From The Fields : “Forget not the earth delights to feel your bare feet”

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By Navina Khanna
“and forget not the earth delights to feel your bare feet, and the winds long to play with your hair.” —Kahlil Gibran.
Our hotel is luscious: the Shahpura House, owned and operated by the local maharaja and maharani. Jaipur is full of historical buildings, fantastical palaces and forts, mostly painted pink. The walls of our hotel are marble, decorated with brilliant hand-painted flowers; mirror work covers the courtyard ceiling.
Two hours away in Tilonia is the famous Barefoot College.

Video courtesy of Barefoot College

We traveled there and met Ram Niwas, Barefoot Communicator, who led us to the communications area, where I was stunned to see a room full of people made of puppets. String puppets with wooden heads, giant puppet lanterns, paper mache hand puppets, and multicolored masks, all depicting a diverse array of characters, covered the walls of the room, while 4 men sat on the floor with traditional Rajasthani instruments, including a dholak, harmonium, cymbals, and a ghatam. In addition to the puppets, Barefoot uses silk screen for print media, their video, and low-power community radio to communicate their messages.
Ram introduced Joking Chachaji (uncle), a lively old puppet, dancing to the music. Chachaji asked, “do you know how old I am?” “No,” we replied. “I am 365 years old!”, said Chachaji. “Do you believe me?”, he continued. “No!” we replied. “Ah!” Chachaji chuckled. “You’re right! It is not about age, it is about experience!”

Started in 1972 on the premise that the solutions to rural problems lie within the community, Barefoot College redefines education, offering practical knowledge and skills-training to rural women and men. Barefoot college uses experiential learning as a tool to create “barefoot professionals”: we met a female barefoot dentist who treats local residents for cavities, fillings, and more, and a barefoot doctor who runs a pathology lab. He works with 6 other barefoot doctors, and one doctor who holds a degree in medicine from an accredited institution. Together, they treat people homeopathically, biochemically, and allopathically for a variety of illnesses. We met barefoot carpenters making toys for children, barefoot weavers, sewers, and notebook makers.

As Ram Niwas described to us, at Barefoot College, people are learning from each other, and in the village, people are learning from puppets. The puppets discuss important issues, including the caste system, bribery, water harvesting, children’s rights, and women’s empowerment. The cast of characters included a policeman to help demystify corruption, educated people and poor people, doctors to talk about health and nutrition, and, of course, Chachaji.. Unfortunately, we learned, it is still a struggle for women to be puppeteers, because they cannot travel at night, and because they always have to keep their faces covered. The puppeteers deal with it by having Bua (aunt), a female puppet, talk about issues of women’s empowerment.

During our visit with the puppets, Ram Niwas was asked to describe major changes that he’s seen because of their work. His face lit up as he told the story of Chachaji’s visit to a village several years ago, to meet with a group of laboring women. Chachaji asked the group, “does anybody know about the minimum wage?” At the time, the minimum wage was Rs 7, but the women were being paid only Rs 2-3 per day for government work.

“You have rights!” Chachaji said. The women began to question their pay, and as they learned, they began to organize. Over time, 700 women laborers came together and approached Barefoot College for help writing a petition. Their case resulted in a landmark Supreme Court ruling mandating that the local government fairly compensate workers.
Today, Ram Niwas says, everybody in Rajasthan knows that the minimum wage is Rs 100 ($2.10) per day. We had the fortune, later in the day, to meet the woman who spearheaded these efforts. Nothri is a local heroine, and remains a true advocate for laborers, working side by side with them.

After visiting with Ram and the puppets, we ate a delicious lunch of dal, rice, and cauliflower, all cooked (by men!) using a solar cooker. The parabolic cookers are a work of art, made from broken mirrors tied together with metal that direct the sun towards the stove top, and a used bike gear clock that keeps the reflector in line with the sun. We met a small group of women building the solar cookers – barefoot solar engineers. While the cookers were beautiful, we were left wondering if there might be an easier way to harness the sun that is still culturally appropriate.

Walking around the campus, we encountered a group of women from Cameroon sitting outside, and we entered a classroom filled with women representing villages across Africa. In Tilonia to learn how to construct and repair solar lamps, these women are 1/3 of the way through a six month training. They smiled broadly, confident that they will be welcomed as heroines when they return home, bringing the first electricity to their villages – and thus allowing people to increase their income by working at night, children to finish their homework, and women to safely travel outside. Within minutes, the room was abuzz with members of our delegation having conversations with this other group of delegates in French, English, Hindi, Swahili, and Portuguese.

I was reminded of the experience and knowledge held within our group, listening to the many languages that we speak, and the unique perspective that each of us brings to the delegation. In these final days of our learning exchange, we step back with open hearts and minds to the present moment of this experience. Each of us is on a personal journey that will deeply impact the work that we do in the world, whatever and wherever that may be.
Navina Khanna

Navina Khanna is a community organizer committed to transforming the food system into one that is ecologically and socially just. She has spent over ten years working toward food systems reform as an educator, organizer, and advocate, and has trained dozens of parents, teachers, and teenagers to organize their own communities for food justice. Her work has included implementing programs to increase low-income families’ access to affordable, fresh, healthy foods, working and teaching on traditional and organic farms in India and the US, teaching youth about ecology and ecological restoration, and most recently, organizing community residents to develop a plan for citywide food systems reform with the HOPE Collaborative (Health for Oakland’s People and Environment). Navina has an MS in International Agricultural Development from UC Davis, where she developed curriculum for the first undergraduate major in sustainable agriculture and food systems at a Land-Grant University. She is also a certified Vinyasa yoga teacher and permaculturalist, and loves to play outside. Navina is currently building a movement with young people across the US to shape a radically different food system through policy and practice.
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 : Intrigued and well-fed in Punjab

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By Rucha Chitnis
We wake up in Ludhiana.

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It’s day 3 of WEA’s India Women and Agriculture Initiative. We are 14 women, transplants from different parts of the world, who have a deep sense of reverence for land, food cultures and the sanctity of our food systems. We find ourselves transported to Punjab, the land of 5 rivers, blessed with one of the most fertile soils in the world. These life-sustaining soils, we are told by many sustainable agriculture practitioners, are hurting by the unbridled use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers employed during the Green Revolution.Today is yet another rich day of lively interactions and meetings with women and men in Punjab who are leaders of of sustainable agriculture movement and food processing in this great state. Our first stop is at the Central Institute of Post Harvest Engineering and Technology (CIPHET). CIPHET provides training, particularly to women farmers, in food processing and value added farm products.

 

We are introduced to many women who have traveled long distances from surrounding villages to meet Team WEA. They are here to share their journeys in seeking self employment in the food processing business. The women are involved in milk processing, production of pickles, squashes, jams, jellies, chemical-free detergents, bee-keeping and designing beautiful candles, among other things. Many of them have received loans, training and encouragement from CIPHET to stand on their own feet and breathe life into their local economies.  “Why should only multi-nationals make these products when women can make them in their own kitchens,” an audience member states bluntly.

One woman called Jyoti Sharma shares that she dedicates much of her time meeting and organizing local women and listening to their needs and priorities. She says her dream is to have a resource center in every village where women can find information and tools on starting businesses and learn about groups and networks like CIPHET and WEA. Some of the questions the women ask us delve into responsible management of waste and expanding their businesses locally and overseas. WEA delegates share their personal thoughts and reflections that include setting example for sustainable living by starting from home to the community, focusing on local food systems and economies and the importance of women’s alliances and networks. There is a real potential here for groups like CIPHET and others to encourage local women entrepreneurs, like these, to take the lead to produce organic value added foods. The meeting ends with a photo session, laughs, warm hugs and personal exchanges.

Our next stop is at the Punjab National Bank’s Farmers Training Center (PNB) in Fatehgarh Sahib District. We see the training facilities here that include computer literacy, vocational training classes for women and workshops to boost agriculture production. Training is also given to farmers to diversify their crop production—vegetable farming, fruit production, processing of fruits and vegetables, floriculture for no charge. We meet a group of young women who are in a 4-month tailoring workshop who have made beautiful embroidery. Many of these girls want to leave the farms
behind to pursue a career in hair and beauty salons and tailoring.

Farming, we hear, is considered an unsuitable livelihood for women to engage in. This sentiment, it appears, is echoed quite widely in Punjab, and farming is considered largely a man’s domain. We are intrigued and puzzled by this, because we know that across India women are the backbone of the local food systems. I wondered if in Punjab, in particular, there are social taboos around women farming. I also wondered if groups like PNB offered special incentives and training opportunities targeted for women to have viable livelihoods as farmers? Many of us feel this needs to be explored further.

Our next stop is at a vermiculture training center. We meet Dr. Sarbjit Singh, Chief Agriculture Officer at Fatehgarh, who is a passionate advocate of organic farming. Many farmers, including women, receive training on bio composting here.
“Every family farm should use organic manure and produce healthy food for themselves and their livelihood,” he says.

His dream is to ensure that every farmer in his district is aware of the benefits and possibilities of organic farming. The day ends in the warm home at an organic farm in Fatehgarh. We are served a divine meal of piping hot kadhi, matter paneer, rotis and lassi—the staple of every Punjabi home. Every bit is organic. Every bite is exquisite. The flavors are rich and the legendary Punjabi hospitality unforgettable.
Rucha Chitnis_thumb[2] Rucha Chitnis is the former Director of Programs and Development at One World Children’s Fund, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that networks resources to community-based organizations in Asia, Africa and the Americas that are investing in the dignity and long-term well being of children and their caregivers. She is passionate about developing OWCF’s Champion Model that creates a structure through which individuals and communities in the US can build respectful partnerships with grassroots groups around the world and spotlight opportunities to make a difference.
Rucha was born and raised all over India. She has a masters degree in Journalism from Ohio University and a masters degree in Sociology from Mumbai University. She serves on the board of Grantmakers Without Borders, a philanthropic network dedicated to increasing funding for international social justice and environmental sustainability initiatives. She is also an advisor to the Nirvanavan Foundation in Rajasthan, India, that promotes children’s human rights and initiates literacy programs for children from vulnerable communities. Rucha would like to believe that she is a respectable birder and an amateur photographer.
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 : 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.
Corinne_thumb[3]

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.

AngelaSevin_thumb[7]

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…

TemraCosta_thumb

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.