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Archive for the ‘Food Security’ Category

Women, Food Security and Climate Change Training Program (photo: WEA)

The 101st International Women’s Day is March 8th.  Despite often hearing about existing obstacles to women’s well-being, there is much to celebrate this year.

Climate change, of course, is an enormous threat to just about every topic one could name.  In India, though, people are taking a holistic approach to the problem, including tapping into traditional knowledge, especially that of women.

I’ve written before on the work of the Women’s Earth Alliance(WEA) and its initiative to improve livelihoods and food security of small and vulnerable women farmers.  WEA works with a local Indian environmental organization, Gorakhpur Environmental Action Group, helping women farmers start or strengthen organic farming practices and diversify their food production.  And just as importantly, they connect women farmers, who share best practices with one another and start campaigns to create change in their communities.

According to WEA, the women they are working with are experiencing much success:

  • Soma and Thumpa in West Bengal have guided women farmers to set up 20 nutrition gardens, as well as install improved cooking stoves that reduce carbon emissions;
  • Manju Devi in Bihar has continued her training on organic farming practices and is encouraging others to plant multi-purpose indigenous trees. “My goal is to see women stand on their own feet and improve their self-reliance,” says Manju who set up her own organic kitchen garden as a demonstration site;
  • Kusum Lata in Uttar Pradesh has worked to ensure that rural women have job cards registered under their names. This enables them to get fair wages under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act that provides 100 days of employment to rural households willing to do public work-related work, including water conservation and reforestation.

Compare this to a recent report by the development NGO Action Aid and the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, that found that more than 80 percent of smaller farmers – who contribute to half of India’s crop production – will be affected by climate change.  One farmer quoted in the report said that “The pattern of rainfall has changed.  It is so scattered that at times it rains but fields remain dry.”

And just last week Indian researchers reported that India’s monsoonal rains are becoming less frequent and more intense.

I heard similar stories from women farmers with whom I met in India a few years back. All over the world we are seeing how changing precipitation patterns are affecting water and food security.    That’s why it’s more important than ever to empower women.

I also saw this news article by Aditi Kapoor, writing on how “Innovative measures by women farmers across India are helping several poor families adapt better to climate change and keep hunger at bay.”  Kapoor interviewed a woman farmer from Uttar Pradesh, who said “Earlier, we could not produce enough food for a year because our village would get water-logged by the flood waters. Now, using early maturing paddy varieties and organic manure to revive soil fertility, we can at least eat for all 12 months from the same piece of land.”

What is needed in India and around the world, in terms of agriculture, is support for seed and grain banks, ecological farming training, appropriate technology, education, and economic empowerment for Indian women and farmers.  This will enable them to improve their food and economic security, preserve the environment and traditional knowledge, build political will, and better their lives.

It sounds to me like we have lots to celebrate this year!

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Women Farmers Training 2011 (photo: WEA)

Nearly eighty percent of Indian women work in agriculture, and less than seven percent of have land tenure.

Small farmers livelihoods in India are threatened by industrial agriculture, which degrades the environment and negatively impacts the role of women in agriculture. Women have traditionally been seed keepers who preserve the biological diversity and health of crops.

The good news is that many people are working to protect and improve the lives of women farmers. I attended a talk recently given by Rucha Chitnis of the Women’s Earth Alliance (WEA) on the “Women, Food Security and Climate Change Training” Program, which works to connect rural women farmers and help them overcome the many challenges they face, with climate change and food security at the top of the list. This program focuses on ecological farming, rights education, traditional knowledge, just livelihoods, and adapting to climate change.

WEA does incredible work, and this program promotes the idea that women are not victims but instead are the ones holding down the fort and finding ways to improve lives. Through peer-to-peer/farmer-to-farmer exchanges, women come together around empowerment, self-reliance, and to learn from one another.

One training participant, Manju Devi, is a single mother of three from Bihar who has trained over 144 women in five villages in organic farming and seed saving. She has also set up her own organic kitchen garden site, which she uses for demonstrations.

Another Indian woman farmer’s success story was that of Ram Ratti. A decade ago she was fortunate enough to receive training from the Gorakhpur Environmental Action Group (and now WEA’s partner in the Women, Food Security and Climate Change program) in sustainable farming practices. Today she grows over 30 varieties of fruits and vegetables and has trained 200 women in organic agriculture and seed saving. Ninety of these women are now smallholder organic farmers with a diverse group of crops cultivated from local seed varieties.

Both of these women understand that sharing women’s knowledge is an integral part of food security, especially in the face of climate change. And they are making use of women’s intimate knowledge of farming, natural pesticides, and medicine. In Rucha’s words, these “women are reclaiming “green” from the green revolution.”

Ultimately, it is women who are the primary caretakers of natural resources. By empowering them with property rights, economic opportunities, and decision-making authority our environment and communities will be better off. I know some of the women farmers I met in Maharashtra a couple of years ago talked about these same things.

The theme of the presentation and of the women’s training revolved around unity, sharing and empowerment. These are concepts that we should all use to guide our lives in light of the challenges facing the planet.

Countries all over the world can raise women’s status by educating girls and by improving women’s access to credit, land, jobs, and training. This is exactly what WEA’s India program is doing, but taking it a step further by bringing women together to learn from each other. And they are having great success.

Watch here WEA’s short video on the training, and get ready to be inspired!

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The first time I went to India, back in 2000, I was on a steep learning curve to learn about seed saving, industrial agriculture, and genetically-engineered foods.  I was working at the International Forum on Globalization and organizing a trip for a handful of North American, European, and South American farmers, activists, and scientists to meet their counterparts in India.

What I remember best about the trip was visiting the organization Navdanya, located in the Himalayan foothills near the town of Dehra Dun.  Navdanya works with farmers to save seeds that have been used by Indian farmers for generations.  Seed saving is threatened by large corporations such as Monsanto and Cargill, and by global trade rules which they lobby intensively for (such as trade related intellectual property rights, or patents).  Once a seed is patented, then farmers, many of whom have been saving seeds all their lives, can no longer do so because they are violating patent rights.  Each year they must buy seeds to plant.

About a decade ago, neem, a tree endemic to South Asia, was part of a big patent battle in India.   It has many traditional uses, including medicinal, fuel, toothpaste, and even as a type of contraception. Neem has been used for thousands of years but in the 1990s a multinational company put a patent on neem.  An international coalition led a fight against W. R. Grace and the European Patent Office to overturn the patent, and eventually it was revoked. How can a company be allowed to engineer a native species and then force people to buy it when they have been harvesting and saving it for years?  Well, that’s a long story and another post.  Simply put, it’s the belief that man can do better than nature.

Along with seed saving Navdanya promotes biodiversity, organic farming, and farmers’ rights.  They also help build community seed banks and train farmers and others in food sovereignty and creates awareness of indigenous knowledge and practices.

Now that I cook Indian dishes, I can appreciate all the seeds and spices I saw at Navdanya’s farm.  Cardamon, turmeric, coriander, fenugreek and many other things I couldn’t recognize and never knew existed. It was simply amazing, as was the food they cooked up for us – all fresh and homemade.  None of this processed stuff we call food.

I would love to go back and visit with the Navdanya staff and farmers, now that I understand so much more about local agriculture, Indian food, and holistic living.  But I can certainly appreciate what I have here, especially in bountiful California. Support local, organic agriculture and you’ll live and eat well.  Someday we’ll overcome corporate rules that really don’t benefit anyone and threaten our environment and communities.   In India, farmers are fighting to protect their livelihoods, as are farmers here in the U.S.  It’s a cliché, but buying local and acting global makes a big difference in so many ways.  It tastes and feels good too.

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photo: travelpod.com

If you enjoy food, and really, who doesn’t, then you should be concerned about the impact of a changing climate on our food systems.  Just about anywhere you look, the wild and unpredictable weather is affecting agriculture.  From droughts in Australia to extreme tornadoes in the midwest to floods in Colombia and China, this weird weather is raising food prices and forcing changes in farming.

In India, agriculture is a crucial livelihood and industry.  India could eventually lose more than 5 percent of its growing season as a result of climate change, according to a joint report put out by international agricultural research centers.  Compounding the impact of climate on farming is the economy.  As India experiences economic growth, more people are leaving agriculture behind and migrating to cities for other opportunities.  As the number of mouths to feed is increasing, the number of farmers is decreasing.  That’s good news if you are a big industrial agriculture corporation, such as Monsanto, bad news if you’re a fan of sustainable farming and livelihoods.

Farming here and the world over has long been affected by industrial agriculture; now communities are increasingly being subjected to what is referred to as “land grabs.”  This is when farmland in (usually) poor, developing countries is bought or leased by wealthier governments, corporations and private investors in more food insecure regions to produce crops for export.  Much of this has happened in Africa, but Asia is experiencing land grabs as well. It is displacing farmers and negatively affecting poor communities dependent on the land for their livelihoods.  This is not a new phenomenon, but in an age of increasing food insecurity, along with poverty and climate change, it is fast becoming an issue we cannot ignore.

Indian farmers face not only foreign investors taking their lands but their own government is doing it too.  Taking advantage of an archaic colonial land acquisition law that gives the state broad powers to expropriate land—coupled with neo-liberal investment policies—the government is forcibly acquiring lands in the name of development.  Sleek new expressways in Uttar Pradesh, mining concessions in Orissa, and new cities such as Gurgaon, outside of Delhi, displace rural populations and force people off their lands and often into city  slums.

In the words of activist and physicist Vandana Shiva, “Land is not about building concrete jungles as proof of growth and development; it is the progenitor of food and water, a basic for human survival.”  This is true most every where you look; balancing development and sustainability continues to be a challenge for us all.

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Indian Farmers (credit: indymedia.no

Two articles I recently read highlight the need to listen to and provide support to farmers in India, especially women farmers.

The first article was a short piece in the New York Times on the use of a potent pesticide called Endosulfan, often referred to as “DDT’s cousin.”  According to the Times, the chemical has been banned by many countries due to the dangers it posed to agricultural workers, “good” insects, and overall threat to wildlife and a healthy environment, yet only officially banned last week.

However, a 10-year exemption has been made for India, home of the Green Revolution, to phase out its use, because agriculture ministry officials fear a rise in prices.  They state there are no cheap alternatives. Perhaps it is time to look beyond cheap prices and consider the well-being of living things.  As I’ve mentioned before, women worldwide are keepers of seeds and protectors of biodiversity. It is a source that needs to be heard and respected.  I’m eagerly awaiting a report-back from the Women’s Earth Alliance, who just held a training for and by female Indian farmers in northern India working to protect food security and food diversity.  And others, most notably Vandana Shiva, have written about the work of India’s women farmers and their role in promoting organic alternatives.

I don’t think continued use of Endosulfan is worth the risk of deformed children, as has been reported in Kerala due to the use of this pesticide on cashew plantations.  The ministry is wrong; there are viable organic alternatives to pesticide use, just maybe not big money-making ones for industrial agriculture and chemical companies.

The second article is an homage to small farmers, giving credit to Himalayan farmers as a source for coping with climate change.  In a study by Britain’s Royal Society, the authors suggest that local knowledge may help climate and biodiversity researchers improve ways of tracking the impacts of global warming.  And they were surprised by how much people notice biodiversity loss in their regions.  The fact that they found it surprising surprised me. In my opinion, it makes sense that local knowledge trumps computer models.

We should continue using all the resources available to us, but not disregard local ways of doing things, as well as information passed down through generations.  This applies to those working the land all over the world – men and women, old and young.

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Dr. Vanaja Ramprasad, founder of the GREEN Foundation

Women’s Earth Alliance (WEA) is an inspiring organization that is hosting a training this week in India on solutions pertaining to women, food security, and climate change. WEA’s mission is to create innovative solutions to issues of water, food, and land through collaborative initiatives that train, connect, and empower emerging women leaders worldwide.  Currently I am doing some research support for the India program and want to excerpt a cross-post with WEA’s India Program Director, Rucha Chitnis, on what’s happening with women, farming, and biodiversity in India:

Let’s start from the very beginning.  And some might say that it all began with the seeds. 

Seed, a symbol of fertility and perpetuity, of culture and sustenance in India, is also becoming a symbol of self-reliance and a key to preserving the biodiversity of indigenous crops on small farms across the country.

In Southern India, GREEN Foundation, a community-based organization that works with small and marginalized farmers, including tribals and Dalits, in semi-arid regions of Karnataka, has immersed itself in this challenge of promoting the conservation of indigenous seeds among farmers since 1996.

During my visit to the Foundation, I learn that women farmers are in the center of their seed conservation efforts due to their roles as the primary seedkeepers in India.  The Foundation began its work with five women farmers and a handful of indigenous seeds. “When we began talking to the farmers, we realized that traditional varieties of seeds had almost disappeared. Without seeds what we were attempting to do would be a non-starter,” notes Dr. Ramprasad, founder and a seed conservationist. 

The Foundation believes that women farmers also hold the key to preserving the biodiversity of the crops and their knowledge systems of seed saving, mixed farming and natural farming are vast, which need to be documented and promoted.  Dr. Vanaja shares an example of an elderly woman farmer, who identified nearly 80 varieties of greens in her field, as well as their uses for medicinal and nutrition needs. “Her knowledge was phenomenal,” she says. “When it comes to food security, women play a key role in identifying food that is available. In lean seasons, they trek to the nearby forests, and they are able to identify roots and tubers for their food requirements and medicinal plants.”

This intimate knowledge of women, believes Dr. Ramprasad is often undermined by the scientific community and biotechnology companies who promote agro-technologies, which might not be appropriate for rural communities, and especially for the economically disadvantaged farmers. Dr. Ramprasad shares that some of the greens on the farms, which poor farmers in India subsist on during lean periods, might be considered as weeds by some agro-companies, which are eliminated by herbicides.

The rest of Rucha’s blog post may be read in full here.


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