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Seeds at Navdanya

Two of India’s mightiest and most sacred rivers, the Yamuna and the Ganges, strain towards each other through Doon Valley in the lower Himalaya: their closest meeting point before intersecting at the Triveni Sangam. The air in the mountain-framed valley is full of magic; golden orioles streak through the canopy and, according to local legend, the haunted soul of an unloved daughter calls ‘The mangoes are ready’ when the orchard fruit is ripe for harvest. This lush belt in Uttarakhand state is sustainable development in motion: organic farms and seed banks are spurred on by the tireless work of Dr Vandana Shiva, and over 50 micro, small and medium enterprises in the area have been established – and continue to evolve – in harmony with nature.

But last year, a familiar battle started to play out on the soil of the valley floor. The magnetic draw of industrialisation led the government of Uttarakhand to open its doors to Coca-Cola, a multi-billion multinational that represents everything this state does not. Nevertheless, an agreement was signed in April to allow Coke’s Indian arm, Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Private Limited, to invest ₹600 crore (around £60 million) in a 40-hectare bottling plant in Charba village, Doon Valley, in the hope that a surge in employment and an economic boom would follow.

Charba villagers, whose livelihoods depend on the fertility, moisture and availability of the soil, rallied to protest ‘In a country of milk and curd, Coke and Pepsi is absurd’ and ‘Coca-Cola is poison; it is wreaking havoc on our nation.’ The village community passed a resolution – with 100% consensus – to put a stop to the plant, which would sprawl over an area of the village commons that the community had planted with over 60,000 trees.

Villagers tied sacred threads – or bonds of protection – called rakhis to the Shisham, Kher, Bakkaiyan and Sagwan trees destined to be felled for the plant, echoing the famous Chipko movement in the 1970s that put a stop to logging in the Himalaya. Sacred water was collected from the Yamuna as residents pledged to protect their rivers and the groundwater. For many, many reasons, Coca-Cola is not welcome here.

It may come as no surprise that Dr Vandana Shiva, the well-loved campaigner and activist, has spearheaded the rally against Coca-Cola’s project. Uttarakhand is Dr Shiva’s home state, and Doon Valley the home of her own organic biodiversity farm, Navdanya, where I was staying when news of Coca-Cola’s plans struck.

Navdanya, meaning ‘nine seeds’, is a 40-acre testament to the fact that no land is beyond saving if you’re prepared to invest love, time and patience. Before its transformation, the site hosted 20 acres of sugarcane and eucalyptus – two dangerously thirsty crops that were having a drastic impact on the water table – and a 20-acre mango orchard. All the land was chemically farmed. After just three years and a lot of hard work, the turnaround was complete and a fully operational organic farm fluttered from the chrysalis. During my stay, Dr Shiva explained that even the most barren land can be turned around in five years, and that chemical farming is simply a ‘farming of ignorance’ effected by a farmer’s disconnection from the land.

The irony is that traditional Indian farming relied on a deep spiritual and emotional connection to the earth, and employed some of the most successful agricultural techniques on the planet. In 1889, on being deputed by the Secretary of State to India to advise the imperial government on the state of India’s agriculture, Dr. John Augustus Voelcker reported, ‘I do not share the opinions which have been expressed as to Indian Agriculture being, as a whole, primitive and backward, but I believe that in many parts there is little or nothing that can be improved… I may be bold to say that it is much easier to propose improvements in English agriculture than to make really valuable suggestions for that of India.’ (cited p.26, The Violence of the Green Revolution, Dr Vandana Shiva).

The wrenching of farmer from land was a forced one; the Green Revolution of the 1970s created a dependence on seeds and artificial fertilisers from the west, by those intending to supercharge India’s agricultural productivity and over-satisfy consumer demand. The agrarian crisis that ensued is still being felt – most painfully in areas such as ‘the suicide belt’ in Vidarbha, Maharashtra, where a reported average of 56 farmers per month are driven to take their own lives in the face of insurmountable debts. Imposed farming techniques have rendered land barren and, as the multinational seed companies’ prices (and profits) have sky-rocketed, so have the farmers’ debts. The architects of this movement were driven by the will to maximise yield and profit, with no view to the long-term social – or environmental – costs.

In a country as vast, populous and climatically varied as India, seed diversity is essential – and a monocrop, chemical system that strips away diversity is plain dangerous. Indigenous farmers experimented for centuries to find and cultivate seeds to withstand local climates and conditions, yet this wisdom and connection to the earth has been eroded as traditional farming techniques are consigned to the history books. This at a time when the constant evolution of crops to meet changing climatic conditions is more necessary than ever. Rice is particularly climate-sensitive and must be allowed the freedom to evolve with the land; seeds in Orissa must be resistant to cyclones and flooding, while different characteristics would be required for resilience to the drought-prone soil of central India. Time will tell which traits will be most valuable in the future, but chemical agriculture has already reduced biodiversity to the point where iron and vitamin C deficiency are big problems in India.

This is where Navdanya’s role as biodiversity protector kicks in. The real treasure in this farm is its seed bank; the shed locked away at the back of the farm is home to around 1,500 seed varieties, including 630 different rice cultivars alone. Each seed is organic, and each is available to local farmers who wish to make the transition to organic farming. Over 100 other seed banks have now been established in 17 states across India, and training and support is offered to help farmers move back to the organic system.

Roughly 20 people work full-time on the farm, and there’s a constant stream of volunteers to help with harvesting and planting, as well as tending areas of land including the medicinal herb garden. Roughly half of the seeds from every harvest are saved and replanted to ensure they’re constantly evolving, and the rest are allowed to flourish in order to feed the staff (the food on the farm – from the fresh leaves to the fluffy rice, amaranth chapathis and mixed, seasonal vegetable sabzis – was absolutely delicious) or be sold through stores. I missed the harvesting but was able to help with chana (chickpea) sifting, which meant separating the ‘good’ (for dinner) from the ‘bad’ (for the cows). A meal always tastes better when you’ve worked for it, and the hours invested in ensuring every chickpea was shuffled to its destiny – along with having my eye trained by the expert wives of local farmers – re-affirmed my belief that there’s no such thing as waste.

I asked Dr Shiva about the possibility of upscaling this farming utopia, and how these labour-intensive techniques could be used to satisfy a booming global population that’s hell-bent on consuming beyond its needs. The answer was very simple.’Just do it.’

Don’t farmers need some sort of support to make the transition from chemical to organic farming? How are they supposed to provide for their families in the five years it could take to turn the land around? Her answer made sense. The reality for most farmers is that each harvest plunges them further into debt; if they just stopped what they were doing – immediately – they (and the land) would instantly be better off.

The earth carries a bounty on its head, but it’s not an accurate reflection of the bounty that lies beneath. Dr Shiva believes the ‘financialisation’ of nature should only ever be applied in red light terms, as a way to put a stop to plans that stand to put land and lives at risk. When used as a green light to underwrite the financial viability of development, it’s nothing more than the commodification of the earth – the antithesis of her belief in the five sovereignties of land, seed, food, water and forest.

Dr Shiva is not alone in her belief that, if we continue on our present path (or autobahn), we’re finished. ‘It’s no exaggeration to say we’re on a suicidal path to the extinction of the human species in 50-100 years’, she said. The pure shock of what’s ahead will make us look for demons and scapegoats; ‘We’ll kill ourselves through hatred before we die of hunger.’ She believes the only alternative is enlightenment – which can only be achieved through education and understanding.

From a consumer’s point of view, Dr Shiva believes it’s absolutely vital to know and understand where our food comes from. We are all responsible for the choices we make; true ‘ethical consumerism’ – that trendy phrase that’s bandied round by marketing managers and brands that want to make you feel good about giving them your money – should be about ethics, not flighty purchasing decisions. Without knowing where our food comes from we have no idea how ethically it has been sourced, irrespective of what the packaging might say. Organic certification in India is corruptible, just like everything else, and no substitute for a connection to your local suppliers. ‘Change won’t happen by talking to corrupt people,’ Dr Shiva’s eyes are wise but retain a definite twinkle. ‘They know they’re corrupt – they take the bribe.’

I asked how realistic it is for a modern, increasingly urbanised population to be connected to the source of the food we eat; a recent study by the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) found 19% of five- to eight-year-olds didn’t realise potatoes grow underground, and almost a third of UK primary pupils thought cheese was made from plants. Again, education is the key – and Navdanya’s accommodation of a class of schoolchildren from Delhi was among the most inspiring aspects of my experience on the farm. We organised treasure hunts, showed them where their dinner came from and generally helped keep them entertained in an environment with no phones, TVs or computers. On their last day, I asked whether they’d missed anything from home. They all talked at once. ‘At first, I really missed watching TV’, ‘Yaaar, I didn’t know what to do!’ ‘I would have been playing on my Dad’s iPhone…’ ‘Or computer!’ ‘Ha ha ha!’ ‘But after about two days, we didn’t miss them at all.’ ‘There’s still lots to do…’ ‘Like volleyball!’ ‘Ha ha ha!’

Education will be a deciding factor in the way our consumption patterns evolve. The pace of our mushrooming population’s urbanisation means cities will need to become their own suppliers – and new generations from different environments will need to step into the boots of the traditional farmers that can no longer bear the burden. This localisation will help re-establish the connection between consumption and production, and could solve other issues, too. At the time, Dr Shiva’s team was preparing to visit Greece for a ‘seed drive’, insisting 50% of unemployment could be remedied by a return to organic farming.

A common complaint is that local produce tends to cost more, but that depends on the currency. The true cost of some of the produce we consume is often witnessed thousands of miles away, while our own priorities are immediate: financially and geographically.

Most people that pick up a bottle of coke don’t think about how – or where – it was bottled, and what impact the process had on the local communities and environment. A bottling plant, similar to the one planned for Doon Valley, was built near Plachimada in Kerala, south India in 1999. In 2004, Plachimada’s local officials shut the plant down after local villagers and activists protested that the plant had had a serious impact on the availability and quality of water in the area, by contaminating the ground water.

Despite the fact that the Kerala High Court rejected the pleas of local activists, the village panchayat refused to renew Coca-Cola’s licence, and the plant has remained shut ever since. It was reportedly extracting 510,000 litres of water from the ground every day – and producing one litre of product (along with a large amount of waste water) for every 3.75 litres of water used. This in an area that was already suffering from a lack of rainfall, and a country that is drawing far more underground water than nature is able to replenish.

During my time at Navdanya, Dr Shiva was confident that Coca-Cola’s plans for Uttarakhand would once again be thwarted – and once again by the strength of local opposition and engagement. Paradigms take generations to shift but it has to start somewhere, and small-scale community action is the most obvious first step. ‘We know it will be difficult,’ she leans forwards – half maternal, half twinkling mischief, ‘but that’s no reason not to try.’

Whether the mighty force of industrialisation can run parallel to the wants and needs of local communities – as the Yamuna river flows undisturbed against the flush of the Ganges though Doon Valley – remains to be seen. But as long as true ethical consumerism is alive – the kind of Dr Shiva’s vision, that fiercely defends the land because it understands its connection to those that live on it – even the most powerful multinationals, supplying consumers the world over, will get a run for their money.

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