India: Peasant Agroecological practices (ZBNF) are advancing the struggle for Food Sovereignty

GT Sujatha and her husband M Jagadish run a four-acre farm that is ten years old, just shy of the Tamil Nadu border in Karnataka’s Gottigehalli village. A decade ago, pushed by fear of the health hazards associated with chemical pesticides and fertilisers, Sujatha adopted natural farming, an approach that works with the natural biodiversity of a region, without using any external inputs.

The photographer Soumya Sankar Bose visited Sujatha’s farm in early 2020 to document the role of agroecology, or natural farming, in organising and empowering independent women farmers to gain control over land rights in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. Bose primarily looked at three organisations—the Amrita Bhoomi Agroecology School and Nisarga Nisargaka Savayava Krushikara Sangha, both in Karnataka, and the Rural Environment and Development Society in Andhra Pradesh.

“Ours is a mini world,” Jagadish told Soumya. “There are maybe more than two hundred varieties [of crops] growing on our plot.” The abundance of bananas, coconuts, guavas, jackfruit, sweet potatoes, pulses, lemons and experimentally planted coffee is immediately visible. Chickens and goats roam freely amid the thickets. Like other women farmers, Sujatha manages a majority of the work on the farm alongside household work. Ever since she attended a skill-based workshop organised by the state government she now also makes and sells finger millet malt, which is marketed on WhatsApp, alongside other farm produce and livestock such as sheep and goat.

The move to market over WhatsApp has helped, particularly during the pandemic and during a strike of transportation workers in Karnataka in April 2021. Physical markets were closed and WhatsApp allowed Jagadish and Sujatha to reach out to potential customers. These customers were mostly friends, relatives or admirers of their agricultural practices, who visited their farm to buy fresh produce.

“You won’t believe, many of them came on their own interest, from Bangalore,” Jagadish told Soumya. “They come across, buy things, share things, some of them give other varieties of seeds which we have not come across, some give plants, some they give us literature—books which are interesting for us and which help in making our agriculture more productive and colourful. The pandemic has taught us to be more self-reliant.”

Sujatha and Jagadish are part of a generation of farmers in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh who have joined a global farming movement that rejects chemical fertilisers and pesticides in lieu of natural farming. Their rejection was caused by, and helped overcome, challenges posed to small and marginal farmers by the chemical commercialisation of agriculture, heralded by the Green Revolution in India and similar pressures abroad. The Green Revolution’s farming techniques were heavily dependent on purchased external inputs such as hybrid seeds, chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Relying largely on the inputs they have on hand; these women farmers have seen their yield and incomes increase.

The Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha is among a wave of farmers’ movements that emerged during the late 1970s and early 1980s in India as a response to the Green Revolution. From its early days, the KRRS recognised the international causes of local struggles. An essay by the scholar Niloshree Bhattacharya, an assistant professor at Presidency University in Kolkata, describes how in the early 1990s, KRRS’s charismatic leader M D Nanjundaswamy led the organisation in several anti-globalisation protests.

In 1992, for example, the KRRS led the nationwide Beej Satyagraha or Seed Freedom movement, and attacked the Bengaluru office of Cargill Seeds India Ltd., an agribusiness multinational corporation. They also tied themselves to farmers’ groups in both the West and in Asia, Africa and Latin America during these struggles. In 1998, for example, the KRRS launched a global campaign called Operation Cremate Monsanto and farmers’ movements from France and Indonesia joined it in burning Monsanto’s GM seeds in field trials. The KRRS’s struggle was quick to catch the public eye. In 1999, the KRRS organised an event called the Intercontinental Caravan, involving 400 farmers from India, along with representatives from other movements, who travelled across Europe and staged protests at different sites, with slogans such as “our resistance is as transnational as capital.”

The 1990s saw fervent farmers’ agitations across the globe, most emblematically defined by the La Via Campesina movement. In an essay on the movement, the scholar Annette Aurélie Desmarais, and Paul Nicholson, a founding member of Via Campesina, recount how the movement was formally constituted in April 1993, mere months before the finalisation of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade that reduced tariffs of food and agricultural products. Organisations representing peasants, small farmers, indigenous peoples and farm workers from the Americas, Asia, Europe and Africa understood that the GATT, along with the creation of the World Trade Organization, represented a profound shift away from more controlled national economies to an almost exclusively market-driven global economy.

The farmers’ organisations that formed Via Campesina argued that the further entrenchment of neoliberalism would spur national governments to continue to dismantle agrarian structures and programmes that peasants and farmers had won after years of struggle—the very ones that helped ensure the viability of small-scale farming, promote production for domestic consumption and contribute to national food security. In 1996, KRRS joined Via Campesina.

In the mid 1990s a group of KRRS farmers started a shift away from chemical farming to a system of agriculture called Zero Budget Natural Farming.

ZBNF proposes a grassroots peasant agroecological model, by suggesting methods of chemical-free agriculture. These rely on traditional farming practices that involve zero credit, essential because of the deep links between indebtedness and rural suicides. ZBNF was originally promoted by the Maharashtrian agriculturist Subhash Palekar, who in the early 2000s organised workshops for KRRS. Collectives across Karnataka that Bose visited had adopted ZBNF-inspired broader models of natural farming.

In 2013, Chukki Nanjundaswamy, a leader with the KRRS, founded a school called Amrita Bhoomi in Karnataka’s Chamarajanagar district, which aims to teach farmers from the region agroecology. Amrita Bhoomi offers training based on the farmer-to-farmer approach, centring agroecology, peasant rights, food sovereignty and social justice. Speaking to the online news platform The Citizen, Chukki argued, “Agroecology is more than a set of farming practices; for it to be adopted on a wide scale, indigenous peoples, women, and youth are integral.”

Ashlesha Khadse, a farmers rights activist, told The Caravan that the debt-driven farmers’ suicide epidemic in Karnataka initially affected landed farmers who often belonged to dominant-caste communities that make up a majority of KRRS’s membership. Amrita Bhoomi has also attempted to offer land to Dalit and Adivasi women’s groups at subsidised rates and is experimenting with collective farming. Khadse said that women are becoming the backbone of the natural-farming movement in India.

Via Campesina stresses this too. The movement emphasises how the fight for food sovereignty is essentially a feminist issue, using the term “Popular Peasant Feminism,” to define its collective response to patriarchy and capitalism. It views agroecology not just as a tool to attain food sovereignty, but also one for social justice and gender parity.

In an essay, Elizabeth Mpofu, a Zimbabwean farmer, writer and activist from Via Campesina, describes how agroecology ensures “equal and equitable access to and control over land, water, seeds and other means of production,” while also allowing women to fully engage in the social and political life of the community. “By sharing ideas and knowledge, women gain the capacity to organize and lobby for favorable agricultural policies and to understand how government structures operate,” Mpofu writes.

The emphasis on the collectivisation of women farmers becomes necessary when most farming practices in India are predominantly based on family farming frameworks that organise landholdings to belong to an entire family, as a single unit, and deny individual ownership to women. The overall gendered understanding of land ownership and inheritance is further aggravated by social factors such as caste and class, with women who are unmarried, divorced or widowed being the most vulnerable amongst all social groups.

In a country where over 70 percent of rural women are engaged in agriculture, women control a mere 13.96 per cent of total operational land holdings, out of which only 1.5 per cent is held by women belonging to Scheduled Castes and 1.1 percent by women from Scheduled Tribes, according to the 2015-2016 Agriculture Census. While there has been an increase in women’s control over landholdings from the estimated 12.79 per cent in the 2010-2011 census, Khadse argues that this is driven by an ongoing agrarian crisis, where “the outmigration of men towards more viable livelihood opportunities results in growing labour contribution by women in agriculture.”

Other organisations in Karnataka, too, have shown the centrality of marginalised women’s collectives to the flourishing of natural farming. Nisarga Nisargaka Savayava Krushikara Sangha is a self-sufficient cooperative group in Honnur, in Karnataka’s Chamarajanagar district. NNSKS is made up of landless farmers, tribal farmers, women farmers, and farmers from lower-caste communities. Soumya argues that the adoption of natural farming by such groups and the resultant creation of new economic relations has upturned older stratified social orders such as caste and patriarchy.

Amrita Bhoomi Agroecology School, offers training based on the farmer-to-farmer approach, centring agroecology, peasant rights, food sovereignty and social justice.

The shift to agroecology, though, is not easy. The process of adaptation or transition towards agroecology itself, is a trying process that demands time—sometimes as long as two to three years—along with an initial drop in yield. Khadse argues that this makes state support of farmers’ collectives undergoing the transition, like in Andhra Pradesh, necessary. Khadse said that this also necessitates collectivisation, networking with other farmers’ groups and training programmes like the ones in Amrita Bhoomi. “Natural farming requires a deeper understanding of the processes on the farm as well as the ecosystem, and practice,” she said. “Such type of a repertoire is developed over time and depends on networks with other farms for knowledge sharing and problem solving—this is something that natural farming movement has achieved—via its farmer training processes.”

Despite the challenges, women farmers in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, with little access to credit, land, or commercial seeds, have often turned out to be the strongest advocates of natural farming. Networks of women’s self-help groups have been instrumental in spreading the principles of agroecological farming from village to village in Andhra Pradesh. Today many of them have formed collectives, leasing land that was previously lying fallow.

(This is an edited excerpt of an original story that first appeared on The Caravan Magazine on 05th August 2021. All photographs by Soumya Shankar Bose. Text by Utkarsh/Caravan)