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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.

First Public Preview of Land and Lens Photographs

Project: Planting Seeds of Resilience in Southern India

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In March, WEA’s Seeds of Resilience Project partner Vanastree, a women farmer’s seed-saving collective in Karnataka State, India, held their first photography training for project participants and community members, kicking off the storytelling component of this work called Land and Lens. This unique initiative supports the project’s ongoing efforts to ensure rural women farmers are equipped with multimedia and storytelling tools that will enable them to tell their stories of seed sovereignty, food sovereignty, and the future they envision for their communities.

We’re thrilled to share this first public preview of photographs taken by project participants trained through Land and Lens.

Showcased in this video is the photography of 9 intergenerational women from rural India — none of them had ever held a professional-level camera before. As part of Land and Lens, each photography student received basic camera training and as many as 3 week-long, self-guided sessions with their donated camera. The photos you see in this video were taken during those independent sessions.

For more information on Land and Lens, visit the official Facebook page for this initiative. For more on the Seeds of Resilience Project, visit our project page.

Call for Donations: technology for storytelling

Project: Planting Seeds of Resilience in Southern India

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Vanastree Ashraya Seva Trust 7

We’re excited to share a new opportunity to support women seed savers and forest home gardeners in the Western Ghats of South India! From February 1-15, WEA will be collecting donated tech equipment that will go toward our work with Vanastree, our partner on the Seeds of Resilience Project, and the women we serve on the ground.

As climatic vulnerabilities increase in the Western Ghats and the pressures of agro-chemical market forces grow, it is particularly critical that women seed leaders and entrepreneurs are equipped to raise their voices and share the inextricably connected narrative of seed and life.

A core part of our work with Vanastree will be training women in multimedia and storytelling tools that will enable them to tell their stories of seed sovereignty, food sovereignty, and the future they envision for their communities. Trainings includes how to use cameras, recording devices, and laptops, as well as how to document their stories in authentic and compelling ways that can be shared with their communities in South India, as well as our communities here in the US. At the end of this project, we hope to be able to hold an exhibit to bring this work to light and support these farmers as they share their stories of transformation with the world.

We are seeking donations of cameras, iPhones, iPod Touches, and Mac laptops. Specifically, we are looking for:

Cameras:

  • Digital DSLR or mirrorless camera bodies with lenses and necessary accessories (especially batteries). Any make or model from 2003 or later.

Hand held devices:

  • iPhones, generation 4 or up, with working photo/audio/video recording. iPhones do not need to be unlocked for international SIM card use, as they won’t be used as phones. However, they do need to be passcode unlocked.
  • iPod Touch, generation 4 or up, with working photo/audio/video recording.

Laptops:

  • Any Mac model laptop (Macbook, Macbook Pro, Air) from 2009 or later.

PLEASE NOTE: Our women partners will not be able to use anything that needs repair, like a cracked screen or a battery that won’t hold a charge. Please wipe all the devices of personal information and make sure nothing is password protected.

If you’d like to make a “Technology for Storytelling” donation, and are in the Berkeley, CA area and would like to drop off your donation, please send us a quick email to coordinate a day and time. Otherwise, all donations can be mailed to WEA at:

Women’s Earth Alliance
The David Brower Center
2150 Allston Way, Ste. 460
Berkeley, CA 94704

 

Celebrating the legacy of Vanastree’s Malnad Mela in Bengaluru

Project: Planting Seeds of Resilience in Southern India

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Last month, WEA’s partner Vanastree held their tenth and final Malnad Mela in Bengaluru, India, closing such a bright chapter of work for this incredible organization. The Mela — a community biodiversity festival where farmers and producers can gather to display and share their produce and creations — has been embraced by the Bengaluru community and as the event grew each year, so did the scope of Vanastree’s engagement. With the Malnad Mela, Vanastree fostered a ripple of conservation in Bengaluru that has grown into a wave sustained by the growing community of local advocates and conservationists.

In anticipation of the final Mela, Nirupama Venkataramanan wrote a wonderful piece on Vanastree in The Economic Times. Ten years ago, she explains, a handful of members of the women-farmer’s collective found themselves traveling over 340 miles from their home base in Sirsi to spend a weekend selling their harvest and spreading the message of seed-saving and traditional farming practices in Bengaluru. A trustee in Bengaluru championed their efforts and the showcase soon developed into a beautiful and bustling annual event.

“Malnad Mela grew to be more than just an exhibition. It was a platform where women farmers could talk about themselves, their land and problems and teach others what they knew. People could buy a variety of products including honey, chips and hair colours. They could eat, listen to stories, learn a thing or two about farming, and sit back to enjoy performances or take part in activities.”

The Bengaluru Malnad Mela provided an opportunity for participants of WEA and Vanastree’s Seeds of Resilience Project to share their message about the importance of small-scale food systems and conserving traditional cultivation practices. These women seed savers and forest home gardeners made presentations to the public and sold the tubers and seeds they’ve learned how to cultivate. For so many years, WEA has been proud and humbled to support the Mela which, as the Seeds of Resilience Project prepares to grow in order to reach even more women, was a beautiful space to honor the community ties that have been built in Bengaluru.  

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The Honneru Youth Network from Chamarajanagar brought soaps and millets to sell at the Mela. The Chamarajanagar region has been hit with a devastating drought this year, so bad that instructors from Vanastree expect to shift the focus of their remaining farming curriculum to deal primarily with how to confront natural disaster.
Vendors present traditional tubers.
This is Veena at the Vanaseed stall which was a run-away hit. Kids and adults packed their tables making crafts with seeds and other natural materials and learning about traditional and native seed saving.

In her open invitation to the Mela, Sunita readily admits they will miss the community they’ve built in Bengaluru; from the head of Golden Bead Montessori School who let them hold the Mela on her school’s grounds for years to the countless customers who visit their stalls each year.

However, it is time, she explained, for Vanastree to focus their efforts on building the scaffolds of support elsewhere. “In the last decade there has been a sort of awakening,” Sunita said of the growing conservation movement in Bengaluru, “and new initiatives have come up along these lines.”

While Vanastree’s presence in Bengaluru is coming to a close, the work they started there is not ending, but will be carried forward in the hands of the Bengaluru community.