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Tamil Nadu's organic revolution

With chemical farming becoming uneconomical and grain yields declining, more and more farmers are switching to organic agriculture, says natural scientist G Nammalvar in this interview with Claude Alvares. Nammalvar has been training organic farmers and setting up learning centres in Tamil Nadu for three decades. Trainings sometimes need to be held in marriage halls in order to accommodate up to 1,000 farmers

Dr G Nammalvar is an organic scientist who has been working on sustainable farming and organic practices. For over four decades he has been educating farmers against large-scale mono-crop farming and against international patents on Indian traditional knowledge. His work in desalinating over 6,000 acres of land after the 2004 tsunami earned him much recognition. Nammalvar works primarily in Tamil Nadu, but also travels in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Maharashtra, holding workshops and convincing farming communities to stop using harmful pesticides and fertilisers, and, more recently, GM seeds. He has written extensively (mostly in Tamil) and published books and articles on these practices

You are very well known in Tamil Nadu as an organic farmer and natural scientist. How did you get involved with organic farming, considering that you have a college degree, a BSc in agriculture?
I was not altogether new to farming. Earlier, my brothers and I worked on my father’s land in the traditional way of farming. However, after I attended agricultural college where I got a BSc in agriculture, I started using modern methods at the Agricultural Research Station in Koilpatti, which were intended for rainfed crops in black cotton soil. Later, I joined a voluntary organisation called Islands of Peace, Kalakad, founded by 1958 Nobel Peace Prize-winner Rev Father Dominique Pire, and there too I was asked to use Green Revolution practices. But it was under irrigated conditions. We helped farmers dig wells and install pumpsets. After working for 10 years, I realised that only the traders were flourishing and that farmers were either in debt or their condition had remained the same. So I got fed up and left the organisation. I decided to directly help farmers who were suffering. For a long time I searched for methods that would really help farmers.

My colleagues and I started an organisation called Kurumbam in Thanjavur district, in 1981, where we began training villagers in social forestry activities. The word kurumbam means ‘family’. However, I found that here too the forest department was not prepared to change its attitude. It was only interested in planting eucalyptus on grazing land and thorny subabool trees in the lake. In 1983, there was a very big movement in Tamil Nadu regarding the social forestry programme. Around that time, I attended a seminar in Auroville where I was introduced to Bernard Declerq. He took me to see his 3-acre farm and explained things to me. That was good inspiration! He recommended me to Agriculture Man Ecology (AME, a development-oriented, non-government organisation devoted to promoting sustainable agricultural practices). It was then that I realised a systematic approach was necessary for rural farmers to improve their condition, since all their problems were inter-related.

At the end of two or three years there was a suggestion from different groups to attempt certification, as project-holders of NGOs were given only an introductory course which was not sufficient for certification. Three organisations came together to conduct a social forestry programme. Kurumbam and AME conducted Tamil training programmes for field workers on ecological farming. And we started a movement -- Low External Input Sustainable Agriculture (LEISA) -- in 1990 with farmers and NGOs as its members.

What is the motivation for farmers to switch to organic farming?
There are three main reasons. One: farmers have realised that land and the natural environment cannot be sustained through chemical farming. All food is poisoned through modern farming. Second: the farmer finds that the cost and quantum of inputs are increasing day by day and so he cannot pay back his loans. The result is that small and marginal farmers are losing their lands or they are allowing the land to remain fallow and migrating to the river belts for seasonal jobs, or to other states and countries for menial jobs in order to survive. Third: the export market is facing a problem as importers of food materials in European countries and the USA find that our food contains too much pesticide. They insist that these are removed and that the food has to be organic. So the pressure to change is coming from the export market also. Finally, techniques have so improved that a farmer can switch to organic farming without losing too much income. But most of all, farmers are interested in organic farming because chemical farming has become uneconomical, and grain yields have started declining. These are the prime reasons.

How is it that for the last 30-40 years we got sucked into this chemical way?
The State wanted more grain production. It started brainwashing the people. People were given fertilisers practically free, or at heavily subsidised rates. Even now in Tamil Nadu, electricity is completely free for farmers so that they can go in for irrigated agriculture. But once the government stops subsidies on chemical inputs, farmers will have to stop using them or change over to some other way of farming. Without water, chemical farming is impossible.

Do farmers make the switch from chemical to organic farming at one go?
No. When they start thinking about switching they come for more information. They start by switching first to herbal pest repellents. Then they go in for organic methods of growing crops, and lastly, they will switch to growing indigenous varieties. Thus they are not switching over completely but on a piecemeal basis.

Are those farmers who are doing organic farming convinced that the yield is comparable to that from chemical farming?
Oh yes, they are convinced. But right now their concern is at the economic level. In organic farming we are not spending on external inputs. At the same time, it is labour-intensive. I met a landed woman farmer who said that she was prepared to give the land on a contract basis for banana plantation instead of growing crops herself because it was too costly. Basically, in our state there are a lot of industries coming up and agricultural labour wages are high. Often it becomes difficult to get labour.

What other obstacles do farmers who may wish to convert to organic farming face?
On the economic plane, many farmers think more about money and not about their home needs and families. On the cultural plane, they are tied up with family pressures. Also, women are not involved. Secondly, companies that manufacture and distribute chemicals, hybrid seeds and machinery, and the so-called scientists in universities, deter farmers from switching over to organic farming. Universities act against organic farming by teaching and encouraging modern hybrid varieties, genetically modified seeds and precision farming. That is a major problem. However, farmers’ movements are giving support to the organic farming movement.

Would you say that there is an organic farming movement underway in Tamil Nadu? How was the movement initiated and how is it being sustained?
In every district in Tamil Nadu there are farms cultivating in the organic way. Some of them are fit for training, and about half the 100 farms need to be upgraded to become learning centres. Nowadays, a team of experts conducts training on the farm itself. Thirty to forty participants in each batch are trained for three days; we have conducted many such training sessions. As for organisations, there are always people with initiative and leadership. When the NGO or farmers’ forum arranges meetings, sometimes around 1,000 farmers attend. Sometimes they are arranged in marriage halls! MPs and MLAs have also participated in and attended these meetings. In 2008, Anandha Vigadan, a well-known Tamil weekly, and our foundation, Nammalvar Ecological Foundation for Farm Research and Global Food Security, together organised seminars and trainings. Anandha Vigadan publishes a Tamil fortnightly called Paumai Vikatan, and three other monthly magazines that promote organic agriculture. Kalluppu, a Tamil monthly published by the Isha Yoga Centre in Coimbatore, carries articles on growing trees, ecology, the environment and natural farming. The popular English daily, The Hindu, publishes organic farming case studies every Thursday. All India Radio and TV stations broadcast news and pictures on organic farming. Our connections with NGOs working in other states like Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Pondicherry, Maharashtra and Orissa help us share experiences and seeds.

Coming to the different rice varieties, what is the status of the older seeds? How many farmers are using them?
When I visit remote areas, the old seeds are still available. Some farmers are still growing them, even under dry conditions. Only those strains will remain. Otherwise in the dry belt where tank water is available they have switched to high-yielding varieties. They say that within three months the grain will come up. In some places they have started re-using the old varieties. Biodiversity is imperative to adapt to different ecosystems.

Everywhere in the countryside there are five or six plants which are cattle repellents, and the farmers know this very well. They grow easily, and if you put four or five leaves in a pot mixed with cow urine for 10 days, they start smelling. The farmers add 1 litre of this mixture to 10 litres of water and they spray it on the leaves to prevent insect attacks. Even the most damaging pest -- the red hairy caterpillar found in groundnuts -- can be controlled if it is sprayed with this mixture. Secondly, most farmers are going in for composting, and quite a good number are going in for vermicomposting (local worms are best suited for vermiculture as they are more adaptable and survive).

Is organic farming a very complicated business or a very simple business? What are the main principles that farmers should keep in mind when doing organic farming?
The most important aspect is our health; this is the first principle and the basic reason for doing organic farming. Second, we should allow nature to help us. We should not do anything that will hamper the natural cycle, like disturbing soil microbes that fix atmospheric nitrogen in the soil. Third, we should put agricultural by-products to different use as was being done in the old days. Fourth, no waste either within the farm or outside the farm should be burnt because in organic farming nothing is a waste; the so-called waste is nothing but misplaced resources. Fifth, we should depend on indigenous seeds and indigenous cattle breeds. If farmers are well trained, they can easily opt for pure line selection. It is very important that farmers do not buy seeds from outside. When a farmer buys seeds from outside, he has no information or knowledge about the growth or performance of the plant. That’s why he should use seeds only from his own field or get seeds from other farmers and then sow them in his farm. Sixth, the farmer must realise that the plant is a producer and not a consumer. We must enrich the soil; healthy soil will take care of the plant. All this may appear complicated, but farmers are able to pick up these ideas quite easily especially if they are discussed in farmer groups.

What are the basic practices you would recommend to organic farmers?
First, take care to select a pure line of seed. Second, collect maximum biomass from the farm and from the neighbourhood for mulching. Third, rear earthworms and release them into the field. Fourth, go in for bio pest repellents that can be used on a large-scale with no ill effects. Fifth, use panchagavya made from cattle urine, dung, milk, curd and groundnut cake. In Tamil Nadu, with the help of Dr Natarajan, we have been able to improve on the original formula. We have added four more ingredients to the original five -- coconut water, banana, sugarcane juice and toddy. With these nine components we are able to protect plants, improve the health of animals, and reduce diseases of any kind in human beings. We also prepare panchagavya from materials sourced from goats.

What is your vision for the next three years?
First, very intensive work is needed to continue our campaigns of promoting organic farming, achieving a GMO-free India, making farmers’ seeds local, promoting rainwater harvesting and millet crops, converting urban waste to useful products, protecting water sources, establishing seed certification, and protecting the cow. For all these to have an impact, a nationwide NGO-farmer network is essential. Second, to carry out these activities on a wider scale, we need a large number of trainers. So we have to continually conduct training programmes and support trainers who can educate people at the local and grassroots level on all aspects of organic farming -- cultivation, marketing, preservation techniques, etc.

(Reprinted from Organic Farming Source Book 2009, Other India Press, Mapusa, Goa)

(Dr Claude Alvares is an environmentalist and editor at the Other India Press, an alternative publishing house. He is also director of the Organic Farming Association of India, and is based in Goa)

Infochange News & Features, July 2010