SUCCESS STORY: Indian farmers learn from old ways

Posted: 23 March 2007

Author: Fehmida Zakeer

Looking to the west for new and better technologies in every sphere of life is the norm in many developing countries. But now thousands of farmers in India have rediscovered the wealth and potential of traditional sciences.

The Centre for Indian Knowledge Systems (CIKS) was formed by two Indian scientists, Dr. K Vijayalakshmi and A.V. Balasubramanian from Chennai (formerly Madras), in the early 1990s to develop indigenous knowledge in the field of agriculture.

Dr  K. Vijayalakshmi
Dr K. Vijayalakshmi
Dr K. Vijayalakshmi of the Centre for Indian Knowledge Systems
Citing the core concepts of the organisation as biodiversity conservation, organic agriculture and vriksayurveda (the ancient science of plants), Vijayalakshmi says, "Our organisation is involved both in research and extension. We conduct research on various organic farming technologies, both on our experimental farm and in the farmers' fields." Tested practices and technologies are then disseminated through training programmes and publications.

Today, CIKS interacts directly with more than 3,000 farmers and infirectly with almost 10,000 more. Most of the farmers are practicing organic agriculture methods developed by CIKS. Initially they converted a part of their land, only to gradually switch over their entire farmlands. They were won over by the health-giving and income-generating capacity of chemical-free methods of cultivation.

Experimental farm

The organisation has an 11-acre experimental farm in Vedanthangal, where organic farming technologies are demonstrated. Different composting techniques, preparation of bio-pesticides, organic cultivation of various crops, and a medicinal plant garden are displayed here. First-hand information is given to those keen to learn the intricacies of organic farming. The farm also conserves indigenous paddy and vegetables.

A unique initiative of the Centre has been to train farmers about bio-pesticides. Many plants with pesticidal properties were discovered during the course of research into the agricultural practices of the past. "What is most amazing is that many farmers had a faint recollection of their fathers using plant-based mixtures to tackle pests," says Vijayalakshmi.

Discussion
Discussion
Discussion with the farmers of Sirupennaiyur

Programmes on making bio-pesticides are conducted in different villages. This enables small farmers and women to either use it themselves or sell to big farmers, thereby providing a source of income and simultaneously promoting safe agricultural practices.

CIKS also provides village women with seeds to revive kitchen gardens. "In the villages, we saw the concept of kitchen gardens being neglected. Many villagers had given up the idea of cultivating vegetables in home gardens because of the high cost of hybrid seeds and also because of their poor performance," says Balasubramanian. They were not concerned about missing valuable nutritional content by the absence of vegetables in their diet and, hence, did not buy vegetables from the market either.

Vegetable gardens

"We provided vegetable seeds and plants to the women to encourage the setting up of kitchen gardens. Additionally, we helped in setting up herb gardens and armed women with the knowledge of using herbs for minor ailments like colds and stomach upsets," he adds.

This initiative has seen women in about 800 households enthusiastically grow plants for self-consumption, while earning an average of Rs 300 (US$1=Rs45) per month from their small vegetable patches.

CIKS's biodiversity conservation activities include the setting up of community seed banks at a number of villages. Through the seed bank, indigenous varieties of seeds, pushed to the brink of extinction by the introduction of fertiliser-friendly high-yielding seeds, have been located from farmers who had retained the traditional varieties for own consumption even as they farmed the high-yielding ones for the market.

seed bank
seed bank
Community seed bank - a platform for farmers to store and exchange their seeds

"There are many benefits in using indigenous seeds," avers Vijayalakshmi. "The most striking one is that they have inherent qualities based on the ecological region they survive in and, thus, are more likely to address the nutritional needs of the consumer better. Besides this, the livelihood of small and marginal farmers are ensured through the conservation of indigenous genetic resources."

CIKS launched a concerted effort spanning almost a decade to locate traditional seeds and to increase their usage. "We have so far managed to bring back 125 strains of rice and almost 60 types of traditional vegetable varieties," Vijayalakshmi says with satisfaction.

Village groups

The organisation ensures the continuation of practices demonstrated and taught to farmers by promoting the formation of organic farmers' 'sangams' (groups) in every village. All activities are routed through the 'sangam' so as to enable farmers to sustain themselves even after CIKS's involvement comes to an end.

The 'sangams' are encouraged to elect leaders and to develop income-generating programmes. Community seed banks are promoted at these 'sangams' so that farmers have access to traditional seed varieties and are provided the opportunity to multiply the quantities of such seeds.

Providing organic alternatives to chemical agriculture with techniques derived from ancient texts has been another important initiative of the centre. This has been done through the painstaking study of vrikshayurveda. "While ayurveda for humans has many practitioners and 'vaidyas', there are no such persons practicing the age-old treatment methodology of vrikshayurveda. A heartening fact is the existence of a number of books on the subject and also pockets of people with some knowledge of this science," says Vijayalakshmi.

She and her team have sought to interpret some of the texts and develop solutions in tune with modern contexts. "Farmers have been taught techniques from knowledge gleaned from these texts. The techniques were developed after a lot of experimentation to make them suitable for present needs. Alternatives to chemicals are available to us in our traditional practices; the need of the hour is to bring back safe agricultural practices followed by our forefathers."

The organisation conducts a large number of tailor-made training programmes for various groups like farmers, NGOs, students, teachers and the general public. CIKS also brings out educational material, periodicals and books in a number of languages. The organisation is engaged in group certification of organic products and is currently working on marketing the healthy and pesticide-free products.

Source: Women's Feature Service, New Delhi