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.
In June, WEA’s Seeds of Resilience project partner, Vanastree, held their 17th Malnad Mela in Sirsi, India. Vanastree has held this festival every year since 2001. The Mela — a community biodiversity festival where farmers and producers can gather to display and share their produce and products — strives to bring awareness to the environmental challenges in the Western Ghats region of India, and highlight the important role of women as ambassadors for food security and seed sovereignty in their local communities.
The Mela is a community affair — bustling and full of action. Highlights from the festival included displays of organic seeds, tubers and diverse planting materials, traditional foods and crafts and even a pickling competition! In addition to the goods and demonstrations available for visitors, Dr. A.R. Vasavi, social anthropologist and founder of Punarchith (a trust based in Chamarajnagar that also partners with Vanastree), also gave a keynote address discussing the critical challenges faced by rural and agricultural communities, especially women.
“It is imperative and urgent that the women of Malnad recognize the wealth that is within their boundaries and their own roles and positions that are tied to this.…At a time when social changes are taking place at a pace far faster than we can comprehend and adapt, it is important that we recognize that seeds are for the wellbeing and future of communities. They are meant to be shared, sold, and exchanged among people and as the Vanastree members have shown us over the years, their place is with and among us as it is in this mela.”
– Dr. Vasavi, founder of Punarchith, giving the keynote address of the Malnad Mela
An exciting addition to the June’s Mela was a photo presentation given by women and youth photographers participating in Land and Lens – the new storytelling component of the Seeds of Resilience project. Land and Lens has three simple goals:
Mentor rural women and youth in advanced camera skills
Encourage participants to fearlessly reveal their land, lives and inherent creativity through the camera lens
Provide rural women and youth with venues, as artists, to share their work.
At the Mela, Land and Lens artists and Vanastree members answered questions and fielded interest in the program, while showcasing their stunning photography of their connection to the lands and environment they live in. For the first time, Vanastree also had select Land and Lens photographers be the official photographers for event.
“Land and Lens…is an extension of [our] mission — in discovering the many talents that individuals in our community did not know they had, and then applying those talents to further enhance and protect the natural and social environment of their home lands.”
– Sunita Rao, founder of Vanastree
Many participants and visitors of Sirsi’s Malnad Mela reported back that this annual festival is about more than just trade; the value of the Malnad Mela each year has been a day of gathering, conversation, seeds, plant and information exchange and an atmosphere of conviviality. This is the sort of thing that has no price tag, and we couldn’t be happier to have been involved!
In March, WEA Project Partner Vanastree held their first photography training session, kicking off a storytelling initiative within our joint Seeds of Resilience Project. This unique storytelling initiative supports the project’s ongoing efforts to ensure seed and food sovereignty and the transfer of traditional knowledge in Karnataka State, India.
In storytelling workshops, participants are gaining skills in multimedia and storytelling to craft and share their own narratives. These women and young people are learning how to use cameras, recording devices, and laptops, as well as how to master effective storytelling and dissemination techniques.
The Vanastree team gathered for three days at the Punarchith Training Centre in Nagavalli village, where Vanastree Director and Project Lead Sunita Rao, and volunteer photographer Batt Anderson, introduced the Punarchith staff to the equipment donated by WEA supporters and partners. The Vanastree and Punarchith team spent the day creating a curriculum to introduce the training participants to photography and ensure they felt comfortable and confident with the equipment.
The next day, seven enthusiastic young women participants had a full day of photography lessons. This was the first time most of the participants had ever handled a camera in their lives. They were excited and ready to explore all of the endless possibilities of this form of self-expression.
Do you remember the first time you saw your world through a new lens?
After a request to let their fears dissolve and imaginations run unbounded, they were off! Participants set out in pairs and threes to try out taking portraits of each other. They took the cameras on a stroll through courtyards with drying areca, forest gardens, quiet dark corners with snoozing grandmothers, and the ancient kitchen where masala majjigay (spiced buttermilk) was being churned in the heat of summer. Participants got to see their photos uploaded onto a laptop and learned more about framing, lighting, and the possibilities of digital editing.
The young women then set out a second time with the cameras that afternoon, this time with some guidelines to pay attention to color, pattern, and texture. Batt accompanied the group to provide guidance and answer questions.
While they uploaded and reviewed their second round of photos, participants discussed how photography could be used to engage in topics such as family, land, water, relationships, feelings, women’s tasks and other pertinent issues. They spent some time talking about how to let their minds and imaginations run free.
When the training weekend ended, the group decided that the equipment would remain at the Punarchith Training Center so that it could be checked out when someone wanted to work on their photography — this way, it was accessible to even more people than we originally anticipated.
Sunita remarked on the great joy and attentiveness the group showed as participants took photos and everyone got to share and discuss each other’s work. Later the women talked about how grateful they felt to be trusted with the equipment and how they had only ever seen cameras in other people’s hands. They celebrated the opportunities that presented themselves now that this remarkable tool was accessible to them, too.
Thank you to all the incredible WEA allies that donated tech equipment to this project and to other WEA projects. We are thrilled to see the results of this first wave of Storytelling trainings, all part of of our larger capacity-building trainings happening in partnerships around the world. The possibilities abound when the agency of women to share their own stories and experiences is respected and honored!
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.
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.
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.