The cool air lifted my hair off the nape of my neck, played with my unruly curls and ushered me forward into the lap of nature that sprawled before me. Standing just inside the wrought-iron gate, I gazed out at the rows of native trees that waved gently in the pre-monsoon breeze, fields of paddy and vegetables, and winding stone paths interspersing that fertile paradise.
Thatched cottages formed a semicircle near the gate, their structure reminding me of yesteryear village homes with simple design, brightly- painted walls, and covered verandas to ward off the summer heat. In the centre, a large octagonal pavilion held up by wooden structures with a thatched roof beckoned to weary travellers and visitors. Beside it was a long low building housing the community kitchen and dining hall, the library, and the main office. Smiling faces, some lined, others youthful and fresh, welcomed me to the pavilion where an earthen pot of steaming tea was placed in my chapped hands.
Thus was my warm welcome to Navdanya, an NGO founded by Vandana Shiva in the quaint city of Dehradun at the foothills of the Garhwal Himalayas. Navdanya (“nine seeds” and “new gift”) is a network of seed keepers and organic farmers across 22 states in India with the aim of promoting biodiversity and returning rights to local farmers. It runs on the principle that conserving seeds is key to conserving biodiversity, culture, sustainable agriculture, and identity. Navdanya, under Vandana Shiva’s strong leadership, has set up over 120 community seed banks and trained over 9,00,000 farmers in organic techniques and seed raising. It was first set up in 1984 as a program under the Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Ecology (RFSTE) under Vandana Shiva, an environmentalist, to allow for support towards environmental activism and food security rights.
The NGO headquarters in Dehradun also house a learning centre called Bija Vidyapeeth (“Seed School” or “Earth University”), where people from all backgrounds interested in locally-grown food produce may learn about the harm in genetically-modified seeds, utilize indigenous farming techniques and seed knowledge, and understand food rights in this age of globalization and a changing climate. Some of the course topics offered at the University (which are open to the public upon applying) include ecofeminism, agroecology, ecological solutions to India’s water crisis, and the history of organic farming, among others. Navdanya celebrates the inherent connection between women and the earth, encouraging women and female farmers to take back their food security and raise their voices.
Vandana Shiva was present in spirit although she was traveling at the time of my visit to Navdanya in May 2014. Her confidence, faith in indigenous farming techniques, and abundant energy were palpable in every volunteer, staff member, and student at Navdanya. A staff member took me to see the seed bank where hundreds of barrels housed more native seed species than even my grandmother could identify. The fresh scent of petrichor – wet dirt – greeted every deep breath I took. A volunteer explained that Navdanya served as a seed bank, offering alternatives to non-native or genetically- modified seeds in the market. With globalization, subsidies have increased tenfold for hybrid rice and wheat grains in India. Shiva and her colleagues argue that India’s native seed species are better- suited to local conditions and more resistant to pests and diseases. They urge farmers to collect their own seeds and store them for later use in order to become self-sufficient and to save money. Navdanya teaches farmers across India the best techniques of saving and storing seeds for later use. The organization has also been campaigning against GMOs since 1991 and has contributed extensively to the Biosafety Protocol and Convention on Biological Diversity.
Navdanya also focuses on the issue of pesticides in food, a critical problem seen across India and most of the globe. Studies by Navdanya’s researchers have shown that over 51 percent of all food products are contaminated with pesticides. The organization has petitioned the government to halt the spread of GMO crops and food products in India and maintains that local produce and organic farming are far better suited for the Indian clime and cuisine. And not only does it promote organic farming; Navdanya pushes for fair trade practices, marketing agricultural produce directly from the farmer to the consumers. Thus far, this venture has been successful in Dehradun and Delhi, with aims of spreading to other states as well.
What struck me most that day at Navdanya was the positivity radiating from all persons on the premises and the clear love and respect that farmers, volunteers, and staff members alike had for the earth and farming. I interacted with volunteers from various backgrounds, with a majority hailing from large cities and seeking a respite from their polluted, noisy homes in the foothills of the Himalayas. Yet what stayed with me was the immense fondness with which they spoke of the earth and soil, the fervour with which they did their small tasks, and their pride and excitement over the sprouting of even a tiny seedling. They spoke knowledgeably about the importance of knowing the source of the food on one’s plate, the health risks associated with pesticide-laced produce, and the plight of farmers across the country. I could sense their willpower; these were people who, having experienced the joys and hardships of farming, were willing to fight for the rights of those who farm for a living. For the volunteers, Navdanya offered a respite from city life, from a nine-to-five desk job, from studying incessantly in the rat-race of education. But for the farmers that Navdanya seeks to empower, the organization is a blessing, an oasis of hope and support in a desert of GMOs, unfair trade practices, and industrial agriculture.
I left Navdanya with a sense of hope, that day. Even the tiniest pair of hands could plant a seed. And even a glimpse of the work at Navdanya was enough to plant the seed of knowledge in my mind.
Now, it was up to me to share what I had learnt and spread the movement forward. Maybe this is what Navdanya means by Earth Democracy.
Author’s Note: Visit http://www.navdanya.org to learn more about their admirable work across India and sign up for their courses.