From The Fields : From seed to root

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By Melinda Kramer and Amira Diamond
We have just returned from our India Women and Agriculture Learning Exchange.
This rich and informative tour through Northern India brought 14 women practitioners and advocates in agriculture and food systems to the frontlines of India’s sustainable agriculture movement.As we journeyed through the vast and diverse country, we observed time and time again the vital yet under-recognized role that women farmers play in India’s food and agriculture sector. Although we are well familiar with the jarring statistic that more than 84% of women in India are involved in agricultural activities, we were reminded with each visit that women truly are central to the world’s food production. In each village we visited, we heard women describe the importance of accessing the training, capital, market opportunities, and moral support they need to ensure the health and sustainability of their communities.
4078907359_5a8c7e98c3_oThroughout the journey, we heard a very clear theme:

Women need greater connection with practitioner and information networks, as well as access to marketing support, appropriate technologies, capital, and business development training. Although there is a growing movement of women change agents and the visionary men who stand as their allies, women’s efforts remain largely isolated and underserved.

Amidst the challenges, we observed countless stories of triumph and courage. From village to village, women are upholding the knowledge of traditional agriculture techniques, saving seeds, launching advocacy campaigns, creating cooperatives, and modeling the solutions.
Our vision for the Women and Agriculture Initiative is infused with the spirit of these women’s successes, and we hope to play a meaningful role in connecting resources to needs in this burgeoning movement.
4078906693_91b434734d_oWe now enter the Learning Exchange Assessment phase of our work.  We will work as a group to synthesize the challenges and needs we saw, heard and witnessed on our trip.  We will then prepare an outline of capacity-building training programs and advocacy projects that work to address those needs.  We’ll keep you posted as the vision unfolds…

amira3_thumb[2] MK_thumb[8] Melinda Kramer and Amira Diamond are Co-Directors of Women’s Earth Alliance.  You can read more about them and what they’ve been involved with before WEA on our website.

More pictures from the trip can be found on our Flickr page.
This is the final post of our series entitled From The Fields which followed WEA’s Women and Agriculture delegation on their 10 day journey through Northern India. Read more about this initiative here.

Do you want to support our work in India and sustainable agriculture?  Donate today.

Join us! Joanna Macy and more on Tues, 11/10/09

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We’ve just returned from our 10 day journey through Northern India where we launched our Women and Agriculture Initiative (we blogged about it – take a look)!  Coming soon are pictures, a summary of the lessons we learned, and our next steps.  So stay tuned for that.  In the meantime…

Join us this coming Tuesday, November 10 for an energizing and  dynamic evening here at the David Brower Center.  It’s the last event in our WEAving the Worlds – Coming Up from the Roots event series (click here to learn about the first two events).  And it promises to be inspiring and fun.

Starting at 6:30pm : Eco-Art and Urban Farm Reception

Start the evening with a dynamic reception presented in partnership with Art in Action and CommuniTree, featuring sustainable agriculture and community resiliency projects including Green Media Arts Center, the first green arts and media center for low income youth in the Bay Area, along with live music provided by master kora player Youssoupha Sidibe.


Starting at 8:00pm : Amira Diamond and Joanna Macy

Amira Diamond, WEA’s Co-Director will report on WEA’s Fall 2009 India Women and Agriculture Learning Exchange.  She’ll tell us first-hand stories about women on the front lines of India’s sustainable agriculture movement; we’ll learn about communities creating resiliency through art and healthy solutions to our local and global food crises, and we will enjoy an artistic performance by Art in Action and CommuniTree.  Finally, we will experience the wisdom of Joanna Macy.


Event details:

Reception 6:30pm, Program 8:00pm

David Brower Center, Goldman Theater

2150 Allston Way, Berkeley CA 94704

$15 in advance, $18 at the door

Purchase tickets here.  Activist tickets are available!

All proceeds to benefit Women’s Earth Alliance and CommuniTree.

Special thanks to our Promotional Partners Earth Island Institute, Young Women Social Entrepreneurs, Global Exchange, Global Fund for Women, HUB Bay Area, and Sacred Land Film Project.

And thanks to our event sponsors and Back to Earth Organic Catering!

From The Fields : Spice Girls and Water Harvesting Women: A Gandhian Legacy

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By Blue Baldwin


In the remote reaches of the Thar Desert, where the bustle and noise of Rajasthan’s blue hued city of Jodhpur fades and disappears into the sand, far beyond the sandstone mines at the outskirts of the city, Gramin Vikas Vigyan Samiti, a.k.a. GRAVIS, and otherwise known as Center of People’s Science for Rural Development, is hard at work. From opium addiction to food insecurity, from maternal and child mortality to lack of access to drinking water, GRAVIS addresses a broad spectrum of challenges and works with communities to find solutions.


We are blessed with the opportunity to get to know GRAVIS through the eyes of its co-founder, Shashi Tyagi, who alongside her late husband, has worked since 1981 to create an entity that now reaches 900 remote village communities throughout Rajasthan and beyond. GRAVIS addresses health education and literacy with a special emphasis on girls; facilitates agriculture, water conservation, forestry, and animal husbandry projects; advocates for the elderly and women and children; and provides emergency assistance in times of catastrophe. It does all of this via a community-based, holistic approach rooted deeply in the Gandhian principles of Sarvodaya, which means “all rising, but the last person’s first” and Gram Swarajya, or village self-rule.


Our group of 14 mounted our trusty bus an d headed off to visit one of GRAVIS’s rural training centers about 90 minutes outside Jodhpur. Along the way we put into practice our now well honed bus riding skills, effortlessly surfing the bun-lifting bumps in the road and simultaneously engaging in a rigorous Q & A session with Shashi-Ji about GRAVIS. Upon our arrival at the center (the final section of which was traversed on foot as it was deemed too treacherous for the bus), we were served yet another in what is becoming a long line of memorably delicious lunches, this one featuring a dish that rapidly landed the latest top spot in our culinary explorations. It was a local specialty made using from the sacred khejri (not to overlook the ample, hot rice pudding and fresh roti made from millet flour).

With happy hearts and full bellies, the group divided in two in order to indulge our respective interests. Some of us ventured even deeper into the Thar to see some real traditional rainwater harvesting in action, while others toured the training center to witness what is known as the Masala Project in action.

A burly safari jeep ride into the desert landed the rainwater harvesting crew at a place that felt outside of time, a desert homestead. We were greeted in no time by the curious residents and after introducing ourselves launched into a lively chat about the traditional rainwater harvesting method we were standing on, known as a khadin.

 Photo courtesy of
Photo courtesy of


The purpose of a khadin is to promote and retain soil moisture in an agricultural area. A wall-like, masonry structure one to two meters high is constructed at the downstream portion of a natural watershed to prevent water and topspoil from flowing out of the small valley while allowing excess water to overflow. Khadins can be constructed in series, promoting infiltration and topsoil retention on multiple sequential agricultural plots. Simple and elegant, khadins significantly increase the fertility of arable land as well as raise the water table. The family reported that their beri, or traditional percolation well (see photo below), has provided significantly more water since the khadin was constructed and they are now able to share water with their neighbors.
Photo courtesy of
Photo courtesy of


We are delighted to explore and ask questions about our first encounter with traditional rainwater harvesting, as well as to cuddle with a flock of 15 day-old baby sheep the children were proud to share with us. GRAVIS supports the construction of khadins, as well as taankas (passive underground water storage tanks) and nadis (community ponds) in desert communities throughout Rajasthan, which has a massive positive impact on the people living in these rain-starved regions. Women are particularly affected, since the work of collecting water for all the family’s needs falls to them and often involves treks over vast kilometers and hours spent away from home.

Meanwhile, back at the training center, it was all about the spice. Cumin, corriander, tumeric, and chili are processed by local women to sell at market, with infrastructure for processing and business support from GRAVIS. The Masala Project provides women with an economic opportunity in a region with very few options for women in business.

Photo courtesy of
Photo courtesy of


Our time with GRAVIS came to a climactic end when a dance party, complete with live local musicians, spontaneously erupted and both WEA women and new mothers attending a maternal and child health education course shook it with all their hearts and souls on the improvised dance floor, leaving not a doubt in anyone’s mind as to who the real Spice Girls are.

Photo courtesy of

Blue Baldwin currently resides in her home town of Tucson, AZ where rapid population growth and limited water resources are creating exciting opportunities for innovative and holistic resource management practices. She works with Watershed Management Group, a non-profit organization that works collaboratively with government entities and empowers communities in Tucson and around the world to address issues of water management, food security, and sanitation through hands-on, action-oriented, community-based projects utilizing locally available knowledge and resources. After working as a Senior Research Specialist in Ophthalmology, Blue received her Master’s Degree in International Public Health from the University of Arizona and completed her thesis investigating water and sanitation issues and organizing community health care providers in rural villages in Nicaragua. During her time in graduate school, the inextricable relationship between human and environmental health became her primary fixation. She has found her passion and her niche in the world of sustainability and has worked in the fields of natural building materials, socially responsible investing, and water harvesting. Blue strives to be joyfully furious and furiously productive in response to the current state of industrialized agriculture and the privatization of water around the world.
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.
Photo of Shashi Tyagi, courtesy of


From The Fields : Which gulab jamun was your favorite?

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By Deepa Iyres
Cecoedecon – sounds mysterious – is it a recently discovered dinosaur, the Latin name of an indigenous seed, an exotic Indian dish with a strange spelling?
Actually, it is an amazing organization, but let’s talk about what the buzz is really about.

Which gulab jamun was your favorite?
Photo courtesy of
Photo courtesy of

Was it the denser, softer one, or the one with saffron and a crispier skin?

Do you prefer your gulab jamun hot or cold?
These are the highly debated issues on the WEA Learning Exchange. Please feel free to place your vote in the comments.

As an aside, we did visit an organization that is committed to training villagers to train and organize their community members, called Cecoedecon. This organization addresses issues such as community health, agriculture, women’s empowerment, and many others. Their approach is to raise issues with villagers in rural communities in Rajasthan, and support their own process in coming up with local solutions.

After meeting with the directors, we met with a group of about 15 women from surrounding villages. As soon as we sat on the floor with them, there was a playful mood in the air, so we immediately started our gathering with a very silly game called wah. In this game people have to scream loud, raising their arms in the air, and just be silly. We all ended up laughing, and sat back down to begin our introductions and our listening to the women’s stories. These women believed in themselves, and spoke with a hope for a better world and a confidence in themselves that moved some of our group members to tears. To see women who in previous years would not speak up, who were now laughing joyfully, taking positions of leadership, organizing themselves, and designing solutions to their own problems was truly inspiring. They managed to organize a cooperative bank that after a few years now has a loan base of 7.5 million rupees! To end this meeting we, of course, had to exchange song and dance.

Afterwards, we went to an organic farm run by Ram Kissan, an elder gentleman who was very excited about organic farming and about showing us his project. He said that he also trains local farmers on the techniques of vermicompost – building piles of cow manure mixed with dry plants, water, and worms – which after a few months can be added to the farm fields to improve the health of the plants. On his farm, he and the men and women that work with him grow amla (Indian gooseberry), spinach, millet, lemons, eggplants, and more. We had a short amount of time to speak with the women who farmed, but they seemed very excited to show us the plants, and share the lemons and other fruits with us.
After this amazing day, we were invited to dinner at Navina’s aunt’s father-in-law’s house. We were welcomed with amazing rose garlands, tikka, and a delicious meal ending with jelabi, rasgoola, guava…and this really helped to soothe the gulab jamun debate for the moment.
deepa iyer_thumb[2] Deepa Iyer After receiving her education from Brown University in Biology in 2000, Deepa began work as an environmental educator in New Jersey, where she was born. Deepa led students on hikes in the woods, and led pond study with a local watershed organization. At the same time she worked on an organic farm, assisting in the field and with the CSA program. In 2002, she worked at an environmental education and sustainable living center called Slide Ranch, on the coast north of San Francisco. At Slide Ranch she learned about her passion for sustainable food systems, gardening, education, and communal living. She took those passions into the next step, working with three other educators from the ranch to start an educational and cooperative living project in Oakland, CA called sol – sustaining ourselves locally. At sol, they strove to live as lightly on the earth as possible, with an emphasis on food choices, and to share those choices and engage in dialogue about sustainability with youth in our neighborhood, through garden-based activities.
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 : “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.