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Monday, January 8, 2018

Aranyaani workers, employees and friends - a constant struggle

Who are our workers, partners in creating our food forests, and in holding this beautiful ecology together?

Before starting on the journey, that question had to be correctly answered. Initially, I did the error of thinking that seed suppliers, credit suppliers, advisors, etc were our partners and farm operators our main workers.

Over time, I have evolved to realize that our frontline workers are honey bees, earthworms, microbes and their likes. Then next in importance come snakes, birds, and other animals, various flora plants. Then came the tribal and other village community around us. Then came our human workers on field.
It was a disturbing thought as I delved deeper. Why? Because no organization can be successful if its most critical workers are scared, stressed and fighting for survival.

That started the Aranyaani project. First task in 2006 was to save a habitat on our farm where a large cobra lived and still lives. That day onwards, our soil, and flora were going to be safe habitats for our non human workers. 

In all neighboring areas, they were being killed by foolish folks, not realizing that our future generations will get wiped out if we don’t save them today.

So our sanctuary became a talk of the woods amongst these creatures. And once they were happy, we were blessed with returns. Each year, birds and monkeys plant more saplings than humanly possible. They will just eat a neem or a Cranberry and many other plants, digest it and spread the seeds like a seedball on the ground.

The earthworms would keep the soil channels open- a job that would take us millions of nano-JCB machine, something that is still not built.
The bees would pollinate, and also yield tones of honey.

All they tell to me that as their organization head, I have to do more –increase into more area and help their community. I cannot explain to them the greed of other humans, the land laws, the consumption factory. But they keep me awake.

Our next line of silent workers is the communities living around. They understand the value of the work, and protect the nature and trees from bad eyes. They suddenly realized that all they knew about plants and animals was actually true, but the vested interests’ driven knowledge and campaign made them believe that a GM wheat was a better option than a few trees in their backyard. And what cost it has come to them at?

They want to get involved more, transform their own fields. So that is another huge task that I owe to my team.

Then come our full time human workers – who constantly work in all seasons. Initially, I had thought and told them that it is all about growing and they should not worry about selling, as the world was too short of our products. Over years, my thought has changed. It is all about what we as humans want to be, and what we want to leave to our children when we depart. As human race, we have more responsibility; so children also mean birds, bees, animals, and plants.

The responsibility also means we do not interfere much. I have seen many greedy folks wanting to use GM saplings or water in odd seasons, not trusting the natural cycle.  

As a rapidly growing organization, it is a huge task to make sure all newcomers and new contacts and customers understand that.

Growing a Food forest on Barren and Rocky lands

In my journey, I encountered a myth that certain types of lands or lands with water were better for human consumption.

Nothing else could have been far from truth. It is a devilish thought that has turned naturally undulating and pristine lands, first into mechanized plains and then into poisonous dustbowls.
As I travelled into interiors of Madhya Pradesh and saw the denuded rocky patches, denuded for mining and left as no good for agricultural purposes, it dawned to me that these were once thriving forests- giving life to small streams that flowed into large rivers.

Once a place for a happy tribal hamlet inside forests, now they were pictures of impoverished, subsistence living.  I took upon that as a challenge, i.e. to convert them into food forests that produce top quality foods.

The first challenge was to bring some life and biomass back to such barren landscapes. The first pawn in our army were the hardy shrubs- often cursed as bad across agri fields. These were Gajar ghas, Besharam, and lantana. We knew they would spring up even here, with a little assistance in monsoons.

Once they sprang, then lots of saplings of Peepal, neem, bel, etc very hardy plants, that could withstand and break rocks, were planted. The shrubs were going to act as temperature controllers and moisture trapping plants for the roots of these hardy saplings.  In addition, there would be a layer of biomass present on the surface.

It took one year for these hardy plants to set up their roots, and be settled for long term. I knew that in a radius of five feet, their roots would be busy finding ways and holding whatever biomass and solid comes around. So in second monsoon, the next set of tree saplings were planted that accelerated the rate of leaves dropping and biomass creation. These were planted just five feet from first set of saplings.

Once these became stable, in next year we came with smaller plants like lemon and cranberry. Toor pulse native breeds that are tall and used to rocky soil, were planted next to all saplings.  Then to accelerate the soil holding process, vetiver was planted everywhere in monsoons.

We had begun the process of breaking the ground underneath and creating soft soil on top.
By fourth year, we had a vibrant system- pleasant enough in summer heat, and with a small layer of biomass present. The plants would support each other in handling cold winters, heat and draining excess rainfall.  So it was time to try lowest layer of forests-  turmeric, dhania, and sweet potatoes, and similar plants.

The result is for all to see. In a quick span of about 4 years, absolute rocky and barren land was converted to thriving food forest.

Making a pond live

India is blessed with ponds. In last 30 years, so many have been made for irrigation and livelihood purposes.

In our ecosystem, we also incorporated ponds – one to get fresh water for bees, animals and birds. (Note- now we don’t believe in ponds as a source of water, as a good idea or investment; for that one needs large trees).

I soon realized the problems with such ponds –
1.       If the sub-soil is not black cotton, it takes many many years, even upto 7 to 10 for the seepages to go away.
2.       Before the seepage gets over, the walls start developing water channels and tunnels. Typically walls need rework before 2nd year, and thereafter.

3.       Most importantly, even after restricting human pollution, the pond is not able to support aquatic life naturally. Even if fed unnaturally from top, the return on fishing is very less, as they have no place to hide for breeding or extreme sun or cold.

Hence, ponds start getting used for commercial crops, but they are not meant for that and don’t hold so much water. So eventually they become a bone of contention amongst farmers. The same story is repeated village after village and pond after pond.

So once we made our private ponds, and discovered the above problems, I started thinking and reading.  God sent many knowledgeable folks to guide.

As a first, step we planted vetiver (khus), kantkari on the sides and top of the walls. That had miraculous effect. The walls stopped eroding with rains and water channels. In addition, the seepage slowed down significantly.

Next step, we planted tap rooted and other trees, roughly 5 to 10 feet away from the walls, all around. It took 2 years to make an observable impact, but seepage was down to a trickle. I knew in an year the soil itself will take care of the remaining seepage.

While following the above step, we planted some moringa, subabool etc on purpose, so that their leaves can become fodder to pond life later on.
Now our two problems were solved or within sight of solution – that of side erosion and of seepage. 

Next we had to work on creating underwater ecosystem.
Surprisingly, after trying many things, the one that worked best was planting Besharam on the sides. It remained green even in summers with little water, and provided shelter and tunnels for the fish to breed. Then alongwith Besharam, we planted Lotus stems.

Earlier, we had tried lotus stems on barren pond but they didn’t succeed. But now alongwith Besharam they did!

These plants also allowed birds and bees to easily drink water. I am optimistic that birds and bees are also giving something back to the pond life.

So we had a water purifying plant also, and that too a commercially costly one. Now we are able to leave fishes in the ponds.

My experiments with Free roaming poultry

My experiments to make free roaming poultry viable and self sustainable, took many failures, and iterations over years:

1st year:
Starting with normal White Legon birds, I started making a 20 x 50 structure for their night safety.  Then a small courtyard of ¼ acre was left open for them to feed.  Then we got the Chicks from a famous poultry business. I didn’t know back then that these were genetically tampered breeds.
In our first iteration, most chicks died. Our error was that we hadn’t given them their full dose of tetracycline and medications. Also we had to buy the feed from the chick supplier, which we didn’t since they were supposed to roam freely and eat.

In short, the breed needed its medications to survive, and heavy corn feed to gain weight. They had to be caged and fed to keep costs under check. Later, we realized that they don’t lay fertile eggs.  The medications had hormones which made them lay eggs daily but could not regenerate chicks.

2nd Year:
We changed the breed to rural ones- Vanaraj and Grampriya. The poultry experts I approached advised against it since their FCR (feed- conversion-ratio) was dismal compared to industrial breeds.
Since then, I have realized the foolishness of such terms.

The birds were roaming freely and eating voraciously, and since we bought the feed, it was a hugely loss making operation. To add to it, they were catching viral infections often on weather change, and sometimes a lot of them died. I continued to remain against the daily anti-biotics, since I could not imagine anyone eating such chemical laced birds.

One bright take away from this cycle was that they were procreating, whenever temperatures were fine.  However, the ratio was almost 1:10 of eggs hatched to eggs where chicks didn’t get formed properly or couldn’t come out. I assumed it was the diet issue. We analysed the unformed chicks to deduce what could have been missing in diet- calcium or proteins or fat.
So three problems had to be handled first: reducing their food cost, reducing their mortality and improving their food quality.

3rd year:
To reduce food cost, we started using cowdung and pits for creating worms. A pit would be made and filled with cowdung. Then, left for 2 weeks for the decomposition.
It was a success as far as cutting down of feed cost was concerned.

To improve food quality, I went on observing what other birds normally ate in that area. There were many Mulberry plantations in forests, in the fields they liked legumes, papaya  leaves and many such plants. Then we started planting them in the yard, in the hope that our birds would eat their leaves and fruits and seeds.

4th year:
Once these plants had attained a few feet height, there was plenty to eat. In addition to the cowdung pits, birds were getting variety and plenty. The results came. Whenever weather favored, they multiplied.

However, the problem of viral remained. By now, I observed another problem. When temperatures soared or dip, the pits dried fast, and the plants also did not have much to give. The birds became thin and distressed.  They wouldn’t breed and younger ones died.
Such cycles were happening even if weather changed quickly.

After much deliberation, we came to the conclusion that temperature and humidity shall remain more steady, if there was enough tree cover. Based on what is good for birds, Neem, Kadamba, Gooler, etc were planted to cover the poultry yard.

5th year:
By now, I had full faith in nature. The trees grew to 6 to 8 feet in one year. That not only solved the temperature fluctuation problem but it also started generating dead leaves, and more worms. Our cow-dung effort was less than halved.  Further, the number of predators also reduced, as the trees cut the line of sight.

In addition, we started experimenting   with natural medicines. After several iterations, a natural mix made of vetiver, neem and moringa, had wonderful effects.  In a period of wide spread flu to birds, our birds did not suffer.

By sixth year, we had various elements in place to call it a success. The FCR pundits may still be unhappy but with free feed and high quality birds, who cares! 

Honey Bee and GM conspiracy : turning the nation hollow

A big puzzle for a natural farmer is to attract honey bees to the farm. They not only provide valuable honey, but also are a vital ecological link to complete the entire cycle.  Yet, due to mindless loss of diversity of flora, and loss of watering places and favorable trees, these vital links to human survival are facing survival stress.

In addition, addition of GM seeds , in even flowering plants and trees, means the entire evolution of honey bees according to a particular ecology, flower sizes, season timings, etc. has gone for a toss. Their natural ways of keeping themselves healthy are no longer possible with GM seeds. A prominent example is proliferation of GM Moringa in many parts of India.

To add to it, in order to exploit the greed and ignorance of small farmers, many organizations have been aggressively promoting BOXED honey bees.  The bees are fed sugar (glucose or fructose) solutions , as there are no flowers around for most part of the year. In addition, like caged birds, these bees are susceptible to diseases and wipe out. Hence the solution is loaded with heavy metal medicines, just like caged poultry is loaded with daily antibiotics.  That usually goes to the honey, via the saliva. The gullible consumers, who believe that honey will provide healing to their health issues, get cheated.

As if that much is not sufficient, the Honey boxes are usually provided with either African or Italian honey bees. The claim is that Indian honey bees, like Indian breed cows or birds, are more aggressive, and have low conversion ratio.

It is conveniently overlooked that our honey bees and the flora have taken tens of millions of years of evolution in these conditions, once Indian subcontinent was separated from African continent.  Honey bee is too critical a link in ecology as pollination of many trees and plants depends on them. Changing this link with alternate links is akin to bringing all the natural ecology into a distress. Then provide solution to that stress by providing GM plants and tree stems. Hence, I have termed it a conspiracy.

On the solution side, as a natural farmer, the puzzle faced is to make sure the farms attract honey bees of prominent varieties. 

We narrowed down the problem to these factors:      
    1.   We needed large trees that honey bees prefer to build their combs on. These are typically Peepal, Semal, Gooler, etc. There is some property in them, probably CAM photosysthesis, and water retention , that attracts honey bees to make them the host.

-        2.   Flowers of different varieties, twelve month long. It would allow feeding and healthy activity to them for the entire year.

-          3. Flowers of different sizes, as different variety of bees e.g. Apis Florea , have different preferences. 
-          An intelligent natural mix of flowering trees and plants, so that bees remain healthy. For example, it is thought that Marigold is an excellent provider of medicines to bees.

We have combined the above elements in the food forest to get excellent results.  It takes 2 years to attract the first honey bees, once the large tree saplings start crossing 3 feet.

I have been amazed that they find their way to a favorable ecosystem, supposedly informed by a voice of the nature, about it.

Thereafter, it is a constant flux. One day, probably 4 years into it, the ecosystem will be ready to host their colonies. That is the day of delight for a natural farmer because then one knows, the ecology has turned the corner for good.


The Hollow tree of the great Ayurveda

Ayurveda, a great gift by our civilization, has been beaten hollow. What one sees in the markets and television ads, makes one feel that it is resurgent and thriving.

Unfortunately, in the very times of its dire need, it is fighting a battle for survival.

Ayurveda evolved when humans were one with nature, there were abundant forests, and herbs and medicinal plants grew commonplace.  Today, not only has the quantity of such herbs and medicinal plants reduced, we have even lost a huge chunk of bio-diversity. Even honey is now not produced by bees on natural flowers, but by Boxed non-native bees using fed liquids.

On the other hand, human population has exploded.

So how has Ayurveda got new feet.  There are companies and products everywhere, promoted by famous personalities. The products are complex preparations with more complex names. That perplexed me as in all my understanding,  Ayurveda was quite simple, made of simple yet very effective suggestions and a way of life. No one was telling about raw Giloy or turmeric, but almost an allopathic or western composition of extracts, juices and tablets.

There lies the secret. The simplicity of Ayurveda had been hijacked by complexity of marketing, product preparations, dilutions and names. What we have in hand is a nutracetical style model that suits everyone but doesn’t benefit the patients.  

The governments do not have an answer to escalating medical costs or to depleting sphere of our herbs and medicinal plants- the very base of Ayurveda.

We will have to make up now and change the consumption and link it to natural products, before it is too late.

Transfer of wealth: Education, Health and Consumption conspiracy

One day, many years back, I decided to teach the children of my tribal village. I had been living there in the forest village for years now, and had learnt a lot from them. So I decided to share what I knew, starting with children who were 10 years or more.

Their curriculum sounded familiar- it almost matched what I had studied in school 30 years back: similar history, geography and maths.  I was happy to teach them everything I knew. Slowly I started interacting with more senior students- almost All of them were either graduating in political science or nursing, since these were the two courses easily available in nearby colleges.

One day, many of our cows and many villagers too, had a flu. It was natural at the change of weather.  However, there was a distinct pattern of behavior – the younger ones went to nearby Sohagpur clinic, while older ones came to our farm (since we had lots of herbs and natural flora), and after some discussion with me, took Vetiver, neem and Tulsi. Same were given to animals.

By morning the latter group was fine but the younger ones were still on pills.

That changed the direction of my interaction with young ones. Over time, I realized that the educated ones knew when Haldi ghati wars were fought or the map of the state, but had no clue about how to tend to animals, or regenerate the plants in their backyard or in forests and their medicinal values.
I was living in a two community village- one that had known about its culture, foods, and medicines, and one that had no clue about their own assets. Unfortunately, the former was getting scarcer each year. And thus a process of village wealth transfer to unknown far away entities was on- in the form of crippling education and health.

To add to it, from gardeners to forest experts, the entire set had become agriculturists- buying seeds and fertilizers, renting tractors and equipments for growing mostly wheat and soyabean.  In other parts of the state, there were sugarcane growers also.  All these varieties had gone GM changes.
Then I looked at urban malls – the shops had foods that had either sugar or wheat or soya as a base. They had replaced honey, millets or coarse grains or mahua flour , and pulses.

It was amply clear that on one hand village economy had been ruined, and on the other the urban consumer was being fed things that would soon lead to medical problems, that in turn would transfer more wealth.

The troika conspiracy of education, health and modern agriculture were a perfect tool for massive wealth transfer from unsuspecting households and villages to a few.

Such has been the scale of this (what I call a buy-out) that folks have got awards for industrial farming/ green revolutions, massive subsidies are given to run this cycle, and licenses provided for supporting activities.

But now I see a ray of hope; there is very little left to be transferred now. Too many need treatment, and ecology needs answers that lie in the reverse cycle.

Tragedy of rivers

In recent times, many noises have been made about vanishing rivers from Indian sub-continent. In true sense, it is a threat that can wipe out the entire wealth of nations.

I have traveled along many of the rivers, some of Himalayan origin and many from Satpura ranges, but the story is the same: The rivers are in deep stress, and most of the small feeder ones do not flow outside the monsoon period.  The river Narmada and all its source rivers have been beaten hollow by mining, sand mining, deforestation and modern agriculture.

Many solutions have been advocated primary being Linking of rivers, and recently planting of trees along rivers, notable case study being Narmada.

Before evaluating such schemes, let us look at how rivers get water, and what an ecosystem a river actually is. Imagine the river as a tree with the trunk being the main river body. It has many branches and sub branches feeding the trunk, after getting nourishment and sunlight via the leaves.

Similarly, a major river is a huge network of small rivers, their tributaries, nallahs and naoulahs (small trickles) – all combining to bring water to main river. The small trickles originate somewhere in the forests where a lot of trees transpire and release water trapped from atmosphere. It forms continuous trickle, even in summer months.  That makes up for a twelve month flowing river. Even for the Himalayan rivers, it is true in good measure.

Hence, planting trees somewhere in the main river basin is of no consequence. It is just a waste of time, while earning some good money. But time is precious now.

Why have the trickles stopped? While often blamed culprit is deforestation and mining, I would say reforestation! In some measure and Agriculture in large measure are to be majorly blamed for.
Why reforestation to blame? Because they had removed, say a teak or sal tree, and planted say a bamboo or some GM sapling in the name of reforestation. It will make a mess of the water creating ecology.  Similar thing has happened with Himalayan rivers from British times, when non-natural flora was introduced along lower Himalayas. Foolish re-plantation has increased the problem of rescuing the rivers.

Why agriculture to blame? For multiple reasons, but most prominent being that heavy tractors and machines have worked on fields and stopped many water channels, while the pattern of agriculture consumes a lot of unseasonal water.  Another effect of tractors and chemicals is that water pores have closed. So a lot more water flows over fields in monsoon, than on an untilled land with earthworms creating pores. In earlier days, it would go down as natural soil is like a large sponge.

That brings me to question of Linking rivers. Let it be sold as another dream, but based on my experience, it will be another expensive cheque paid by masses.  During monsoons, even if they are partly good, all our reservoirs are full, and rivers are full during monsoon. The amount of water that gets drained in sub-normal monsoon is much higher than what a giant linking system can bring – that too if source rivers are overflowing in summers. Are there any such rivers?

So either we want more capacity to store or come back to nature so that trickles start flowing, agri starts consuming less and monsoon water does not flow on top of the soil but goes down to recharge.

All of it means, we have to consume what is naturally produced, in order to save the rivers. Anything short of it is destroying the earth and our country in our lifetime.

Cumulative foolishness

“You leave the cats to guard a coup of hen, for a few days. First they will wipe out the birds, then fight among themselves and perish.”

That sums up the hapless state of ecology and economy. In my journey to create food forests, there is one theme that persists: the cats come with best of intentions and end up harming the ones they were supposed to guard, be it rivers, forests, forests life or urban landscapes.

The examples are spread all over the landscape but let me take one closer to my senses. In the name of reforestation, billions have been spent , guards  employed and plans made.  A teak is cut in the forests and then replaced by a bamboo, as per the plan. Their cumulative intelligence cannot differentiate between the ecological function of a teak versus a bamboo, and particularly in the local context.

As a result, vast forests have become either dysfunctional by being monotonous, or have lost the regenerative capacity. Such forest neither provides shelters to diverse life, nor creates water, fresh air and hydrocarbons as earlier it used to.  Yet, the humans promoting it get awards, and incentive to propagate cumulative foolishness.

Another case in point is planting saplings along the river bed, in summer time. The advertisers clearly know that rivers are a huge ecosystem, formed by coming together of many tiny streams which then fall into small rivers and so on. Each such stream is made from nearby forests, nurtured by water channels formed over millions of years. Those forests are gone or have become dysfunctional, and the water channels have gone to tilled farms.  They are not coming back, unless there is a deeper change in how humans consume. Yet, instead of focusing on real issues, spending on publicity generating tasks is in vogue. 

There are many many such tales, from killng of mahua wine to shifting of tribal villages from forest areas in the name of conservation. A foolish thought becomes a cumulative direction, by a few who have neither lived like Gandhi, nor Kant, nor any thinker worth giving a thought to. 

Ultimately, move by move, we are writing our obituary. The chicken will surely vanish this way, but so will be the cats and their next generation.