Monday, October 4, 2010

Foreigners teaching adivasis basics of agriculture

If beer shops seem anomalous in the temple town of Ganeshpuri, the Uppendahls  appear equally foreign among the coffee-skinned devotees of Bhagwan Nityananda, Baba Muktananda and Guru Gurumayi who arrive here by the busload. Yet, they seem more at home here than some of the travelling peace seekers from the West who briefly anchor at Shree Gurudev Ashram (where author Elizabeth Gilbert  famously moored). It turns out, they are home. They rent terrace apartment of the building attached to Nityananda Trust, in the broad hall downstairs a rotating congregation arrives daily to eat, pray and love.

The Uppendahls' dockage here was similarly intentioned. Daniel, an American artist came to India, motherlode of spirituality, ten years ago, and Karen, a British environmental consultant and yoga exponent followed seven years later. Neither knew the other until Karen, who was in Rishikesh, was advised by Muktananda, her guru, to come to Ganeshpuri. She met Daniel here, they married and that's that.

Now for what they do. They offer me a primer on a plate: water served straight out of an unsullied well and a meal of coarse brown rice, legumes and parathas. The focus of their work here is food and environment. "The Saha Astitva Foundation we established three years ago began as an idea that grew from living here, from watching what was happening in India and the world," says Daniel. The registered charity scopes out ecological and ethical ways to return balance to Nature and bring the village back to the farm.

For even here, in iridescent halo of the Tungareshwar range, where paddy dazzles and the Tansa sings, signs of delusion and departure are clear. Brick kilns, like ziggurats, are dead proof of top soil skimmed off farms and pilfered from forests, bearing out the fact that outside monsoons and their mono crop of rice, farmers fall for quick cash at the cost of the earth. Under Saha Astitva, Daniel and Kalyani—Karen going local—are leading by example. About a-year-and-a-half ago, they rented about three acres of wasteland from local Adivasis. The land had long ceased to be cultivated and only harvested thorn trees. Their aim was clear—restore land to its former fertility and farm it ecologically and organically. "Mother Earth is very forgiving, given the right balance, protection and basic conditions," they maintain.

They would return to ancient systems of agriculture prescribed by the Vedas; broker biodiversity through a range of amicable crops, vegetables and fruit; ethically harness natural resources of water, wind and light; and add more acreage to the forest. (Saha Astitva is, after all, Sanskrit for harmonious integration.) In addition, the Uppendahls want to wean local farmers away from migration, monoculture and imprudent sale of land and show them how farming can be lucrative too.

Only in their second year, Saha Astitva has yet to show commercial profits, but the natural dividends are copious. Like a sequin at the hem of the hill Mandakini—birthplace of Parshuram, avatar of Vishnu—the farm gleams with health. "The trick was to get as much biomass into the soil to rebuild fertility," says Kalyani. They had a biomass bonanza when early on they invited a nomadic shepherd to allow his 400 sheep a free run of the farm. The animals paid the Uppendahls back in kind, depositing micro-organism rich poop. "Proper soil needs about 30 per cent living micro-organisms," says Daniel. "They break the soil down and predigest it for the plants." They've digested well. The place looks like a botanical bazaar.

To encourage biodiversity, the land had been portioned out for cultivation of millet, rice, vegetables, fruit, herbs, bamboo and such. Appropriate plants like tur and papaya have been grown along the bunds, as a kind of natural fencing. In fact everything here is natural, or recycled—from the spun thorn brambles like concertina wire encircling the farm, a recycled tetra-pack roof for the cowshed, woven bamboo roofing a meditation pergola, biomass for the soil and a solar-powered water pump and lights. The ground has been levelled to prevent monsoonal run-off and to tank up the aquifer so that water is available through the year.

The Uppendahls, with their own grounding in the Vedic way of life, believe that science hasn't caught up with Vedic farming. "Among some of the ancient rituals we practice is Agnihotra, a fire ceremony where dried cow dung, ghee, and unpolished rice is burnt in a copper container to create a special electromagnetic charge that purifies the surrounding air," says Kalyani.

Read more: Foreigners teaching adivasis timesofindia

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