 years ago. Local farmers saw the Guntur farmers use pesticides on their cotton crop quite frequently and soon started using them in their own fields. Initially, the pesticides worked well and several pesticide shops soon opened in the nearby town of Palvancha. Pesticide dealers would give local farmers the latest pesticides on credit.

But gradually, the pests became resistant to the pesticides being used. Monocrotophos, methyl parathion, chlorpyriphos, endosulfan, synthetic pyrethroids - nothing seemed to work. The pests would only come back in greater numbers. Soon after, the cotton crop needed greater quantities of pesticides, which meant a higher investment.

Simultaneously, in addition to supplying seeds, fertilisers and pesticides, the dealers started extending loans at high interest rates to the hapless farmers. The debt trap was fast closing in on the farmers whose yields were greatly affected by pests. Farmers in Punukula, like elsewhere, started committing suicide.

Health problems

The high use of pesticides was also resulting in a variety of problems for the villagers. For instance, Srinu, farmer Hemla Nayak's son, had to spend Rs 18,000 to get treated for acute pesticide poisoning in 1999. Women, who did most of the spraying, complained of skin problems, blurred vision and body ache.

In 1999, the Socio-Economic and Cultural Upliftment in Rural Environment (SECURE), a local NGO, stepped in and suggested that the farmers try out ecological methods to control pests.

Women's Self-Help-Group, Punukula, Andhra Pradesh. Photo: Centre for Sustainable Agriculture
Women's Self-Help-Group, Punukula, Andhra Pradesh. Photo: Centre for Sustainable Agriculture
Women's Self-Help-Group hold a meeting in Punukula© Centre for Sustainable Agriculture
However, the determination and support of the five self-help groups (SHGs) run by the village women helped to make this ecological shift in pest management possible.

SECURE initially began work with 20 farmers, including a few women. Earla Dhanamma, whose husband Nagabhushanam represented the interests of several pesticide companies, also joined in. The farmers were sceptical in the beginning. But the method of preventing pest attacks by understanding the pests' life cycles did appear both simple and affordable. Instead of chemical sprays, the farmers began preparing sprays made with local and inexpensive materials like neem seed powder and green chilli-garlic extract. The sprays were supplemented by hormone traps to attract the moths and destroy them before they start mating. Some farmers also used 'crop traps': along with the cotton crop they would grow another crop (marigold, castor) that attracted the pests more.

Positive difference

One season was enough to show the positive difference: useful insects like spiders, wasps and beetles - which feed on cotton pests - returned to the fields once the chemical pesticides were stopped. In the next season, many other farmers came forward to try out the new approach. However, there were several men in the village who found it easier to go to a pesticide dealer and buy a container of chemical pesticide rather than take the trouble of preparing these new, greener methods

Farmer, Earla Dhanamma, Punukulu, Andhra Pradesh. Photo: Centre for Sustainable Agriculture
Farmer, Earla Dhanamma, Punukulu, Andhra Pradesh. Photo: Centre for Sustainable Agriculture
Farmer, Earla Dhanamma, has stopped using pesticides on her farm.© Centre for Sustainable Agriculture
At this point, the women's SHGs firmly stepped in. They successfully persuaded their men to stop buying pesticides when the alternatives were already available. "We knew that the savings with the new methods were enormous - upto Rs 10,000 per acre at times. Why, then, would we need to go back to pesticides?" says Dhanamma. Others also realised that pesticides meant higher debts as well as high medical costs. The women even took on the additional work of preparing the anti-pest sprays from neem and chilli-garlic paste. They also ensured that no one brought pesticides into their village.

By 2003, most farmers in this 200-household village had stopped using the harmful pesticides. Pesticide dealers stopped coming into the village as sales dropped dramatically. Besides covering 400-odd acres of cotton, the new method was also used in fields growing chilli and paddy. No pesticides were sprayed in its 600-odd acres of farmland during the 2003 kharif (post-summer) season. Even during the first crop season of 2004, no pesticides were required.

In August 2004, the women's groups also bought a neem seed crushing machine (extracts for the sprays are prepared from the resulting powder) with support from SECURE.

Today, Punukula is a centre of attraction for other villagers who are inspired and impressed by its healthy crops. Just 15 km away, villages in Julurpad block have high pest incidence despite the use of pesticides.

Punukula farmers now have the money to invest in house repair, buy land, and invest in livestock. Most farmers say their incomes are higher, enabling them to repay old debts.

The villagers now firmly believe that the way to get rid of pests is to rid their farming of pesticides.

Kavitha Kuruganti is a Banglore-based journalist, with a special interest in development issues.

Source: Women's Feature Service

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