From The Fields : WEA and Satya-Jyoti Celebrate 350!

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By Corinne Almquist
We rose before dawn this morning to greet one of the most exciting days of the year: the 350 International Day of Climate Action. Sunrise found us huddled on the station platform in Chandigarh, awaiting our train to Delhi. Hours later, our journey continued by bus into Rajasthan, with the landscape transitioning from chaotic city streets to the pink, sandy hills whose glow characterizes this region’s famed charm and beauty. Traffic jams caused by auto rickshaws and brazen bicyclists turned to roadblocks of goats and shepherds, and the final stretch of bumpy road to our destination would have precluded any visitor with even the faintest vulnerability to motion sickness from venturing any further.
We finally arrived at the Satya-Jyoti Trust, an organic farm and cooperative community in the Alwar district of Rajasthan. It is difficult to fully describe the mission of this organization; its holistic vision of empowerment coupled with social and environmental change is so all-encompassing that to refer to Satya-Jyoti as a farm seems a bit diminutive. The Satya-Jyoti community has transformed a barren piece of desert land into a lush farm that takes in female victims of abuse and domestic violence and trains them in organic agriculture and handicrafts.  The organization also runs a school for local children, and teaches anyone, woman or man, who wishes to learn about sustainable agriculture.
We were greeted by Kakoli, co-director of Satya-Jyoti, who immediately invited us to enjoy a meal prepared by the Satya-Jyoti family. Sitting in the community kitchen, eating a meal straight from the farm (which was served to us on biodegradable plates of banana leaves), we all felt as though we had entered a slice of paradise. As we breathed in the aromas of our meal, an audible groan of delight erupted from everyone at the table. When the freshly prepared salad came around, our eyes met for a split second of hesitation; avoiding raw food is one of the cardinal rules of traveling unscathed through India. With a shrug, we unanimously decided it was worth it: if our digestive tracts failed, at least we were all going down together. [For the record, it WAS worth it, and no one has reported any indigestion thus far).

After the meal we took a tour of the farm and spoke with Kakoli about Satya-Jyoti’s dream, which includes empowering the village’s women, building a local health center, and training both boys and girls in sustainable enterprises like organic agriculture and fair trade handicrafts. Yet even this enclave of success and progress bears its fair share of frustrations. The peace of the farm is interrupted by very frequent explosions from the nearby mountains, where mining companies are blasting away the hills to extract stone and dust for construction in India’s cities. Kakoli’s pain from witnessing the assault on the hills is shared by the pain of people everywhere who are forced to watch their homes and land destroyed by outside forces, from mountaintop removal in Appalachia to the rising seas pushing islands underwater. Yet we are reminded on this farm that as we are connected in our struggles for peace and justice, we are also united in hope and in a shared vision of a sustainable future.
Before we left Satya-Joti, we made sure to gather with some of the people living in the community to take a group photo for the 350 International Day of Climate Action. Today, thousands of people are gathering all over the world to demand strong and bold solutions to climate change. 350 parts per million is considered the safe level of carbon in the atmosphere, and we have a lot of work to do to achieve this goal. Today, we are honored to add our voices to the other citizens all over the globe who are taking action for a healthy planet. Everything we have been discussing on our trip is of course intimately connected to this movement, and leads to many important questions: how can farmers adapt to a changing climate that threatens water shortages and crop damage? Will we lose the value of the traditional knowledge that groups are working so hard to preserve if growing conditions become erratic and unrecognizable?
These are some of the questions that sprung to my mind during our 350 action, and our group delved into many more challenging questions on the way back from the farm. In our visits so far, it has become clear that certain legal and cultural obstacles stand in the way of the women’s organic agriculture movement in India. The right to own land is one of these obstacles; many women throughout India cannot claim land ownership, which obviously prevents them from pursuing sustainable agriculture independently. Government subsidies towards chemical agriculture also prevent aspiring entrepreneurs from making a living from organic farming. The presence of these obstacles sparked a group discussion on the importance of advocacy: while it is incredibly important to initiate change at the individual and village level, it is also crucial to fight for policy change. In this way, too, we share a strong bond with the thousands of people demanding climate action today. We must absolutely work to help our neighbors reduce their energy consumption and eat local food, but we must also fight for fair agricultural policies that benefit the land and the farmer, and unite together to call for a strong international climate agreement in Copenhagen this December. Kakoli’s parting words to us today included a simple affirmation:
“You are all incredibly special people. That is what connects us.”
She could not have expressed it better. Every single person who took action for climate solutions today should be immensely proud of the movement we have all helped to build. This movement calls for a just and equitable future on a thriving planet that can feed and nourish each one of her inhabitants, and we at WEA and the Satya-Jyoti Trust are proud to be a part.
To see our photo, alongside thousands of photos of other actions
across the globe, please see below and visit www.350.org.
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Corinne Almquist is a 2009 Compton Mentor Fellow and recent Middlebury College graduate. Working in partnership with the Vermont Foodbank, Corinne is spending her fellowship year promoting gleaning around the state of Vermont, the act of harvesting and distributing surplus produce from farms. Corinne organizes volunteer crews to head out to local farms to harvest crops for local food shelves in an effort to provide low income families with fresh, healthy produce. She studied Environmental Studies and Religion at Middlebury and is a passionate food justice advocate, as well as a devoted gardener and farmer.
This is part of a series entitled From The Fields which follows WEA’s Women and Agriculture delegation on their 10 day journey through Northern India. Read more about this initiative here.

From The Fields : Paapad, a Temple and Bees

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By Angela Sevin

Today was a full, full day! Full of information, appreciations, problems, solutions, puzzles, questions, hopes and dreams. From a ‘mom and pop’ paapad production business (started on $30 and now employing 10 women) to a woman who may well be India’s first modern woman farmer/beekeeper (driving a tractor despite taboos in 1973!), we were inspired to think twice about our expectations. We were invited to look beyond the surface to gain a deeper understanding of the many ways in which humans are moving into alignment with the Earth.

Virginia Satir describes a human living humanely as, “a person who is real and is willing to take risks, to be creative, to manifest competence, to change when the situation calls for it, and to find ways to accommodate to what is new and different, keeping that part of the old that is still useful and discarding what is not.” At every turn in our day, I felt more… human.

Our leaders on this trip, WEA Co-Directors Amira and Melinda along with WEA’s India Initiative Coordinator Arielle, wove our group in and out of events of the day with seamless grace. They pointed us always in the direction of deep listening, exchange, staying present, bringing our full selves, and more deep listening.

Our morning was filled with a visit to a paapad business started by a Punjabi woman and her husband. We were impressed by this woman’s ability to work alongside her husband to establish a local food production business, literally from scratch, starting with just $30. The regular employment of 10 women in this area means that they have jobs outside of their homes and a way to earn money. Paapad is a very nutritious baked good made from lentils that are ground into a base dough. Of course, we had tea with some of the treats made up for us there on the spot.

A healthy discussion occurred on our bus ride to the Golden Temple in Amritsar with each Delegate asking and listening to some difficult questions related to cultural barriers, and how we could learn from this experience. We ate a communal lunch at this marvelous Sikh temple and we felt so appreciative of everything we were experiencing (walking through water and reflections on pools help clear the mind!)

In the afternoon we visited Sangeeta Deol’s 2 hectare farm and we knew that we had entered a special place. Sangeeta radiated a light and presence when, after our introductions and beginning round of enquiries, she asked of us, do you have 20 minutes for me to tell my story? A resounding “yes!” was our answer and we were drawn into her world. She told of her journey with a certain incredulousness as to how indeed she was able to achieve so much while overcoming polio at age 4, losing her daughter and raising 2 grandchildren. It spoke volumes to us, too, as all the while her husband quietly supported her from the background. And while there is not a huge market for honey in this part of India (it is used primarily for medicinal purposes), bees are vital for cross-pollination and for sustaining life on this planet.

We did not want to leave this heroine of farming. And we hope that many more seek refuge at her open doorway, finding a connection that brings us closer to each other as humans and moves us into alignment with the Earth.

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Angela Sevin: As a co-founder and director of LEAP (Land Empowerment Animals People), and a director of The Green Life peer education class at San Quentin, I encourage people from all walks of life to come together and share their hopes and desires as well as sorrow and despair about the condition of life here on our planet home. I have a master’s degree in experiential education and I’ve volunteered in numerous capacities for a wide spectrum of non-profit organizations as an outdoor educator, group leader, peer counselor and mentor. Since the mid 90s, I’ve worked toward creating educational environments inclusive of social change ideals and activist principles balanced with the pursuit of individual empowerment. By viewing differences compassionately, facilitating others (including myself!) to discover their passion, and with a unique focus on global wisdom, I envision a future where creativity and learning are nurtured in a way that accepts the communal spirit of all beings. I’ve traveled to many parts of the world, including Kenya, Senegal, and Malaysia, working with groups and communities to build partnerships and collaborations that create mutually transformative processes which seek to balance the needs of all.

This is part of a series entitled From The Fields which follows WEA’s Women and Agriculture delegation on their 10 day journey through Northern India. Read more about this initiative here.

From The Fields : Touch down

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By Temra Costa

Even before the plane touches down, you can smell Delhi. It’s hard to describe – ammonia, cars, 17 million people breathing, half as many rickshaws, cumin – it’s the smell of thousands of years in the making, where modern meets ancient. And since the government has determined that “air” is a human right here, I’ve been told that it’s quality has greatly improved. But meanwhile, my lungs, eyes and senses are adjusting to the smells, fumes and the enormity of this place. Here we are, a group of 15 women from India and the U.S. to spend 10 days touring sustainable agriculture organizations and taking every form of transportation imaginable.

All of us, from Vermont, to Arizona, California, Africa and numerous parts of India are here out of more than tourism. We’re here to connect with women run sustainable agriculture organizations and to share our skills and knowledge as advocates for change. Each of us brings our skills that vary from non profit management and philanthropy, and include the diversity of writers and water harvesters. By bridging the international divide and letting the women and their organizations we meet know that we are here to support and engage with them in these issues, the world becomes a bit more palatable of a place. As it should be. With global environmental issues coming to a confluence, we have to figure out how to support localized, sustainable, food production, on a global scale, and fast. The knowledge that women in India have of seed banks, their traditional practices, their learned and passed down food growing techniques, and all of their learned tools have remained largely unrecognized by science as solutions to the global food crisis.

While the majority of food grown in India is produced by women, resources are still not flowing from the international community where it could make the most impact. With less funding than we spent on say the last election in the U.S. these women and their organizations could probably have solved their food ailements. As they stand as a special interest group of source, the FAO reports that women receive less than 2% of foreign aid. Less than 2% and they grow upwards of 80% of the food in developing countries. Obviously, we need some reform. But without hypothesizing too much, first, we are going to listen. What do they need? What are their challenges? How can we collaborate and help raise their voices?

As I adjust to this place, it’s smells, amazing food culture, and diversity of religion and organizations working for human good, I’m optimistic that the women of India already know what it takes and what the country needs. We just have to be willing to hear the message. Stay tuned…

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Temra Costa has over a decade of experience advocating for sustainable food systems starting with the USDA Organic Certification program in 1998. She came to California after earning a Bachelor’s of Science degree in International Agriculture with a minor in Women’s Studies, from the University of Wisconsin, Madison in 2003, to work for the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF). Her work has included projects of Farm-to-School, farmers’ market implementation, regional distribution research and directorship of a statewide marketing initiative, Buy Fresh Buy Local, that educates consumers about where their food comes from and by creating markets for family farmers (www.buylocalca.org). Her book, Farmer Jane: Women Changing the Way We Eat (Gibbs Smith Publishers), will be released in May of 2010 and highlights the impact that women have in changing the U.S. food system.

This is part of a series entitled From The Fields which follows WEA’s Women and Agriculture delegation on their 10 day journey through Northern India. Read more about this initiative here.

From The Fields : A preview

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Today the WEA team and the Delegates are arriving and settling into their hotel in Delhi. They are about 12 hours ahead of California time and so they are hopefully sleeping right now. While we wait to hear from them directly here is a preview of what they’ll be doing and where they’re going in the next two days.

Meet with Dr. Suman Sahai from the Gene Campaign. Gene Campaign, a grassroots organization with a presence in 17 states in India, was started in 1993 by Dr. Suman Sahai (an Ashoka Fellow in 1989) and a group of people concerned about food and livelihood security. Gene Campaign is recognized as a leading research and advocacy organization working in the field of bio-resources, farmers and community rights, intellectual property rights and indigenous knowledge, biopiracy, and issues related with GE food and crops.

drsahaiVisit Punjab Agriculture University. PAU is considered a big player in the promotion of GE seed, bio-tech and associated “green revolution” technologies. In more recent years it has expanded its emphasis on organic farming. We will visit with Dr. Aulakh who is heading the organic farming department and his wife who is in the Home Science department and who is active with local women’s groups.

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Visit Post Harvest Management Training Center. PHM Training Center creates training in basic, applied, strategic and adaptive engineering and technology research in post-harvest sectors of plants, livestock and aquaculture production. In particular interest to us, PHM trains women farmers in processing and value-addition of fruits and vegetables.

This is part of a series entitled From The Fields which follows the Women and Agriculture delegation on their 12 day journey through Northern India. Read more about it here and here.