CERES Global in India—Day 05: Peasant Farming and Camel Culture

From 2nd-12th December 2017 I co-facilitated a CERES Global tour to India, themed around sustainable development, permanent culture and un-learning. My focus for the tour was to collect data for my research project on permaculture as a transnational social movement and to learn more about alternative education models as a teaching and learning professional development immersion.  This posting is one of a series of my daily reflections from the tour on what our group encountered.

CERES Global group meeting the cameleers on the grazing commons.

On day five of our CERES Global Sustainable Development, Permanent Culture and Un-learning tour to India we visited a small-scale organic farm and a migrating camel caravan on our way back to Udaipur from Malari village.  In these engagements our group learned more about traditional organic farming and animal husbandry methods, along with the unique cultures of our hosts.  Their hospitality in sharing food and friendship was greatly appreciated, a model of gift culture in action.

Peasant farming and small-scale organic agriculture

On our first stop we were led on a meandering path through farmland to a field on a a beautiful hillside.  Here we met a family who maintained an 8 acre peasant farm, on which the family produced organic crops including wheat, sugar, fenugreek and garlic.  The wheat plot sat adjacent to a deep water well, from which water was drawn up by an oxen-powered water wheel.  Water from the well was drawn up into a main irrigation ditch that feed the small hand-dug plots that the field was divided into, similar to the irrigation system we saw the previous day outside Malari village.  The well was shared between eight adjoining small farms, who accessed water on an ongoing rotation six-day cycles.

The farm utilises organic farming methods, partially out of preference for producing for the organic market, but mostly out of economic necessity.  There is no electrified systems of fossil fuel-powered machinery on the farm, all the labour is done by humans and beasts of burden.

While organic agriculture of this kind is labour-intensive, it does help the farmers from becoming ensnared in the big-agriculture debt trap based on chemical-intensive mechanised factory farming methods and genetically-modified seed stock.  Indian agriculture has become a contested space between small-time peasant farmers practicing traditional farming methods and big agricultural corporations like Monsanto who are selling green revolution-inspired industrial farming methods.

The logic of industrial agriculture is to establish large-scale mono-crops to maximise crop yields through economies of scale, mechanised farming equipment and chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides.  Furthermore, genetically modified crop varieties have been introduced into the farming system, ostensibly to increase pest resistance and further increase yields.

However, as activists like Vandana Shiva have pointed out, he industrial agricultural model requires expensive fuel, chemical and seed inputs, for which farmers have to go into debt to finance.  There are also economic risks to farmers from commodified GMO.  Traditionally, farmers save seed from previous harvest to sow new crop.  Some genetically-engineered crop varieties, including BT cotton (pictured below) are engineered not to reproduce seed.  This means that farmers are locked into buying seeds annually from the corporations that supply them, creating a dependency between farmer and corporation, as well as a yearly debt obligation that places an ongoing economic strain on farmers.

Industrial mono-cropping requires continual inputs of chemical fertilisers to maintain soil productivity and over time erodes soil fertility.  Compare this with self-regulating poly-culture ecosystems, such as those championed in permaculture and agroecology, in which the goal is to maintain soil productivity and pest control through the natural processes of inter-dependent plant, animal, insect and microbe species in a diverse ecosystem.

* Vandana Shiva addressing the 2016 Indian Permaculture Convergence.

Nomadic culture of the cameleers

From the small farm, we made our way to a common grazing area where we were introduced to a small group of camel herders and their camels.  These “cameleers” have an itinerant connection with the land.  It was explained to our group that a cameleering family would have monthly expenditures of approximately US$20, relying largely on common grazing lands, relationships with farmers along their stock routes, and the natural resources of the region’s forests to maintain themselves and their herds.  The camel herds provide services for the farms on which they are hosted during their migrations, providing a source of camel milk, eating unwanted vegetation and working as beasts of burden in exchange for their hosting.

The cameleers were driving their herd 70 kilometres north to Pushkar to sell camels at the annual livestock markets.  The cameleers explained that the sale price for camels has become increasingly depressed in recent years, as trucks and tractors have become more affordable for many farmers, displacing camels as beasts of burden in agricultural labour.

Just as the peasant farming family showed us wonderful hospitality in sharing chai tea and juggary with us, the cameleers shared fresh camel milk and pipe tobacco.  We also saw how they created a natural plant brew to administer to one of the camels who had developed a digestive tract problem, illustrative of the specialised expert knowledge of camel husbandry that the cameleers have developed over many generations.

Yet this traditional knowledge has become in danger of dying out.  One of the cameleers lamented that his son had left the migrating camel caravan to seek more financially lucrative work opportunities in the city, which he saw as a loss of culture and “loss of soul.”  Such patterns are evident in agricultural communities in many areas of the world, Australia included, where the children of farming families reject farm life in favour of other professions and opportunities in larger urban centres.

* The views expressed in this posting are my own and don’t reflect the institutional position of CERES Global or La Trobe University.

** All photos taken by Ben Habib unless otherwise specified.