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A Spot of Indian Wisdom and Inspiration – Lidia Montemurri

If you think it’s about tying your legs in knots or chanting unutterable mantras you’re way off the mark! It’s about seeds, community and survival strategies.Last year I had the privilege of spending some time at Basudha farm in West Bengal, the northwestern Indian state bordering Bangladesh.  The farm is situated 3 hours train journey and a couple of hours bumpy bus ride from Kolkata.  Once you get into Beliatore town, Ashish (the trusted local taxi driver) will take you the rest of the 5km dusty pothole riddled track to destination.zLidia_HarvestingDewAs you approach Bankura district you begin to appreciate just how rural and luxuriantly forested this region is.  Alongside the road a vibrant patchwork of vegetable cultivations in quarter to half acre plots alternate with villages built in the traditional adobe style (mud walls), ponds teeming with human and animal life and ancient votive shrines.zLidia_Rice1Basudha (‘Earth Mother’ in Bangla) is a research centre for the conservation of indigenous rice varieties.  A range of over 40 traditional vegetables, oil seeds and herbs such as chilli, aubergine, mustard, onion, okra, red carrot, cauliflower, spinach, coriander, ginger, turmeric, tomato, legumes and many more are also cultivated.   Myself and Mel, my travelling companion, spent long dreamy hours in the shade of the large Sal tree (Shorea Robusta the Bengali answer to the oak in its capacity to support life) weeding and hoeing and manuring under the supervision of Kukur the black farm mongrel and the curious gaze of the many visitors.  The farm gates so to speak are always open and anyone in need of using the farm well, or advice on crops, can drop in at any time for a chat or simply to a have a look.  The farm is run by Dr. Debal Deb, a scientist, ecologist, and activist. He is a blow-in to the area, who has purposely chosen not to fence the farm to inspire a feeling of trust and communal ownership amongst the villagers and in so doing has won the love and respect of the wider community.zLidia_RiceAn arboretum of native medicinal and fruit trees all individually tagged in Bangla, Hindi and Latin has been planted to provide shade, nutrition and educational sessions. The farm is in fact the head quarters of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies directly involved in empowering the local community by running free workshops and initiatives aimed at learning about all that lives and grows on the land and preserving its health.  A project is currently running, involving more than 10 of the surrounding villages, in which a task force of adults and children in each team is engaged in compiling a comprehensive record of all insect, bird, fish, mammal and plant life in their area noting local name, function in the environment, use to humans and traditional value i.e. use in Ayurvedic medicine.  The result will be published in a book.  This is the people’s strategy to protect their future from depredation by the devious intellectual property rights lobby.    And what a great learning process for the young ones involved!zLidia_StudyGroupBasudhaDebal Deb travels indefatigably the length and breath of the north western states educating farmers on the importance of preserving traditional crops and growing techniques as well as warning them against the dangers of GMO’s while trawling for varieties of rice or vegetable to collect.  He also regularly hosts lectures at the farm on subjects as diverse as astronomy, art, botany, literature, and renewable resources.The farm itself is a living example of green building and sustainability using ideas like multi-cropping to enhance plant health, growing crops that survive extremes of soil moisture, healthy soil to retain moisture, harvesting morning dew in drip bottles and buildings made from traditional mud-brick.Last but not least local cultural heritage, in the form of traditional sports, music, poetry, crafts and games is being revived and celebrated and every year a special 3-day equinox festival is dedicated to it.  During the festival archery, women’s traditional water pitcher races, stilt races and ancient Baul songs (traditional songs of a philosophical nature) are just some of the traditions that the local youth have learned to appreciate versus Bollywood movies and cricket.zLidia_RiceGrainSiloProfessor Debal Deb is the driving force behind this extraordinary hub of gentle but powerful grassroots reclamation of land, identity and food security. In 2002 he has established Vrihi (rice in Sanskrit) a seed exchange in the nearby town of Beliatore which is accessible to a greater number of farmers than Basudha.In the space of just 7 years, starting with a meagre 0.7 acres, Deb and his team have managed to collect over 560 Indian rice varieties.  They now rent a few acres surrounding the farm to accommodate all the cultivations. As I was staying at the farm Deb came back exultant from a New Year foray into Bangladesh where he gave workshops on organic growing and helped local farmers establish their own rice seed exchange.  His elation was especially owing to having managed to locate and retrieve a 20 variety strong instalment for the collection. A number of these rice strains possess the unique and utterly life saving genetic characteristic of resistance to salinity.  One can appreciate how, far from the empty promise of High Yield green revolution varieties, such strains would mean the difference between life and death in geographical areas prone to the recurring and devastating incursions of the Bay of Bengal seawater.  These varieties are now safe in both Beliatore and the Bangladeshi seed bank.Every June as the monsoon rains soften and moisten the earth the land is ploughed by ox and cart and 2×2 meter plots are planted with the tender rice saplings. Each and every one of the varieties in the collection is grown every year after careful anti cross-pollination planting distances have been worked out.All work is carried out manually or with the ox.  After the floods of summer (on which young rice plants thrive) growth is completed during the October dry spell.Come November the first varieties are ready for harvest which runs through to the end of December.  I managed to catch the tail end of it and joined in with sickle in hand for a couple of days cutting and gathering the tall sheaves (some a good 5-6 foot while others only but 3 or 4 depending on varietal behaviour).  Only the best panicles (the ears of the rice) are selected from the very heart of the plots to ensure the purity of next year’s stock and then are subjected to scientific scrutiny for the recording of data.  We helped with the mammoth task of assessing productivity and fertility of the varieties which involved counting and recording viable and infertile seeds on the selected panicles.  That freed Dulal the farm manager so he could concentrate on the myriad of other important jobs. The rest of the crop is harvested and stacked in huge 3 metre tall 6 metre wide round stacks awaiting threshing and providing an unorthodox warm bed for Kukur during cold December nights.zLidia_InJuAll activities of the Trust are funded by the founder’s contributions and donations from friends. To find out more: www.cintdis.org or google basudha.This article was sent in by a supporter of Irish Seed Savers Assoc. we would like you to note, that views expressed in articles are not necessarily the views of ISSA.Everyone has a right to free speech, still,  thank goodness.

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