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Tanzanian farmers traditional seed exchange practices under threat

Project: Planting Seeds of Resilience in Southern India

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Photo: Ebe Daems for Mo* Magazine

In order to receive development assistance, Tanzania has to give Western agribusiness full freedom and give enclosed protection for patented seeds. “Eighty percent of the seeds are being shared and sold in an informal system between neighbors, friends and family. The new law criminalizes the practice in Tanzania,” says Michael Farrelly of TOAM, an organic farming movement in Tanzania.

As this article in Mo* Magazine explains, under Tanzania’s new legislation, “‘If you buy seeds from Syngenta or Monsanto…they will retain the intellectual property rights. If you save seeds from your first harvest, you can use them only on your own piece of land for non-commercial purposes. You’re not allowed to share them with your neighbors or with your sister-in-law in a different village, and you cannot sell them for sure. But that’s the entire foundation of the seed system in Africa’, says Michael Farrelly.” To go against the law is to risk a prison sentence of at least 12 years, or a fine of over $219,500, or both. “‘That’s an amount that a Tanzanian farmer cannot even start to imagine. The average wage is still less than 2 US dollars a day’, says Janet Maro, head of Sustainable Agriculture Tanzania (SAT).”

Examples like this from across the world underpin the need WEA learned about for projects like the Seeds of Resilience Project, a partnership between WEA and Vanastree — a women-led seed saving collective in Karnataka, India. The project ensures seed and food sovereignty, as well as the transfer of traditional knowledge in Karnataka State by supporting women to build and scale seed businesses, lead trainings to increase farm biodiversity and productivity, participate in demonstrations and exchanges, and build networks in their communities and beyond. It is a direct response to the growing monocropping and commercialization of agriculture, particularly seeds, that Southern India has experienced.

We send our thoughts and solidarity to the farmers of Tanzania, and will keep our eye on this issue.

Read the full article here.

Stewards of Food Culture and Biodiversity: Voices from the Northeast

Project: South Asia Small Grants Initiative

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In her piece for Vikalp Sangam, Rucha Chitnis shines her light on the challenges faced by communities in Northeast India to preserve the region’s rich agrobiodiversity and food culture.

“A journey on a food trail in the region [also] reveals a rich agrobiodiversity and a unique food culture that has been stewarded by local communities–from the Brahmaputra Valley in Assam to remote mountainous tribes in Arunachal Pradesh. In the face of modernization, mining, oil exploration and escalating deforestation, both, the biodiversity of species and food crops, including wild edibles, are threatened.”

As Rucha explains, since forests are a vital source of food and indigenous crops, new economic policies supporting large infrastructure projects in the area could pose a direct threat to small scale farmers.

The article uplifts the voices of four activists and advocates working for ecological justice in their communities of Northeast India. Their work takes different angles but it is no coincidence that each is concerned with empowering women to raise their voices and be recognized as key players in ecological justice. We are especially excited to hear from Mary Beth Sanate of Rural Women’s Upliftment Society (RWUS). RWUS works to promote sustainable livelihoods in the face of conflict and climate change, and was a WEA South Asia Small Grants Initiative partner. Mary Beth and RWUS’s work advocating policy and social change on behalf of women’s rights continues to be an inspiration to us!

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Mary Beth Sanate of RWUS (third from right). Photo: Rucha Chitnis.

“We need a strong gender policy in the state and women’s participation in the development of climate change policies is key…women are slowly realizing that the customary law is discriminatory. It needs to be reformed so that women can have equal access to property, political participation and other resources.” — Mary Beth Sanate

Read the full article here.

Congress Passes the Global Food Security Act of 2016

Project: Planting Seeds of Resilience in Southern India

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By: Janice Kim, Programs + Operations Intern

Last week, in a celebrated step forward, Congress passed the Global Food Security Act (GFSA) of 2016. With just the president’s signature needed now, the GFSA reaffirms the United States’ commitment to supporting global food security and nutrition.

Though the newest version of the bill doesn’t create new programs or add funding to existing aid efforts, what it does do is set new standards for U.S. involvement in global hunger relief efforts. The emphasis of the GFSA is on supporting women, children, and smallholder farmers through long-term efforts to reduce global food shocks and reliance on food aid.

Here are a few of the components of the bill that WEA is especially excited about:

  • Promoting non-U.S.-centric agriculture-led economic growth for small-scale farmers that could reduce global poverty, hunger, and malnutrition
  • Improving the nutritional status of women and children while improving stability of small-scale farmers

Overall, in its most aspirational form, the GFSA could mean more support of small-scale producers—many of who are women farmers (women are the backbone of the rural economy in developing countries and are responsible for 60-80% of food production)—and greater access to skills, resource management capacity, networking, and financing to sustain their work in the long run. This goes hand in hand with the work of many of WEA’s project partners, like Vanastree.

WEA and Vanastree have partnered together since 2014 to uplift the role of rural women farmers in the Malnad region of southern India. Through this partnership, Vanastree and WEA are building the capacity of small-scale women farmers, supporting them as they cultivate their own forest gardens and strengthen seed banks, providing training on integrated food gardens for women and youth, creating opportunities for women to generate stable, alternative sources of income, and more. These efforts are all in answer to the regions growing food security concerns.

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Manorama Joshi (center, crouched down) of Vanastree teaches farming techniques.

WEA, together with many other organizations, are looking forward to seeing the positive impacts the GFSA can mean for women farmers, their communities, and the goal of ending global hunger, poverty, and malnutrition.

Starting the Year Off With the Malnad Mela

Project: Planting Seeds of Resilience in Southern India

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At the end of January 2016, WEA’s Planting Seeds of Resilience Project partner Vanastree organized their 9th Malnad Mela. The Mela — featured in the Times of India — provides an opportunity for Sirsi women to showcase their seeds, soil, tubers, cotton, clothing, and food, increasing their recognition, honoring their knowledge, and providing and opportunity to learn more.

At this year’s event, the women farmers were especially able to increase awareness on the usefulness of tubers — a climate sustainable crop — and how to grow them, displaying seven varieties throughout the event.

The root booth at the January 2016 Malnad Mela. Photo: Vanastree
The root booth at the January 2016 Malnad Mela. Photo: Vanastree

“Women in the agriculture sector are not recognized anywhere. They play a vital role in handling all the aspects of agriculture in rural areas. Through Vanastree, we are trying to provide a platform to the women of Sirsi.”

–Sunita Rao, Founder of Vanastree

Read more about the event here, and experience last year’s Mela here.

Malnad Mela — A celebration of Seeds

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In an event hall in the small village of Sirsi, on the edge of the Western Ghats in the Indian state of Karnataka, more than a hundred women gather to participate in the Malnad Mela, a decade-old festival organized by Vanastree, a seed saving collective of women farmers. These participants, as well as the 800 or more community members who visit throughout the day, have traveled long distances to be there despite a week of heavy monsoon rains and winds, uprooted trees, and power outages.

Arriving at the festival, there’s a noticeable buzz in the air. Members are selling and exchange organic, local seeds along with other products ranging from “aromatic herbal hair oil and recycled-fabric patchwork bags to local snacks and spices.” It is also an environment of participation and conversation, where critical issues are raised and discussed.

Sunita Rao— seed saver, farmer and founder of Vanastree — believes that the mela is a critical opportunity to bring women home gardeners and farmers together to exchange skills, share and sell produce, and discuss solutions and adaptations to the growing threat climate change presents to the region.

The Malnad region of the Western Ghats is an area rich in biodiversity that has sustained their communities for centuries. However, the changing climate has rendered the monsoons — one of the area’s most essential ecological events — both unreliable and unpredictable. Rainfall patterns have drastically changed. Deforestation has increased.  Soil degradation has worsened. And women farmers are bearing much of the resulting burden.

The Malnad Mela is an opportunity for these women to share traditional ecological knowledge about saving flood-resistant indigenous seeds, promote tuber cultivation as a solution to climate-induced food insecurity, engage a larger market to sell produce, and take part in leadership skills-building with other local women leaders. Each of these goals is a strategic action Sunita Rao, Vanastree, and the women of the Malnad take to face the persistent and dangerous effects of climate change.

The Festival is also an important way for the Malnad community to appreciate their biocultural wealth, as well as the tremendous role of women as stewards of biodiversity conservation.

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