India’s permaculture movement is being taken forward by young people

By Babli YadavonAug. 13, 2021in Environment and Ecology
  • There is growing awareness about the benefits of alternative agricultural practices like permaculture, against the backdrop of agrarian crises.
  • After the first National Permaculture Convergence organised by the founder of Aranya Agricultural Alternatives, Narsanna Koppula, in 2016, more people from rural, semi-urban and urban backgrounds, started taking an interest in permaculture.
  • From transforming barren lands into forests, to practicing planet-friendly organic farming in the backyards, the permaculture movement is led by youngsters who believe in reconnecting with the ancient roots and re-establishing a connect with nature.

The year 2016 was special in the history of permaculture in India, for it marked the first-ever National Permaculture Convergence. Organised by Narsanna Koppula, a pioneer of the permaculture movement in India and the founder of Aranya Agricultural Alternatives, the convergence saw more than 1,100 participants. The year also witnessed a shift in the way the youth of India perceived agriculture and organic lifestyle practices.

Drawing a comparison between the periods before and after the Convergence, Koppula explained, “Before 2016 the participants at the permaculture design course were either retired, agriculturists, or unemployed people. After 2016, we started getting enquiries from youngsters belonging to the 16-35 age group. Word had spread about the alternative farming methods that catered to everyone; without any barrier on age or demographics. Anyone from rural, semi-urban or urban setup could take something from it,” he shared. Today, nearly 60 percent of participants at Aranya’s monthly Permaculture Design Course (PDC) belong to the 16-35 age group, comprising students, graduates and young professionals. The Permaculture India Network is now a very active social media group with 7,100 members.

A wide range of climate-smart farming movements unite under the regenerative agriculture banner, which includes permaculture. Bill Mollison and David Holmgren coined the term ‘permaculture’ in 1978 and the system is particularly influenced by the Japanese natural farmer Masanobu Fukuoka. Permaculture blends traditional and unconventional management methods to enhance ecosystem delivery, using crop diversification.

According to a 2019 study, the permaculture movement is viewed a social movement and these characteristics are prevalent in permaculture in India too. With rising awareness about the country’s agrarian crisis, the challenges faced by farmers and projected threats from climate change, the youth are opting for alternative agricultural practices.

The philosophy of permaculture can also be traced back to traditional Indian lifestyle. The principles of permaculture suggest observing and interacting with nature, obtaining yield,  capturing and storing energy, drawing from natural patterns, producing zero waste, accepting feedback and regulating self. In simple terms – impersonating nature in all lifestyle practices and working ‘with’ rather than ‘against’ nature.

According to a recent study by Council on Energy, Environment and Water, reported in Hindustan Times, permaculture is recognised as one of the 30 sustainable agricultural practices and systems prevalent in India. The study also highlights the role of permaculture in improving the biodiversity, by increasing the spatial, vertical, and temporal diversity of species.

Culture and climate

Dharmendra dada, in his mid-thirties is a certified teacher. Called dada (big brother) as a mark of respect for his knowledge of land ecosystems, his work has taken him from one farming community to another across Orissa, Nagaland, Manipur, Rajasthan, and Andhra Pradesh. Five years ago, life was different for Dharmendra as he was caught in corporate cubicles. He explains the reason for the shift in lifestyle, stating, “We have destroyed so much in the last five decades − soil, natural habitats, health, relationships and ecology. Nature knows how to bring back the balance, which is probably why so many people from diverse backgrounds and conditioning are finding their calling in causes supporting sustainability, environment-friendly lifestyles and clean farming practices.”

Dharmendra has been involved in permaculture in farms across various states in India. Photo courtesy Dharmendra.

Transforming barren lands into forests

Ramesh, 26, a third-generation farmer, worked in the field of wildlife conservation. He lived with the nomadic tribes of Nallamala forest in Kurnool, Andhra Pradesh, and local farming tribes of Rajasthan before he stumbled upon permaculture. His family however, wanted a less-challenging career for him. But after he found his calling, there was no stopping Ramesh. He likes to be referred to as ‘Ramesh Permaculture’ with ‘Permaculture’ as his last name. “People used to be known for the kind of work they did and that became their last name. I would like the same for me.”

According to Ramesh, the tribal people are the most sustainable, skilled and wise humans. “Tribal people don’t grow their food; they go to the forest and find fruits, tubers to eat, hunt their animals and that’s their food. They don’t cut food-bearing trees to clean up a piece of land that can grow food,” he elaborates.

Ramesh, a third-generation farmer who worked in the field of wildlife conservation, found his calling in permaculture. Photo courtesy Ramesh.

Ramesh, who actively designs permaculture farms around Telangana, Karnataka, and Maharashtra wants to work on restoring forests in the long run. One of his feats in the recent past has been the restoration of a 140-acre dry and barren land in Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh, and converting it into a forest.

A culinary journey

Sana Khumukcham, 33, grew up in the Kakching district of southeast Manipur amidst violence, terror, and armed conflict. She could not appreciate the land she grew up in and the abundance of diversity, owing to the tense political situations around her.

At 15, she started working as a volunteer with NGOs to help rebuild her village and went on to be employed as a social worker for five years in Imphal.  One day, she felt a pull, back to her roots.

She realised that as a kid, she always ate what was grown in her backyard but took that life for granted and seldom appreciated her mother’s efforts into nurturing a garden. While living in the city, she missed locally grown food.

Sana Khumukcham from Manipur, learnt skills that she could bring back to revive her village economy. Photo courtesy Sana Khumukcham.

She then got introduced to permaculture. She states that without the knowledge of the practice, most villagers have been employing permaculture principles but do not want their children to continue the legacy.

“After my PDC, I travelled to a remote village in Orissa to get trained on eco-village design. After the training, I did voluntary work for a month to learn skills that I could bring back with me to help the village economy revive,” shares Khumukcham. She currently owns a three-acre land, manufactures and sells bio-enzymes, natural cleaning products and cow dung pots that can replace the black plastic grow bags in which nurseries sell saplings.

In her village, while most food grown in backyards is organic, farmers growing food on a large scale still depend on intensive farming techniques and chemical fertilisers to obtain a better yield. “Earlier, farming used to be a seasonal activity but now people practice farming all year round to earn better. This has brought an almost drought-like situation in months of February and March before the rains begin,” she adds.

From farm to fork with experiments

Ashish Godara, in his early thirties now, has moved to the pristine Kumaon hills in Uttarakhand to practice permaculture with his wife and create a food forest. Three years into this new life, he has also inspired his father to start farming on their ancestral land in Rajasthan. The land that was once ripped off its nutrients due to aggressive farming techniques, has now begun to produce reasonable quantities of wheat and rice, organically.

Ashish Godara practices farming and permaculture in Uttarakhand. Photo courtesy Ashish Godara.

Godara, however, is sceptical of being called a permaculturist alone; he believes in experimenting. “One needs to follow their basic instinct, learn from those who are already growing food here for generations, explore different ways, evolve and then share the new findings with the existing community,” says Godara. He says he believes that the shift in the mindset for traditional farmers who may have adopted industrialised practices, can come about only through example and not by preaching.

He concludes by saying, “It is important that the youth return to their roots and rediscover connection with nature. That is the lot that still has 20-30 years to make a difference.”

First published by Mongabay India on 12 Aug. 2021

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