Solution to Agrarian Crisis in Wayanad: Agroecology

Wayanad, nestled in the high altitudes of Western ghats, is largely agrarian and significantly covered with forests. It is at the forefront of Climate Change and Agrarian Crisis in India. Thanal, working on environmental issues in kerala at grassroots and policy level for over thirty years, has a solution to it: Agroecology    – Article  in by Parthasarathi Eduppally , a data engineer  with a masters in economics who volunteered  with us  in February 2020.

Farmer’s Training Session at Thanal Agroecology Centre, Panavally, Wayanad

Around 9.30am Arun (expert in organic and natural farming from Thanal) and his team is arranging for a training session for farmers. They are expecting around 15-20 farmers today. Slowly farmers started arriving in groups co-ordinating among themselves. Most of them are members of Thirunelly Agro Producer Company, a local farmers organisation hoping to directly supply agricultural produce to consumers. They were given a notepad, recycled paper pencil, feebdback sheet and a registration book. Arun started the session by saying that he wants to keep it conversational so that they can learn from each other. This group also consisted of couple of farmers who have been practicing organic agriculture for some years now. Farmers started with various issues they are facing on the farm and outside in marketing their produce. Arun subsequently delved into solutions available in organic/natural/agroecological farming practices for those individual problems. Session was very lively with farmers actively participating in the conversation with Arun and among themselves. Session ended by afternoon with a field trip to introduce Thanal’s model Agroecological Farm at the centre and a hands-on session of making a bio-pesticide using cowdung. Finally, farmers gave individual feedback in Malayalam on a plain sheet of paper.

This was a typical day in a month long training and outreach program conducted by Thanal at their Agroecology Centre in Panavally, Wayanad for farmers affected by 2018–19 floods in this region. Substantial portion of their own six acre Agroecological farm was under water during the floods and they could withstand it due to their design of farm based on Agroecological principles and practices. There is a genuine curiosity among farmers to look beyond conventional farming. Specifically, there is a broad consensus among farmers that climate change is affecting their livelihood directly and that relying on external input-intensive farming is no longer a viable option. This can be best understood in the context of agrarian crisis in Kerala.

Different Problems Same Causes

Around 130 farmers and agriculture workers in Wayanad, with a small population of about 8 lakhs (2001 census), committed suicide during 2004 due to financial distress and pauperisation. There were 970 farmer suicides across different districts in Kerala between 2003–2007, highest number of them were from Wayanad region. Recently, VB KrishnaKumar (a farmer from Appapara near Thrissilery in Wayanad), was one among the fifteen farmers who committed suicide due to debt crisis in 2019.

Disastrous consequences of use of pesticides, specifically Endosulfan, has been one of the contentious issues for farmers and consumers in Kerala for couple of decades now. Deaths due to use of Viraat in paddy fields of Kuttanad region was reported in early 2019. There has been a substantial effort by local campaigns to educate farmers and consumers about ill-effects of pesticides in agriculture.

In 2011, Gadgil commission suggested to declare 67% of westernghats to be ‘ecologically fragile’. Two districts of Kerala — Wayanad and Idukki — were the most affected. When he visited Wayanad again during devastating 2018–19 floods, he reiterated that these extreme calamities are due to over-exploitation of natural resources in these ecologically sensitive regions. Prof.Gadgil also argued that there was mis-communication and lack of democratic discussion with local communities regarding the same in 2011 and that local people valued conservation and good use of natural resources.

These were the broad category of problems plaguing agricultural sector in Kerala for couple of decades now. All of them have a common connection — Conventional Extractive Agriculture. Farmers following conventional agricultural methods (from the relics of Green Revolution) used excessive pesticides and fertilizers, increasing their cost of inputs substantially, hoping to get bumper yield to be sold in markets. Unlike their ancestors, agriculture is pursued mainly for money (cash crops like coffee, pepper, banana) to cater solely to markets than for self-sufficiency. Since late 90’s, the process of liberalisation directly exposed farmers to the risks of global commodity market prices. Small farmers betting high on their produce got into a debt trap year after year, which ultimately resulted in suicides.

This high risk-high return approach to agriculture production made it extractive and there was a substantial increase in the usage of external inputs to witness temporary increases in yield or to control pests artificially. This in turn resulted in degredation of soil and the environment pushing farmers into what is called a ‘pesticide treadmill’.

Conventional input-intensive agriculture, solely based on cash crops, started reversing hundreds of years of traditional agricultural practices which were based on deep understanding of needs of the local population and forests around them. This in turn resulted in the destruction of natural safegaurds which have been protecting the local population and their sources of food from natural calamities for centuries.

Agroecology as a Solution to Agrarian Crisis

Agroecology as a term has its origins in the late 1920’s, but the science and the practice of agroecology dates back to the origins of agriculture itself. Gliessman defines agroecology as participatory action and change that brings sustainability, security and resilience to all parts of the food system: ecological, economic and socialIt is Science, Practice and a Social Movement. This is a most general definition of agroecology emphasizing the complex relationships between environment, agriculture and people.

A more practical definition of agroecology is that it combines traditional farmer’s knowledge with elements of modern ecological, social and agronomic sciences to derive a set of principles for designing sustainable agricultural systems, as given below:

  • Enhance the recycling of biomass, with a view to optimizing organic matter decomposition and nutrient cycling over time
  • Strengthen the “immune system” of agricultural systems through enhancement of functional biodiversity — natural enemies, antagonists etc
  • Provide the most favorable soil conditions for plant growth, particularly by managing organic matter and by enhancing soil biological activity
  • Minimize losses of energy, water, nutrients and genetic resources by enhancing conservation and regeneration of soil and water resources and agrobiodiversity
  • Diversify species and genetic resources in the agroecosystem over time and space at the field and landscape level
  • Enhance beneficial biological interactions and synergies among the components of agrobiodiversity, thereby promoting key ecological processes and services

Agroecology has a social aspect and embodies the concept of Food Sovereignity and Self-Sufficiency, in that it is incorporated into the vision statement of La Via Campesina. It takes into account the complete lifecycle of food from seed to soil to table acknowledging the complexity of involvement of people and the societies in which they are embedded. Gradually, through a process of transition into different levels it promotes alternative markets for farmers to sell excess produce (after their own consumption) to consumers directly. Thus promoting local food diversity and self sufficiency for a community as a whole with regards to food.

As it invovles active participation of farmers through knowledge sharing and experimentation, Human Resource Development at village level becomes important component of the whole endeavour. Large scale experimentation on agroecology as a viable alternative to conventional farming was done in Latin America. For example, in Cuba, after the collapse of soviet union there was a sudden drop in the import of food or fertilizer inputs required to carry out conventional agriculture. This unique situation forced them to look inwards for self-reliance and move towards sustainable agriculture, organic farming, urban gardens, smaller farms, animal traction and biological pest control. This large network of around 100,000 farms based on agroecological principles contributed to 65 percent of country’s food using less than 25 percent of the land.

Thanal’s Approach to Crisis in Kerala

Thanal started in 1986 with a couple of nature enthusiasts to create awareness among people regarding environmental degradation. With campaigns against ill-effects of pesticides and GMOs, it played very important role in pressurising state and central governments in enacting many legislations against the same. Thanal has been working on different environmental issues in creating awareness among general population regarding climate change, pesticidestraditional varieties of rice and waste management. Through their consistent efforts in bringing people together through conversations at ground level and also research based policy advocacy, they were able influence public policy around environmental sustainability in Kerala for couple of decades now.

With deeper understanding of the crisis and ground realities in Kerala through their work at grassroots level, they recognised agroecology as a way forward to address core environmental issues. Agroecology Centre at Panavally, Wayanad was setup as a model farm/lighthouse for agroecological practices. The region being climate sensitive and at the forefront of human-animal conflict around the edges of forest is perfect place for a model Agroecological farm.

The farm itself embodies the core principles of agroecology be it biological and genetic diversity, recycling of natural resources and promoting biological processes for a self-sustaining agroecosystem. The social aspect of agroecology is also reflected in the people involved on the ground. Arun works closely with local farmers through facilitating training and knowledge sharing sessions. Sandeep, through Mobile Agro-Clinic, is involved in conducting basic soil tests, documentation of issues and on-the-field solution to the same. It is an important way of building relation with farmers in remote villages across Wayanad. Sudha chechi, who works for Thanal as a local care taker of the farm, has a close relation with the indigenous community. Her knowledge of medicinal plants on the farm reflects her interaction with local tribal population. So there is this culture of horizontal farmer-to-farmer knowledge sharing and interaction, which has been key for scaling up of agroecology in Latin America.

The key issue of market linkages for agricultural produce is also addressed by providing alternative market routes. Social enterprise wing of Thanal has been successfully running Organic Bazaar linking urban and rural organic farmers across Kerala to consumers in Thiruvananthapuram. Thanal is also a regional centre for decentralized organic certification through PGSI, which helps farmers to access markets for their organic produce easily. They are also associated with local farmer-producer groups like Thirunelly Agri-Producer Company acting as knowledge partners to help member-farmers to transition into organic farming. They are also creating conscious consumers through their awareness campaigns regarding traditional rice varieties, pesticide free food, climate change and waste management.

Final Thoughts

There have been many comprehensive studies at international level regarding solutions based on Agroecology for Food System crisis. IAASTD report was published with the help of around 400 researchers working on different aspects of Food Systems proposing agroecology as a viable option for solving global agrarian crisis. UN special repporteur on right to food clearly proposes agroecology as a way forward to ensure food security in the world. IPES recently published detailed case studies from different parts of the world where agroecology was successfully implemented. FAO also conducted first symposium on agroecology to start discussion about promoting agroecology at global scale.

Kerala is at the forefront of climate change and is in a unique position of having a strong local governments compared to anywhere else in India. This gives it a great opportunity to embrace agroecology (which requires grassroots mobilization) and go beyond organic, to solve its agrarian and environmental crisis in a holistic manner. The environmental, social and political characteristics of Kerala are eerily similar to that of some of the Latin American countries. It is then prudent to learn from these countries as to how they could scale up agroecology by incorporating it into their legislation.

It is now time to push for a change in public opinion on farmers as a mere producers of food with some inputs like any other profit making enterprise through markets. And start to recognise them as providing invaluable environmental services through their interaction with the soil and the ecosystem. This translates into a political aspect of agroecology, as a campaign for providing villages with universal healthcare and free quality education at all levels, so that it takes the burden off them to earn money for these basic requirements.

Given the current global health and economic crisis, which is directly linked to unsustainable ways of human occupation. It is a good opportunity to garner public support for the bold moves in order to change the tragectory of human existence.