At a vipassana course I took years ago, I learnt the difference between making an assumption and gaining true knowledge. When we read something in a book, we assume it’s true; but we can only become knowledgeable through experience. So, even though I write on wellness and was aware of the term biodiversity, I only understood its real impact after visiting author, activist and environmentalist Vandana Shiva’s biodiversity conservation farm, Navdanya, on the outskirts of Dehradun in Uttarakhand.
Spread across 52 acres, this land was earlier a sugarcane and eucalyptus plantation. Today, these commercial crops have been replaced with a heaving abundance of trees, shrubs, creepers, grasses, and herbs. There are approximately 72 species of birds, 5,000 varieties of crops (paddy, wheat, pulses, oil seeds, vegetables, millets) and 78 types of herbs within the farm, not to mention worms, beetles, butterflies, lizards, spiders, and toads, all playing their roles in this diverse landscape. In just an acre-long patch, there are 650 indigenous varieties of paddy.
Even around the residential huts (made with cobwebs, cow dung, straw and clay), mango trees, heavy with fruit, are clustered with other plants so that every inch of land is covered with green.
Lessons in biodiversity
In today’s controlled, sanitised and concretised environment, this wilderness is not just comforting but will also be relevant in the post-pandemic world. While there are many such farms across the country, Navdanya is special because it also has an Earth University, which is an endeavour to educate both farmers and novices like me. As scientists including Shiva have observed, new infectious diseases such as Covid-19, Zika or Ebola have emerged after businesses invaded forests to grow global commodities. An institution such this helps us understand why we need to go back to our roots.
- Taking on the billionaires club: In her latest book Oneness vs the 1%, Shiva takes on tech billionaires such as Bill Gates and Elon Musk ‘whose blindness to the rights of people, and to the destructive impact of their construct of linear progress, have wrought havoc across the world’.
- Social vs. physical distancing: At a time when social distancing and social media are both on the rise, I can’t help but ask what role they have to play in this new world, especially because I heard her say in an interview that she prefers the term physical distancing. “Social distancing means to cut off the umbilical cords that maintain society while physical distancing is merely a measure and is there for a short time,” she says.
Just walking around the farm is educational. I learnt that camphor, neem, turmeric and papaya help in natural pest control. Planting radish helps put nitrogen (essential for plant growth) back into the soil, whereas over-planting the potato depletes the land of this mineral. Paddy is surrounded by a border of ragi (which is taller) to help prevent cross-pollination. And the seeds of the paddy (the farm has about 750 indigenous paddy seeds in the seed bank) are preserved from the very centre of the field, where there is least cross-pollination. Shiva says that 70%-80% of pollinators (such as bees) have disappeared in areas where pesticides are used. “Food is central as we all eat and because industrial food is the biggest damager to our health, our planet, the current system of GMOs and agrochemicals is really putting our farmers on edge. Over 4,00,000 farmers have committed suicide since 1995,” she says.
Changing old habits
“Most of the habits we have today are habits of addiction — we didn’t grow into them, they were forced upon us.” She gives the example of edible oils: “In 1998, we were forced to import genetically-modified soya even though we were the world’s biggest producer of oil seeds then, with the richest diversity and maximum production.” Today, she says, we import 70% of our edible oil needs because of active lobbies. I also learnt that the word ‘consumption’ was initially used for people who had been consumed by tuberculosis. The addiction of buying new things is certainly consuming the modern world, but now that shopping is quite literally at our fingertips, will we be happy with less stuff? I notice the silver rings on Shiva’s fingers, which are all gifted, mostly by indigenous communities. She’s never wanted to change or upgrade them.
The new luxury
Strangely enough, I felt very content at the farm — open for stays for all — even though my phone was tucked away most of the time and my simple room was devoid of the ‘luxuries’ such as a geyser (hot water available from a common tap in the patio). We were cleaning up after meals, filling our bottles when we needed them, and we were eating together in the canteen. Surrounded by nature, with the engaging company of people, eating nutritious food (millets, indigenous rice, freshly-harvested vegetables, local beans and lentils) breathing clean air, listening to the sounds of birds and insects, I didn’t need new things, an internet connection or room service. Could it be that we try to replace nature and community with shopping and smartphones? Perhaps we need to change our definition of luxury.
On my drive back home I looked at the sugarcane fields with new eyes. What was once idyllic now seems barren and industrial without the diverse profusion of plants. I think of what Shiva said moments before we left: “Everyone talks about frontline workers but farmers are care workers because they provide healthcare when they do good farming.” And good farming isn’t about single species or the culture of agrochemicals. It is about multiple varieties of plants, animals and microbes working together to create a healthy ecosystem. If you can’t relate to what I’m saying then maybe you need the experience.
Email earthuniversity@ navdanya.net for upcoming courses and stays.
Vasudha Rai,The Hindu Weekend ’s beauty columnist, has authoredGlow: Indian Foods, Recipes and Rituals for Beauty Inside and Out and blogs atvbeauty.co.