Diary Entry 1

My colleagues Hanna, Prabha and I spent two days in the Kalahandi district of Odisha with the Chetna Organic team, headed up by Rama Krishna Yarlagadda. Note: Orissa is now officially 'Odisha' since its official name change in November this year so I've used the new name in this diary posting. 

Day One

We are in Odisha situated on the eastern side of the Country. Odisha is one of the poorest states in India. Forty-three percent of the population is living below $1 a day. Odisha is home to some of India's scheduled Tribes, living in the rugged forests on the outskirts of the Kalahandi district. My colleague Prabha explained that the tribal peoples have certain rights in the forest but also have to follow rules to preserve its integrity, such as not chopping down the trees, and not selling land outside the tribal community. The majority of ‘Tribals’ make a living from smallscale farming and gathering forest products such as medicinal plants, herbs, and other forest flora. Cotton was introduced to the state in 1982, so fairly recently, not without controversy since it displaced some of the rice production; rice being one of the major staples in this part of India. 

The journey begins

Today we visit one of Chetna's four organic farm clusters established in Odisha; a relatively young program only in its eighteenth month. We drove along bumpy, winding roads to get there, passing goat herders, wood carriers, and others on foot or bicycle possibly off to pick up their government-supplied rice allowance from the nearest outlet. The rice depots in this area are open once a week and for many it is probably a long way to go for collection. There were many people travelling in small groups, and I noticed that the road was fairly bereft of vehicles, with only the odd motorbike zipping past from time to time. Our car stood out as one of the few motorized forms of transport on a road busy wiht bicycles and people on foot.

The view out the window

Living in the UK and never having been to this part of India before I was fascinated to see so many people visibly busy in their fields; unlike England, where farmers tend to be enclosed in tractor cabs most of the time. Farming is definitely smallscale in these parts, animals pull machinery, and many farmers were probably 'organic by default' simply due to their remote location. Genetically modified cotton seed has not been introduced to Orissa, well not legally anyway, and there are varying views on whether it ever should. The pro-organic/low input advocates would like to see Odisha maintain its GM-free status and use this as a differentiator, as well as an incubator to breed, bank, and multiply ‘straight’ (non-hybrid, non-gmo) cotton seed varieties. In fact, Chetna team leaders in Odisha are helping farmers move towards seed self-sufficiency, facilitating farmers to save their own seed and being independent of seed sellers (more about this later).

As I peer out the window from the back seat I'm drawn to the intricate designs and colors of the women's sari's, the bright-eyed children starring at us through the window of our car, and the deep red mud brick houses. An absolute visual feast! But of course, at the same time, it was obvious that life was not a picture book. It is based on subsistence farming and a long list of chores necessary to meet the most basic needs of the family... carrying water, preparing food, and washing clothes. Public services - and rights – for the Tribals, I gathered, had been pretty much neglected by the rest of India but I saw signs today that things were changing…

 

Upon reaching our destination

When we finally arrived at our destination the first thing I noticed was the school. Evidence that the government was trying hard to service the educational needs of all India's children, including children in the remotest of places. The school looked quite new but the edges were already softened by the shade trees and what looked like a flourishing kitchen garden (courtesy of Chetna). The village houses, home to the 102 farming families now working as part of Chetna Organic, were a beautiful deep terracotta color, with cement floors, built closely together and from what I could tell nice and cool inside. There was a power line overhead and Rama explained that electricity provided light to the village but cooking was traditional, carried out on wood fires. This explained the number of women I spotted earlier with firewood bundled up on top of their heads.

We left the car and made our way through the cluster of houses towards the fields. Fine featured, small statured, inquisitive tribal people of all ages stopped in their tracks or peeked out of doorways to take a look at us. Rama reminded me that until recently no one here had seen an 'outsider' before. The braver ones waved and smiled and followed along behind us. Most of the women and girls wore elaborate gold nose rings. The younger children shyly hid behind their mother’s sari. I stopped to smile at a very small baby, forgetting I had dark shades on and must have looked very frightening (most of the Tribals are indeed very small and slight). The baby immediately burst into tears as I got close, burying his face in his fathers neck. Apologizing only resulted in a fresh round of tears so I didn’t persist to win his affection. I could tell I'd only terrify him even more if I did!

 

 

A diverse and colorful landscape

As we got to the other end of the housing cluster we entered the organic fields - which were more of a pleasure garden than a cropland. The two hectare space was a picture of biodiversity. The agro-ecological landscape, with the backdrop of bumpy forested hills, was clearly as much about food security as it was about cash cropping. Maize, beans, pumpkins, ochre, bright yellow chrysanthemums, red and black grams, and cotton of course were evident. The goal for this farm group is to be cultivating one crop or another all year round. The 'orchard' of young cashew, mango, papaya, and teak was still many years away from maturity, and nestled in amongst the slower growing saplings were cauliflowers, tomatoes, onions, and other vegetables. All this within a year and a half! The diverse and highly patch-worked landscape was also evidently home to a variety of butterflies, ladybirds, and the biggest ants I've ever seen!

When I asked about pest problems - and I did numerous times - the question never appeared to resonate much. The farmers certainly have many challenges but pests didn't appear to be top of the list. The trap crops and general ecological balance of the organic system provides much of the pest control, I was told, keeping outbreaks of insects at bay. This is yet another characteristic of rainfed farming, it's only during the rainy season that pests may present a real issue said the head farmer, and requires farmer's attention. The rest of the time nature does the job. 

Fairtrade is part of the DNA

Combining Fairtrade and organic certification is something the Chetna Farm leaders have always considered necessary. Fairtrade gives the projects a wider social agenda. Although, as Rama Krishna explains, the organisation's strong social values makes it easy to integrate Fairtrade standards with organic criteria at the farm level. 

 

A seed sovereignty agenda

One of the many inspiring initiatives within Chetna Organic's Odisha operations is a focus on seed sovereignty. And although there is not the threat of GM contamination as there is in other states, for Chetna, and its tribal farmers, seed independence is a big priority. Not only does it mean the farmers can be free from relying on seed companies (and the significant costs of commercial seed) but they can be confident their seed is ‘strong’ and right for the local growing conditions. In this respect, the Odisha project is banking both seed and knowledge; the team is dedicated to breeding, trialing, and multiplying the best performing low-input seeds in the business. The goal for their organic farmers is to not only be self-sufficient in seed but to have the best seeds for local low-input conditions. Seed trials set up to determine those with the best traits are still taking place and full self-sufficiency may be a few years away yet. Results are looking good for a particularly high yielding variety of Gossypium arboretum (native to India and Pakistan), and whilst in the process of development everybody's acquiring new skills and information. Chetna project leaders are learning about local varieties and, traditional practices from their tribal members and farmers are building the skills necessary to optimize yields. A strong organic culture is transforming from organic 'by default' to organic 'by design'.

Lunch that day was entirely from the farm.

 

After lunch I asked Rama about the secret of Chetna's success. Here's what he told me...

 

A lasting image

As we left, retracing our footsteps through the village, through a doorway I spied a tiny baby cradled in a huge cane basket of cotton bolls - an arresting sight. Providing this child with a luxurious, safe, soft bed pretty much summed up the role organic cotton was playing in the lives of these tribal villagers, and how it might revolutionise the future for their children.

 

Day Two

Our next day with Chetna provided us with a snapshot of the other three farm clusters, including a visit with a women’s self-help group and a look at one of the demonstration projects operating in Odisha. The latter part of our journey required the transfer from car to motorbike to boat. Not a trip to forget in a hurry! 

But, first stop was the new demonstration farm and meeting house sponsored by the Danish fashion brand Jackpot.

Demo site featuring new water harvesting pit

'Matrubhumi Swayam Sahayak Samabaya’, was not only a thriving organic farming cluster of 968 members but also sported a demonstration plot; a working example of watershed management. At only a few months in the making the water harvesting system is not yet performing at its best. There's a little work still to be done to get the slope of the land right for runoff and in building the aquatic plant life up in the new pond to a point where there is enough oxygen to support fish life. This is work in progress, with full participation by the local farmers. It will eventually replicate the highly successful catchment management work Chetna has developed at one of their Madryra Predesh farm clusters.

For rain dependent farmers innovative water management is the key to success. As with all the Chetna initiatives, the water catchment programme is holistically designed. Not only is water harvested for crop use but when the pond is ready fish are introduced, creating a spin-off aquacultural enterprise for local markets. 

Girls learn tailoring skills

The meeting house is also home to one of Chetna's two, tailor training schools in Odisha. Housing a number of smart sewing machines, young girls are able to come down from the neighbouring villages and learn to sew. Whether the girls enter the rag-trade, open their own business, or are simply placed in a better position to make clothes for their families, the experience installs confidence and builds life skills.

Women’s Self-Help Group

Next stop was to visit a village where the women have organized themselves into a 'self-help group'. A self-help group (SHG) is a village-based approach to micro-financing where women voluntarily coming together to save regular small sums of money, and mutually agree to contribute to a common fund on the basis of mutual benefit. The 68 women farmers certified under the Chetna program grow cotton, pulses, beans, and other organic farm system crops. The kitchen garden concept was taking off now too, with most households involved in food growing. Being a female-only group, the women benefited from a micro-loan scheme, paying 9 percent interest annually, a nice saving from the typical 10 percent per month of most bank loans in the Country, or as much as 24 percent per month demanded by money lenders. 

We were invited to sit in the women’s circle while the Chetna female project co-ordinator introduced us to each other (the men stood around the edges of the circle, some tending to the children).

Women take active interest in education

Till now most of our discussions had been with male farmers. Conversation had been focused on the farming and a polite turn about. Not so with this group of ladies! The first topic was the school. This of course was a subject close to the women's hearts. Things weren't going so well for the community and the mothers were disappointed. Their government-commissioned schoolteacher was not proving reliable; sometimes turning up and sometimes not. This was apparently not unusual in the tribal areas. Despite the government’s best efforts to provide the service some of the appointed teachers are not as committed to their responsibilities. The women were beyond frustrated now, after numerous warnings they were ready to take more drastic action. One suggested locking the school and making their point that way. All agreed a letter to the government was their next move. 

Seed banking is on the women's agenda

Other items on the agenda included the need for more sitting mats in the farmers club. We felt this would be something Textile Exchange might be able to help with immediately and we were pleased to find something we could do to show our appreciation to Chetna and make some gesture of support to this spirited group of organic women farmers, as small as it was.

The rest of the conversation revolved around the development of a seed production unit. With seed availability being top of the Chetna program strategy, the team were pleased to see how well received the idea was amongst the women. Seed was expensive the women said, and made a big hole in their budgets. 'Good' seed was also difficult to get hold of, so this was something they would be interested in pursuing. There was some initial discussion of where and how to begin, and of course how much it would cost. It was agreed that a section of land would be put aside immediately as a seed multiplication area. 

We parted company with the women very pleased to have been included in the meeting. Hanna and I were questioned about our lack of nose rings by a twinkly-eyed elderly women, who clearly found it amusing and a little sad that our noses were lacking the intricate gold rings she and her fellow women farmers possessed.

The incredible journey continues - crossing the River Tel

Getting to the next farm cluster required a motorbike ride and river crossing. Golamunda was another good sized cluster group with 913 members, and complete with its own tailor training school. We were served a delicious lunch which included a deceptively spicy spinach dish. As before, plates and bowls made of leaves ended up on the compost heap. The men told us about their dedication to farming in this area, the value of cow dung, and how to survive as a rainfed farmer. Among other things!

The boat trip was such a highlight I thought I'd share a few minutes captured (not very well) by me on film... sorry Hanna!

Before the crossing...  and after!

                         

Demonstrating good organic cotton practices

Final destination was a small patch of land owned by the farmers and set up as a working model of organic cotton agriculture. Every eighth row was planted in red gram (pigeon pea) which worked as a soil nitrogen fixer (and also a popular food crop in these parts). Castor trees were dotted amongst the cotton, acting as trap crops for insects. The soil looked black and fertile. The 'cropland' looked more like a forest, due to the height of the pigeon pea and castor trees, than an agricultural field.

Here, Ram tells me about the vital role pigeon pea plays as an intercrop in the organic cotton farm system

Each Chetna farm cluster we visited had its own identity, yet every farming community was living proof of what can be achieved through organic agriculture, not only in farming but in living the principles of organic: health, ecology, fairness, and care. I was truly enriched by my visit to Chetna and have an even great respect for what these people are managing to achieve through their organic cotton projects.

The journey never ends

 

By Liesl Truscott
Farm Engagement Director
Textile Exchange