AGROECOLOGY AND INDIGENOUS FARMERS OF MEGHALAYA

Deadidakami Mohrmen, Coriniki Slong and Bhogtoram Mawroh

Like for many parts of the country Meghalaya’s economy is still highly dependent on agriculture. The primary sector (which includes agriculture and other natural resources extraction activities) contributes around 30% of the state’s GDP i.e., Rs.8,168 crore out of the Rs. 27,228 crore economy. With over half of the population still connected to agriculture the state cannot expect to achieve sustainable economic growth by neglecting people who are working in this sector, i.e., the farmers. But when it comes to enjoying the share of the economic pie theirs is the smallest share. Average annual income of farmers in India is just over Rs 37, 000 or only Rs 3000 per month. The same is the case with Meghalaya (see discussion below).This means that in spite of farmers making huge contributions to the state’s economy they are mostly ignored. Who are these farmers who form the backbone of the state’s economy? What is their story? This article will tell the story of an indigenous farmer who epitomises the struggles of other farmers in the state. In spite of the immense difficulties they face consistently, these farmers have the common good as their raison d’être.

Phron Kassar is a 51 year old farmer from Shkenpyrsit village which falls under Amlarem C& RD Block, West Jaintia Hills. Her mother was (L) Shida Kassar who arrived from Umladkhur village to Shkenpyrsit in search of livelihood. Phron studied only till Class III at the Shkenpyrsit LP school, unable to continue because of financial difficulties. By the time she was 12 years old she started helping her mother in the farm. In time, like her mother (who was also a cow trader) she managed to own 10 cows. But 13 years ago she sold them for Rs 45,000 to educate her children, determined not to allow her fate to befall her children.

Presently Phron Kassar cultivates a variety of crops, viz., ginger, pumpkin, garlic, beans, mustard, peas, rice, radish, potato, sweet potato, cauliflower, cabbage, spinach, carrot, cucumber, coriander, etc. In her garden she also has local fruit trees like sohiongsalangi and peach. She also keeps poultry, piggery and practises apiculture (bee keeping). According to her, the average annual earnings from her farm comes to Rs.20,000 to 25,000 from vegetables, Rs 8000-9000 from piggery, Rs 4000-5000 from poultry rearing. Curiously, when the upper range is combined it gives total annual earnings of Rs 39,000 which when divided by twelve months give a monthly income of Rs 3250 or Rs. 110 per day, similar to the national average. What needs to be borne in mind is that this is lower than the prescribed minimum daily wage of a highly skilled worker in agriculture in Meghalaya which is Rs. 420.

For a time, in order to boost her income Phron Kassar used chemical fertilizers like DAP for increased production. One day the chemical spilled on her leg and the skin started itching. Struck by this she was horrified by the thought of how the chemicals might be affecting the crops, soil and the people. Appalled by the realisation she vowed to never use any more chemicals in her farm and practise only organic farming. Concern for common good was more important for her than personal gains. Currently, she and many other farmers from Jaintia Hills are working with SURE (Society for Urban and Rural Empowerment) and NESFAS (North East Society for Agro-biodiversity and Slow Food) on adoption of agro-ecological methods for food production.

The 2018 IPES (International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems) Food, publication, “Breaking away from industrial food and farming systems” states that Agro-ecology is an umbrella term for various alternatives to industrial agriculture viz., organic, bio-dynamic, permaculture, alternative, sustainable, regenerative, community supported agriculture (CSA), cooperative food system initiatives, or urban food transitions. A growing archive of case studies from around the world demonstrates that Agro-ecology is providing immense benefits (economic, social and food security) while ensuring climate justice and restoring soils and the environment. In April 2018, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) also underlined the potential of Agro-ecology to underpin sustainable food system transitions at the 2nd FAO International Symposium on Agro-ecology: Scaling up Agro-ecology to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

Coming back to Phron Kassar, she explained that when she started engaging in organic farming she used  eit masi (cow dung), eit sniang (pig waste), eit syiar (chicken waste) and skum kba (rice husk) for making compost. A pit would be dug on the ground and filled with animal wastes. Later skum kba and ashes are added and left to decompose. When the compost is ready it is dug up and applied to the plot. In the past SURE had also assisted her with trainings on composting.

Furthermore, determined not to use any chemicals, Phron Kassar invented her own organic pesticide by using a local plant called chyrmit kyndeh (Acmella alba also commonly known as toothache plant). She grinds the plant and mixes it with water. This concoction is then sprayed on the cabbages. According to her, it is best to apply before the leaves begin to fold and it has been very effective in preventing pest attacks on the crop. Phron Kassar informed that the vegetables grown without using chemical fertilizers and pesticides are not only very tasty but also keep the soil healthy.

Kassar got the idea of using the plant as a pesticide by noticing that the local community has been using the plant as a traditional cure for toothache since time immemorial. Acmella Alba actually has local anaesthetic properties. She surmised that since it already has medicinal properties, it must also have pest repellent properties. It should be mentioned that Phron Kassar is also a traditional healer. She is proficient in traditional massage therapy using mustard oil to cure people’s ailments and has revealed that she also is experimenting with the bio-pesticide on other crops as well to gauge its effectiveness.

Change in production practises from dependence on external inputs to agro-ecological methods which consisted of adopting biological pest and disease-management solutions including predators, insect pathogens and disease antagonists, plants with insecticidal, fungicidal, bactericidal and herbicidal qualities (practised by Phron Kassar), and parasitic nematodes was one of the main outcomes of the transition in the seven case studies, viz., USA, Nicaragua and Mexico, Tanzania, France, China, Spain and Cuba, reported in “Breaking away from industrial food and farming systems”. To achieve change in production practises NESFAS and SURE are promoting Agro-ecology Learning Circles (ALC). These are farmer groups aimed at empowering local communities to recognize, revive, practice, and eventually further develop traditional agro-ecology practices and stimulate local innovations for sustainable local food systems. Six participatory researches developed and implemented by farmers on pest management and soil improvement across six different locations are currently in progress. In total 38 farmers, 28 female and 10 male from the Khasi and Garo indigenous communities are taking part in the experiments.

Phron Kassar gave an interesting insight of how during elections ginger is in great demand. She therefore decided to plant more of it in the following year. The seeds are those that she got from her grandmother. She is determined to adhere to the principles of Agro-ecology which are not only about food security but achieving food sovereignty as well. “Food Sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems” – La Via Campesina.

Phron Kassar sells her produce in the local market of Shkentalang. Sometimes, customers visit the village to buy produce directly as well. In the past farmers from Shkenpyrsit grew only for self-consumption. Now production for the market is increasing. To supplement her income Phron has been working as a mid day meal cook at Dongwah SSA School Shkenpyrist since 2006. She was one of the first people from the village to be appointed as a cook. Initially she was paid a paltry sum of Rs.150 per day; now she gets Rs. 1000 per month.

Farmers like Phron Kassar’s contribution to the local as well state economy cannot be understated. Without improving their lot the resulting economic model of the state will be one of instability and high inequality. Instead Agro-ecology provides a framework for a transition towards sustainable food and farming systems. Only when indigenous farmers like Phron Kassar are supported will a truly prosperous, sustainable, fair and healthy society will be created.

About the authors:

Deadidakami Mohrmen is a Field Coordinator in Society for Urban and Rural & Rural Empowerment (SURE) and can be reached at damimohrmen@gmail.com

Coriniki Slong is a Field Coordinator in Society for Urban and Rural & Rural Empowerment (SURE) and can be reached at corinikislong31@gmail.com

Bhogtoram Mawroh is a Senior Associate in NESFAS and can be reached at bhogtoram.nesfas@gmail.com

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