The Joy of Biodiversity: Visible and Invisible Economy of Nayakrishi
The word ‘economy’, as originally derived from Greek, is not about numbers, quantities and calculations but about the management (νέμoμαι ) of the household (οίκος). Implicit in this notion of household is first of all the active role a household plays in the biological reproduction of both the members of the family as well as the ecological and material foundation of farming, i.e. the conditions of production and secondly, the exchange and distribution of the products that may or may not take monetary forms or calculated in monetary terms. Here we use the word ‘economy’ in this etimological sense in order to avoid distortions created by monetized and quantitative representation of the gains and returns that could only appear in the market and thus the real gains remain hidden and the toxic and destructive role of pesticide and chemical-based farming practices are not included and therefore externalized.
Gains of Nayakrishi
In the early days of Nayakrishi, i.e. in the nineteen-nineties, questions were raised that though biodiversity-based ecological agriculture, strategically based on healthy local seeds and absolutely no pesticide principle, is a good idea, but can it feed people? The movement started with small and marginal farmers to ensure their subsistence needs first. They demonstrated quickly that creative and efficient use of their limited land with diverse crop design meet their subsistence need, pull them out of poverty, improve their health and nutrition status and in good season provide a reasonable amount of cash from selling the produce. Their capacity to participate in the market has also strikingly increased; they could capitalise their knowledge and labour and did not depend on the market for agricultural inputs; their participation in the market has been mainly to sell their surplus produce. Farmers experiences showed that the success in biodiverse ecological agriculture depends on reinforcing the confidence in farming communities that they are very much competent to design resources and knowledge available to them within a holistic understanding of their environment and agroecological conditions.
After the initial success of the small and vulnerable farming families, farmers owning relatively more lands, e.g., owning 1 to 2 acres, started joining the Nayakrishi movement. Soon whole village and sometimes a union declared themselves as Nayakrishi village or Nayakrishi union and stopped using pesticides, chemicals and extraction of ground water for dry season irrigation. Interest in harvesting rain water as a source of surface water irrigation increased. Detoxication of land and farming practices soon started to provide benefits; uncultivated food sources increased rapidly. A UBINIG study showed that in a biodiverse detoxicated village people can collect and consume leafy vegetables and small fishes ensuring more protein, micronutrients and trace elements for the poorest of poor, who survive on uncultivated food sources. The quantity of uncultivated food consumed in families reaches often as much as 40% in the proportion of the total quantity of the daily food. The poorest households, who had literally nothing, could now raise poultry since birds no more die eating poisons from the toxic fields. They also are encouraged to raise livestock, with increased fodder availability, partnering with rich farmers known as 'Adhi system' . Fuel woods are more available providing renewable energy and lush greens in Nayakrishi villages and unions contributing to the global struggle against climate change. By the very practice of biodiverse farming that benefits them directly, also benefits the global community by enhancing carbon sequestration and greener villages and unions for carbon sink.
Transtion from very poor to well to do farmer is a common case in Nayakrishi.There are increasing demand for 'safe food', particularly for varieties of crops that are more tasty and nutritious, from consumers. Nayakrishi plays substantive educational role in healthy lifestyles and farmers are getting oriented to the new awareness among consumers due to the movement for organic food and designong their production accordingly.
In the case of conventional farming, most of the poor and marginal farmers, owning land less than 2 acres could hardly afford the cash cost of external inputs to carry on the conventional chemical and pesticide-based farming. Before joining Nayakrishi, they were indebted and were gradually losing their land. So Nayakrishi farming was welcomed by these farmers who wanted to remain in farming and not change occupation. In rural Bangladesh, farmers increasingly have been turning into industrial and wage workers and migrating to urban cities within and outside Bangladesh for work. In the early nineties of the last century, with the withdrawal of subsidy on fertilizers as a result of World Bank prescription, small-scale farmers faced tremendous economic pressure to meet the increasing cost of farming and reduction of productivity in the modern agriculture.
However, apart from concrete gains, another aspect of the movement was striking. Women became the natural leaders of Nayakrishi. Women's intense enthusiasm for biodiverse ecological farming in contrast to male farmers has very concrete meaning. First of all, strengthening farmer's seed system has a direct impact in women's empowerment in the agrarian production relation since seed collection, conservation, preservation and regeneration have always been considered the realm of the feminine. Biodiverse farming implies recognition and reinforcing women's role as the steward of genetic and biological diversity. She reclaims her role in the household as the key operator in articulating in situ and ex-situ conservation, without which farming is impossible. Commercial seed market robs her role and reduces her status into a ‘dependent’ housewife and redundant in agriculture. In the presence of farmers’ seed system, she is more of an agent of agrarian production and economy, and not merely a biological being or reproductive machine. This is extremely important for rural women and traditional development agencies, despite their interest in women, have always ignored this crucial aspect of women's empowerment: the need to reclaim and retain the command of women in seed system and by which establish her command over the agrarian production system in general. Realization of the women that command on seed system is indeed women's empowerment in a very concrete sense that they can experience in their households and the community.
The visible gains are also seen in household poultry, livestock and aquatic resources. By integrating various species and varieties, farming households can be easily turned her into both as an ecological unit as well as a production unit that directly contribute to the household needs. Women in these households earn cash income by selling milk, eggs, birds, cows and goats. Women discuss among themselves the nutritional and medicinal values of the vegetables and species they grow. Women of reproductive age, lactating mothers, young adolescent girls have different nutritional needs. Accordingly, in the limited space of the homestead, they grow sweet gourd, okra, spinach, brinjal, gourd, pumpkin, chilli etc. while they grow red amaranth, potato, bean in the mixed cropping field.
A typical training centre of UBINIG (policy Reserach for Development Alternative for Nayakrishi farmers where farmers learn biodiversity-based farming. In recent years the emphasis is on the production of good qualty seeds of different species and varieties and strengthening the farmer's seed system against the assault of commercial seeds.
Yet, these are only one side of the women's empowerment. The other side was not visible instantly. That was the reproductive health of women and the general health conditions of the members of the family. As a care provider, she is always concerned about her children. Women are the worst sufferers of the pesticide and toxic use in farmland, causing and/or precipitating various reproductive dysfunctions and gynaecological complications. She suffers in silence since her complaints have often taken as her ignorance about the 'modern' science of farming. The absolute prohibition of the use of pesticide and chemicals has visible benefits to the health condition of women and her family members.
So, healthy local seeds that do not require any external pesticide or chemicals but requires a creative reorganization of the farming household to gain tangible and invisible economic gains and ensuring future harvests because of the reconstruction of the ecological foundation agriculture became the single most strategic principle of Nayakrishi. 'Sisters, Keep seeds in your hand', became the rallying call of Nayakrishi. Seed preservation became the core of Nayakrishi activities and all our activities slowly got re-arranged around the setting up of the Seed Wealth Centre and organising with the Nayakrishi Seed Network for conservation and regeneration, distribution and cultivation. Now Nayakrishi seed network has developed into a leading active community seed 'bank' with more than 3000 accessions of germplasm of rice, vegetables, lentils, oil seeds etc. in three different agro-ecological zones of Bangladesh.
Nayakrishi farmers have seen the benefits of preserving and cultivating the local variety rice in the Aus and Aman season. Farmers in Tangail and Pabna have been identifying stress-resistant varieties of rice particularly for drought and floods. Aus paddy such as Khara jamri, Bhaturi, Kalabokri, Kalamanik, Shaita and bhoira which are also known for their capacity as drought-resistant were grown. During Aman season in the year 2017, there were floods and excessive rains. Water remained in the field for a longer time than expected, rains were unpredictable during July to August for almost 33 days and also happened in September-October for 9 days leading to crop failure. However, this could have been overcome, but water logging aggravated the hardships of the farmers. Farmers cultivating local varieties such as Digha, hijol digha, bokjhul, chamara, patjag, patishail, jhingashail, sada dhepa, lal dhepa could harvest most of the rice after the recession of the water compared to those cultivating modern rice varieties such as BR 11. However, among the local varieties “Chamara” variety of Aman rice performed the best.
Nayakrishi farmers also could see the benefits of diverse local vegetables during the rainy season and flood time. These are korola, sponge gourd, ash gourd, okra.
Participation in the market: visible economic gains
Nayakrishi is striving to enhance the capacity of the farming households to participate in the market. The market is a global reality that structures production and exchange of products, communication and knowledge that farmers must learn to deal both strategically and tactically. In other words, how to promote ecologically produced safe food and best quality farmers’ seed without jeoparding the ecological foundation and knowledge base of Nayakrishi farming. From this perspective, recently we have done an exercise to make a calculated guess about the tangible economic returns of Nayakrishi farmer in terms of visible cash. During 2017 farmers in Tangail faced natural and man-made disaster called flood and water-logging in the villages. Yet farmers continued with their crop production and tried hard to survive economically with their crops.
Integarating animals and poultry in the household and thus advanced redesigning of farming household into more complex ecological unit for higher pruductivity is the most interesting and challenging aspect of Nayakrishi in the era of globalaisation. The crucial role of farming household in keeping the balance between economy and ecology is the most interesting area for further research in order to understand the resilience of the poor household to absorb the uncertaintities and risks of the market but yet biodiverse farming enable them to engage gainfully.
Information of 6802 Nayakrishi farmers in 10 villages in Tangail show that they could earn an income of Tk. 1,91,27,000 from the selling of 40 different kinds of crops during 2017. These crops included cereals, vegetables, lentils, fruits and spices. Farmers cultivate in three seasons of Aus, Aman and Boro. The flood affected the Aman rice crops mostly and the water logging affected the planting of Rabi crops. Unlike the modern farmers, Nayakrishi farmers use the boro season for vegetables, lentils, spices. The farmers sold their produce in the local markets. Normally, Nayakrishi vegetables have demand from the villagers and are sold directly from the field. Some farmers go to the nearby weekly market and sit with their basket separately so that people recognize their products.
Nayakrishi farmers have started linkages with organic food shops in Dhaka such as Shashya Prabartana. During last one the year 1278 farmers have sold 29 different crops including rice, wheat, vegetables, lentils, fruits and spices worth Tk.15,50,500. Although transportation remains a challenge for keeping the freshness of the vegetables, yet the taste of the vegetables attracts most customers.
Except for rice and lentils, most of the seasonal vegetables are cheap although farmers are able to charge a higher price for these organic products because of their demand. Both in the local market and in the specialised organic food market, consumers are willing to pay a higher price if they are given assurance of being organic. Nayakrishi farmers’ products, particularly vegetables, are self-certified by farmers. Consumers can also see the difference at the time of cooking and eating. Organic vegetables are softer and taste better.
The economic benefits also come from a diversity of Nayakrishi products. They can offer ‘formal’ vegetables and unconventional ones. The uncultivated or semi-cultivated crops are part of the harvest from Nayakrishi fields. These are various forms of Arum (Shula kochu), potato (Saheb Aloo, Gach Aloo, Matir nicher aloo) and a number of uncultivated leafy greens such as Batua, Gima, Kolmi etc. Without any cost involved 50 Nayakrishi women, farmers have earned about Tk.6500 by selling three different uncultivated shak (Batua, Gima and Kolmi) in one season.
However, the farmers have to enter into the formal market through conventional vegetables. Consumers want winter vegetables including cauliflower, cabbage, tomato, potato, pumpkin, okra, brinjal, radish, carrot, amaranth, sweet gourd, beans etc. Traditionally Nayakrishi farmers cultivate different crops in their mixed cropping fields according to the need of the soil, pest management, health needs and the seasonal crops. But the market requires some particular vegetables as per urban consumer requirement which is not always according to farmers choice of mixed cropping. Yet some of the farmers added the “consumer choice” in their list of vegetables so that they can enter the market. Out of 6802 farmers, only 485 farmers (7%) have cultivated radish, cauliflower, cabbage and spinach (Palong shak). They have earned Tk.471,000, which is 2% of the total income. When the farmers are supplying to specialised organic food shop and are supplying according to consumer requirement, cauliflower was on high demand and 1500 pieces were sold at Tk. 337,500 (36%) of the total sale (9,25,500 other than the cereals). This was because cauliflowers sold in the market are produced commercially with the use of fertilizers and pesticides, which are totally tasteless and becomes “hard” after cooking. Consumers are not willing to buy those cauliflowers and when they have an option of buying from Shashya Prabartana, the demand was high. Nayakrishi cauliflowers are soft and tasty.
While for the Nayakrishi farmers, conventional ‘elite’ vegetables such as cauliflower, cabbage, radish do not fit well into the mixed cropping pattern of winter crops, adding these vegetables into the system increases their income. However, Nayakrishi farmers do not cultivate these crops as ‘monocrop’; they are always one of the mixed crops. Cauliflower is cultivated as one of five mixed crops including amaranth, coriander, cabbage and brinjal. All these have different harvesting time. Cauliflower is harvested earlier than other, brinjals are continuously harvested for a long time. Once cauliflower and cabbage are over farmers plant chilli in between the crops. In these fields, cauliflower is a cash crop and is given more importance than cabbage. Farmers can sell cauliflower in the local market; villagers buy directly from the fields also. Corriander is more for pest management.
Nayakrishi local variety brinjals are also in high demand in the market. About 300 farmers sold brinjals worth Tk. 8,40,000 in the local market, which is about 8% of the total sale of Tk.10133000 (other than the cereals). In Shashya Prabartana, local variety brinjals were sold at Tk.60,000, which is 6% of the total sale.