E T H I C A L L I V I NG P E RMACULTURE I N I ND I A
Hannah Parathian and James Thorn talk to Indian permaculture pioneer Narsanna Koppula about how he is helping to secure food sovereignty for India’s rural populations
Members of the Via Campesina movement coined the phrase ‘food sovereignty’ in 2006, to strengthen people’s rights across the world to have access to land and take control of their own food systems. For large numbers of peasant farmers globally this represents a significant move towards claiming back their culture, independence and livelihood.
replied, ‘Did you see in the forest any trees that have been pruned?’ ‘No, sir,’ I replied. He told me, ‘The trees, they don’t like it. It is like you are cutting your fingers and your hands. You can’t stand properly if you cut your fingers, your arms and your legs. You cannot just do your own thing and the plants are the same. So you should not cut anything. Let them grow naturally. They will take their own shape. They will decide which side to grow, when to stop.”
Narsanna went on to serve 12 years as Director and General Secretary of DDS, teaching communities how to apply permaculture to regenerate arid landscapes.
In the state of Andhra Pradesh, in Southern India, landless tribes and marginalised farmers are being supported by an organisation dedicated to developing sustainable agricultural systems. Aranya (‘Forest’) Agricultural Alternatives was set up in 1999 by Narsanna Koppula, a permaculturist who has been working with rural communities for over 27 years. Through his work, food sovereignty is now replacing local dependency on commercial crop production. Farmers can grow healthier crops, people have access to more food, and communities are better nourished.
A robust permaculture food system consists of a diverse range of perennial crops, with the inclusion of some staple annuals such as wheat and rice. Each of these elements provides specific and multiple functions within the system. A closed, self-sustaining cycle is created, without the need for external inputs.
Working in cooperation with Nature and each
Narsanna emphasises that for the peasant farmers of India the integration of animals also serves an important multifunctional role: “The animals are just like us and the plants. They have their multiple functions. They carry other is the answer
Narsanna’s work is guided by the ethics and principles of permaculture, a holistic approach to designing selfsustaining ecosystems. It provides a framework for communities to create resilient and productive human habitats that work in harmony with Nature. In Narsanna’s own words, “By following the ethics of integrated ecosystems, sustainable agricultural livelihoods can be maintained.”
Narsanna says that throughout his youth he questioned many of the ideals of modern Indian society. In 1985, as a student of philosophy and law, he was fortunate to meet the co-founders of the permaculture movement, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. He admits that at that time he had very little interest in or knowledge of permaculture: “I was simply interested to meet people from different walks of life, different economic backgrounds and different places.”
At the same time, Narsanna met the agroecologist Dr Venkat, who would later become his great friend and mentor. In 1987 he volunteered at the Deccan Development Society (DDS), where Dr Venkat was teaching. They spent many productive mornings drinking tea and sharing ideas, and it was through these conversations and sessions that Narsanna began to cultivate his own understanding of permaculture.
He recalls one memorable occasion: “Dr Venkat left his secateurs on the table. I took them and started pruning all the trees! The next day, when I said, ‘Good morning, sir,’ he out three levels of work and we feed and look after them. They provide money, dung and labour. If I have a goat or sheep I will look more at the excretion than at the meat. I will get meat only once, but throughout 15 years of life a buffalo can provide 15 years of compost! That is more than 10 times the value of the meat. So just like that we will integrate with the other species. In this way we work together. That is how life will go on. It is not possible for these communities to be totally dependent on agriculture.”
Interspecies interactions of this kind are ingrained in rural Indian culture, just as many Indigenous peoples worldwide work with Nature to cultivate reciprocal relationships with other species. The advent of commercial agriculture, however, has made it harder for farmers to maintain an equilibrium, and their traditional farming methods are being lost.
Aranya helps peasant farmers fight the impact of commercial crop production and its current monopoly over the Indian food system. Large corporations encourage farmers to borrow money to pay for commercial seeds, pesticides, fertilisers and machinery. These products come with the promise of greater yields and food security. Yet the reality is that these crops often fail due to their poor adaptation to
Resurgence & Ecologist