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Seeds of Resilience: An update from our Seed Savers in India

Project: Planting Seeds of Resilience in Southern India

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Our Seeds of Resilience project has been underway for almost a year now and we are excited to share the progress being made to date in Southern India! This project, in partnership with Vanastree, aims to build communities’ seed and food sovereignty, catalyze intergenerational traditional knowledge sharing and strengthen women’s leadership, especially in the face of chemical-based agriculture’s influence on the Western Ghats region and mounting threats of climate change.

Photo Credit: Vanastree

Organic Home Gardening and Seed Saving

“Women lead their communities in intergenerational knowledge transfer advocacy and behavior change for small scale food systems.” -Sunita, Founder of Vanastree

The project began with a series of trainings, gatherings and projects that brought a select group of 20 women farmers from Karnataka, India together to gain new home-scale food production skills, micro-finance management skills,leadership skills, and self-empowerment skills. More recently, the gatherings for seed saving practices and gardening skills have taken the shape of communal knowledge sharing spaces, where experienced master gardeners share the skills they have accumulated throughout their tenure with those women farmers who are newly learning. This element of the project has been extremely successful in transferring knowledge between women and keeping these intergenerational traditional practices alive!

Photo Credit: Vanastree

From the start of the project, the women farmers and seed savers were also encouraged to maintain home garden journals to help them know the plants they are growing in their gardens, what they eat from there, what problems they face and how they can improve their food gardens. This tool has been so successful that the women plan to continue keeping a new journal in the coming year.


Micro-Enterprises and Financial Management

A core aspect of the trainings  has been building the micro-enterprise and financial management capacity of the women participants. Trainings focused on helping women become more cognizant of the financial demands of running a profitable seed saving business, a concept the women found challenging to master.  A recent refresher training shed light on their struggles and led to Vanastree’s decision to provide ongoing support to the women to help ensure the long-term sustainability of their businesses.

Photo Credit: Vanastree

One master home gardener and seed saver, Suvarna (photo below), has a nursery from which she sells her very well-known dahlia flowers. The Seeds of Resilience trainings have taught her how to maintain accurate financial records of how much is going into maintaining and growing her nursery as well as what she is receiving for her life’s work.  

“The finance management and micro-enterprise training workshop made me think for the first time about money and resources that go into producing something. I learnt how to cost expenses, and to track profit and loss. It will take practice and time, but I can see how much more careful and aware I have become now.” -Suvarna, master gardener and seed saver

Photo Credit: Vanastree

Kusuma, another woman participant, has also been keeping financial records in order to help inform decisions on how to grow her enterprise of bamboo curios (earrings and things).


Growth and Leadership at Home and in Community

One of the most important things we believe at WEA is the power of women to become influential leaders in their communities. Our Seeds of Resilience training included a leadership workshop that was organized and facilitated  by Vanastree. After leaving the workshop, the women participants had a new understanding of what characteristics make up a leader:

“A leader is someone who is capable of listening to everyone’s joys and sorrows, melding it together, and taking people forward as one group, hands entwined.” -Vinoda Naik, woman farmer and trainee

“A leader is someone who inspires courage in people, gets them to boldly cross thresholds they have not crossed before…who wants progress for all, regardless of their caste or religion.” -Vasumati Bhat, woman farmer and trainee

In fact, one of the most powerful drivers emerging from this project is that although the women enjoy their time in their gardens, growing various things and sharing what they grow and learn in their communities, they have become even more motivated by the leadership skills they have acquired and wish to share with other women.

One woman, Gayathri, who grows a lot of vegetables in her home garden, told our partner — “I never left my home alone”. Her daughter did brilliantly in her high school and was admitted to an engineering college 100km away. Post-leadership workshop, Gayathri felt empowered to be solely responsible for accompanying her daughter to this new town, pay her daughter’s college fees, find and settle her daughter into a hostel, and then return home.  She said “If you told me this last year…that I could do this… I would not have believed it!”

Photo Credit: Vanastree

We are so excited to how these women grow their seed businesses and home gardens.  We also want to say a big thank you to our partner Vanastree for all the amazing work they are doing in this region!

For more on WEA’s work with women farmers in India, visit our Seeds of Resilience Project.

[In the News] Farmer suicides: A call to climate action for India

Project: Planting Seeds of Resilience in Southern India

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In a recent article by Suresh Babu of the International Food Policy Research Institute, Babu points out that “As both a contributor to climate change and a victim of its impacts, agriculture needs to become climate resilient. This direct connection between climate change and agriculture is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in India, where recent research has shown climate change as the key contributing factor to the suicides of more than 60,000 farmers.” 

For WEA, this shocking number and what it reveals about climate change and its deep impacts on smallholder farmers hits close to home. From 2014-2015 alone, farmer suicides across India increased by over 40% — from 5,650 to over 8,000. However, it’s Karnataka State in Southern India, where WEA’s Seeds of Resilience Project is based, that has seen the sharpest jump — from 321 in 2014 to more than 1,300 in 2015, the third-highest among all states.

So, what is the connection between climate change and farmer suicides?

Photo: Vanastree

As many other countries, India has borne the brunt of climate impacts, seeing increased flooding, variability in rainfall, extreme heat, and vulnerability to more severe storms. Especially for small-scale farmers, the risks become clearer, and more dangerous, with each passing year.

Failing to address India’s climate change can spell trouble for many smallholders who continue to depend on rainfed agriculture. To save farmers lives and livelihoods, making Indian agriculture climate-resilient must be a priority next step…

Empowering farmers to become financially independent will prove another key step toward [climate] resilience. Currently, farmers are trapped in a cycle of seeking out loans from high-interest money lenders. By making institutional credit available at affordable rates, farmers can avoid debt traps.

Further complicating the financial prospects of agriculturalists, government compensation policies seem to work against the farmers’ best interests. In a morbid sense, the compensation in the case of death of a farmer is seen as a route for farmers’ families to get out of debt. The money distributed to the farmer’s family is often used to pay off the predatory loans, to keep the farm afloat. This distressing cycle of debt further leaves farmers and their families most vulnerable to future climate-induced shock.

This crisis reinforces the need for community-driven solutions, not just to climate change, but to agricultural development and land ownership as well. WEA’s Seeds of Resilience Project aims to support the sustained organizing and capacity building of small-scale women farmers to preserve traditional agricultural knowledge, promote indigenous seed saving practices, support climate adaptation and mitigation through the cultivation of climate-resilient crops, and further the rights of women farmers.

For more on WEA’s work to support small-scale women farmers in India, visit our Seeds of Resilience Project.

Together for H2OPE Project launches storytelling workshop

Project: Together for H2OPE

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Here at WEA, a core component of each of our projects aims to encourage our partners to create and collect compelling emotional stories that help to link the women-driven, environmental work they do with our collective global community. These stories — told and shared by the women who experience them — ultimately strive to educate and inspire, change attitudes and behaviors, and can even be a call to action for critical movements supporting women’s leadership, land rights, climate change, and strong and healthy communities.

We’re excited to share with you a recent update from the launch of the storytelling component of our Together for H2OPE Project in Assam, India. Together for H2OPE, a partnership of WEA, Numi Foundation, Chamong Tea Company and local NGO partners such as Purva Bharati Educational Trust (PBET), aims to ensure clean and safe drinking water to all 6,500 residents of India’s largest organic, Fair Trade tea community, for generations to come.

Last month, our Together for H2OPE team invited Nassif Ahmed, a local cameraman and filmmaker, to the Tonganagaon Tea Estate to lead a digital photography and storytelling workshop for community members. This 3-day workshop focused on training participants in how to handle the technical aspects of cameras as well as some technical photographing principles such as the rule of thirds. Nassif also showed participants how to use their own smartphones creatively, since they can often be less intimidating to subjects and are easily accessible. 

Nassif was joined by fellow trainer Banamallika Choudhury (Mamu), who led discussions during the workshop on taking a feminist approach to digital storytelling. Together, Mamu and Nassif teamed up to lead demonstrations and exercises which allowed participants to gets hands-on experience and support with the skills they learned. In one such exercise, participants spread out over the tea garden to take photos that they then presented to the group along with the story they hoped their photos conveyed. Nassif and Mamu were then able to provide constructive feedback on ways to improve both photos and stories so that it truly conveyed the narrative and experience participants were “shooting” for.

We’re honored to have had Nassif and Mamu lead this important training, and look forward to the photos and stories that Tonganagaon residents are able to share with their new skills.

Thank you to the entire Together for H2OPE team for all you do, and to Nassif and Mamu for sharing your knowledge and expertise!

To learn more about the Together for H2OPE Project, please visit our project page.

Together for H2OPE begins training community leaders in WASH

Project: Together for H2OPE

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Our Together for H2OPE: India Project team  — led by implementing partner Purva Bharati Educational Trust (PBET) — recently brought together a group of community leaders and volunteers from the Tonganagaon Tea Estate to build good practices in water management, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) through demonstrations, home visits, and educational events. The goal of this “Training of Trainers” (ToT) program is to give these volunteers the background knowledge, skills and experience that would be helpful to them as they go on to provide training and technical assistance to members of their community.

One of the primary activities of the ToT was the Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) activity facilitated by a water expert from the Public Health Engineering Department (PHED). The activity asked participants to draw a map of the tea estate using different colors to represent different areas (e.g. roadside, temple, etc.) and highlighting where open defecation still occurs — an ongoing and complex issue in India. The water expert then led a discussion of where this fecal matter goes and how it travels, and participants were able to make the connection that some of it might even flow into the food they eat and water they drink.

It’s been incredible to support these community leaders as they step into their new roles as trainers, growing their own commitment to providing their families and neighbors with critical information on access and practices to ensure safe and clean water.

In addition to the CLTS activity, the ToT phase of our Together for H2OPE Project also included a trip for these emerging trainers to Digboi College. There, they were able to view water samples under a microscope, learn the more technical aspects of safe versus contaminated water, and solidify their awareness about the water their tea community consumes and where it comes from.

We look forward to seeing these leaders implement their new training skills as they share their knowledge and expertise with other members of the Tonganagaon Tea Estate. This is truly a community-led efforts, and we are honored to be a part of it!

To learn more about our H2OPE project, please visit our project page.

WEAre Together for H2OPE: How Tea Saved a Village

Project: Together for H2OPE

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In the Spring of 2016, Numi Foundation and WEA launched the Together for H2OPE Project, an innovative partnership to ensure clean, safe drinking water to the 6,500 residents of the Tonganagaon tea community in Northern Assam, India. Since its launch, our project team on the ground has been busy building partnerships, hosting capacity building and leadership trainings for community members around water, sanitation and hygiene, and growing our own knowledge about the challenges and needs of women and families in the tea community.

In this blog post featuring Project Partner Numi Foundation, blogger Hannah Theisen invites you on a journey to the Tonganagaon tea estate (the largest Fair Trade tea estate in India) to learn more about the history of this once-struggling tea community, and how a little bit of “H2OPE” allowed it — and the thousands of men, women and children who rely on it for income — to thrive.

Photo: Hannah Thiesen

It’s a monumental task, and one that would be impossible to tackle without partners willing to pay a fair price for the tea the estate produces. Companies like Numi, who pay fair trade prices for each kilo of Tonganagaon tea, have provided much of the funds used to improve standards of living in Tonganagaon’s villages with items like cooking stoves and other household goods (Numi alone has contributed more than $100,000 in fair trade premiums to-date in Assam). Numi and Chamong’s partnership on the Together for H2OPE campaign is a beautiful example of the change that happens when both producer and consumer care about the people behind a product.

Before I visited Tonganagaon Tea Estate, I wasn’t sure exactly what story I wanted to tell… Little did I know that the story that would inspire me the most was learning about how tea “saved” a village, and how companies like Chamong and Numi are making unconventional business decisions that put people’s lives before easy profits.

Read the full blog post here, and for more information on the Together for H2OPE Project, visit our project page.