Nurturing nature: Permaculture farming finds an increasing number of takers in the country

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A casual meeting with a friend while on vacation in Amsterdam made Manisha Lath Gupta start her own farm in July 2010. “Buy a small piece of land and pursue permaculture,” her friend advised. “Permaculture? What’s that?” Gupta asked. Building a farm from scratch, she was told. It sounded like a colossal task, but Gupta was intrigued. Soon after, she and her husband decided to quit their corporate jobs in Mumbai and acquired a piece of land near Morni Hills in Haryana. “The land had a road on two sides. The soil was yellow, brown and powdery with absolutely no organic matter, but persistent hard work helped us restore the soil and we started Aanandaa Permaculture Farm,” says Gupta.

A self-sufficient and sustainable practice of farming where nature does most of the work, permaculture requires minimal human effort. The idea is to switch from fire-fallow cultivation to a long-term direction of growing fruits and vegetables. “We had a strong desire to grow and harvest our own food. There was also a desire to create a piece of nature for our children. Now, the four-hectare land is 80% self-sufficient in food,” says Gupta, a certified permaculture designer and teacher. Their farm has over 5,500 trees now, including fruits such as mango, litchi, peach, pear, banana, papaya, fig, etc. It also has a place for birds, bees, wild hare, monitor lizards, blue bulls and snakes.

The 2019 PwC-Assocham report, Sowing the policy seeds of a flourishing agriculture sector, reveals climate change as a major threat to world agriculture, affecting production, resources and livelihood. It is estimated that by 2050, nearly 120 million people will be at risk of undernourishment because of climate change. Further, global mean crop yields of rice, maize and wheat are projected to decrease 3-10% per degree of global warming and impact livestock through reduced feed quantity/ quality, pest and disease prevalence, and physical stress. In such a scenario, permaculture, wherein animals and birds coexist and support other forms of life, assumes greater significance.

Growing movement
The term ‘permaculture’ is derived from ‘permanent agriculture’, which was coined by Australian biologist Bill Mollison and his student David Holmgren in the 1970s. Mollison studied the ecosystem in the rainforests and deserts of Australia for decades. In the Eighties, he visited India to conduct a course on permaculture in Hyderabad. Among the attendees was Narsanna Koppula who has been practising permaculture in Telangana for more than two decades now. “Permaculture is a science of design meant to build permanent productive systems, as well as sustainable societies that help cut use of non-renewable energy, managing ecological cycles,” says 60-year-old Koppula, who is based in Hyderabad and is the founder of Aranya Agricultural Alternatives, an environmental and developmental organisation. Koppula, who regularly hosts international permaculture conferences in India, helps farmers transition to permaculture.

Not just Koppula, there are many communities and independent farmers who have been working towards spreading the movement. Take, for instance, 36-year-old Pankaj Rawat who left his corporate job in Delhi and joined his wife Vlatka Klanjcic to work on a farm in Uttarakhand in 2017. The couple manages Himalayan Farming Project, a three-acre farm in Dogaon, Nainital. They also host workshops. “Interest is growing and people are understanding its nuances… it can’t be achieved instantly,” shares Klanjcic, who is from Croatia.

Local application
Permaculture is based on various principles, which are meant to be universal, but have different applications depending on the local context. Klanjcic and Rawat, for instance, have built a fence of climbers around their farm, which stops animals from destroying the crop without hurting them. “The principles of permaculture work on earth care, people care and fair share. One has to approach it systematically depending on the local context where both earth and people are not affected by any change in the system,” says Klanjcic. Another example of an adapted design principle is the banana circle, planted inside banana trees, also called a pit garden. “A banana circle is an easy feature, which serves as a spot to cycle the flow of organic matter coming from the jungle or homes. It results in food and biomass. Bananas are very hungry plants and thrive off the abundant cycling of organic material, as well as the moisture in the design,” says Klanjcic. A banana circle has multiple functions: food production, compost pile, biomass production, habitat for wildlife, etc.

In the last decade, many farms have adopted permaculture on a smaller scale of 1-10 acres. “Intensive agriculture has lost its sheen and the future belongs to non-chemical agriculture or natural farming. The world is realising this and switching to natural modes of farming. Why can’t we?” asks Delhi-based author and agriculture analyst Devinder Sharma. As per the 2019 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, global food production systems, including agriculture, forestry, livestock and other land uses, account for 13% carbon dioxide, 44% methane and 82% nitrous oxide emissions, accounting for a third of all greenhouse gas emissions, says Sharma. “Unless the farming system changes, we can’t expect agriculture to be resilient. We must adapt the different modes of farming to save future generations,” he says.

Small-scale ‘food forests’ have been created at multiple places in the country to bypass conventional agriculture. Hyderabad-based entrepreneur Sunith Reddy, for one, has co-founded Beforest, a startup that sets up sustainable communities or ‘collectives’, where individuals can buy a piece of land as part of the community and work on permaculture. “It encourages us to think of the system as a whole and include resources we assume to be free like water and soil,” says Reddy, who starts work on any farm with a few surveys. “It helps us decipher the nature of the landscape, the way the water flows, the birds and trees there and the condition of the land. It extends to the planning of infrastructure, the masterplan, location of housing clusters and vegetation grown,” he adds.

The first few months are spent understanding the ecosystem. This is done using methods like hydrological survey, bird and tree count, sound mapping, topographical study, etc. The topographical survey, for instance, reveals the slope of the land at various points, helping guess the direction of water flow, safe spots for housing clusters, etc. Once the water channels are identified, bird/animal census helps in identifying the pioneer species of the place—a few handpicked animals/birds that are indicative of the health of a host of others. “To allow these pioneers to thrive, we identify a suitable distance from the ravines (water channels) that are left untouched. These are called riparian zones that are eliminated from the list of prospects for housing clusters,” says Reddy. For the first two years of cultivation, the focus is on increasing the soil quality. Sesbania, moringa, etc, add a lot of mulch to the ground and keep increasing the soil carbon content. Every 1% increase in soil carbon content means an additional storage capacity of 75,000 litre of water in the soil, he says.

For Gupta, too, water management is crucial. At Aanandaa, water comes down from Morni Hills and takes some time to get to the farm, following the path laid out for it through the built channels. The meandering path slows down the water, allowing the soil to soak it in before it makes its way to the pond for storage. The trees, bamboos and grass lining the path ensure that the soil does not erode and the water gets filtered on its way to the pond. “Every year, the ecosystem gets stronger. The water gets slower and cleaner. The trees get bigger and greener,” says Gupta.

Roadblocks & hurdles
Like any other agricultural practice, permaculture, too, has its own set of unique challenges. Large landscapes, for one, may have different results in different areas, as the quality of the ecosystem changes from one end to the other. “We can’t have a blanket solution for every place. The biggest challenge is, hence, to understand and improve the ecosystem before planning food production. We follow the principle of first planting the soil and then water… abundance will follow. Also, most farms are severely degraded. It takes years to revive the soil back to a healthy state. This may not be possible for a small-scale sustenance farmer,” says Reddy.

Gupta says season change can cause delay in producing a crop, as there is a lot of emphasis on using local resources without disturbing the local environment. “In May, for instance, we planted tomatoes, brinjals, lemongrass and mint. But the hot summer didn’t allow us to plant anything else and we had to wait for the weather to get cooler in order to add more herbs,” she says.

There is also the need to inspire farmers to move away from chemicals and focus on the conservation and restoration of soil. “Lack of good education in government schools on fast-moving agriculture changes or new techniques of farming is a deterrent,” says Gupta.

The greatest challenge, however, is that people can’t come up with or adopt solutions despite being aware of the current environmental and social issues. “Knowledge about climate change is known, but there is a wide implementation gap,” rues Koppula.

Future approach
Going forward, providing assistance to small-scale farmers to help them adopt sustainable practices would be key. Koppula quotes the example of the ‘living soil’ concept introduced in the Andhra Pradesh Drought Mitigation project, which addresses low productivity and high risk of farming in drought-prone districts of southern Andhra Pradesh. “Through this project, we identify different blocks in the project area in which we work with farmers on improving soil organic matter, reducing soil temperature, covering soil across the year through mulching, protecting soil from erosion, etc. All these practices derive from permaculture principles,” he says.

As per Koppula, the success of permaculture lies in its systemic and inclusive approach to conceive systems and tackle environmental and social issues. “The number of permaculture design courses is increasing, especially in Karnataka, Maharashtra, Kerala, Delhi and Telangana. At our farm, we run group sessions every month, which are even atttended by engineers interested in learning the principles,” he says.

Permaculture can prove viable for future generations, feel experts. “It needs to be accepted as a policy by the government,” says Sharma. “Since India produces surplus food every year, this can prove viable in the future,” he says.

The good news is that more and more urban people are showing interest, says Seetha Ananthasivan, founder trustee, KNA Foundation (a charitable trust), and director, Bhoomi College, Bengaluru. “Chemical-based agriculture reduces fertile land and with India’s 70% mass population residing in rural areas, there is a need to produce an amount of crop that suffices the total population. For a large population and unregulated market like India, the long-term solution is localisation of food and resources, and regulation of prices. This has started happening in small pockets now,” she says.

There’s no time to waste any more, feels Reddy. “We are close to the day when there will be no water. Permaculture helps in not just food production, but also water retention, improving soil health and making the ecosystem a lot more resilient,” he says.

Reddy is right. In the 2019 Global Hunger Index, India secured the 102nd rank among 117 countries, slipping from its 2018 position of 95 and falling behind its neighbours Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Farming practices that have higher productivity and lower costs, but can’t cater to large populations are not so useful, according to Delhi-based Ashok Gulati, Infosys chair professor for agriculture at the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations. “Today, we talk about organic farming as we have sufficient amounts of grains available in the country. Until the green revolution started in 1965, we were starving. This movement saved millions of lives,” he says.

Gulati, however, questions the efficacy of permaculture in providing for the masses. “The basic premise of farming should be freedom to practice anything. But when it comes to national policy, can permaculture feed the masses?” he says, questioning the fertiliser subsidy budgeted at `80,000 crore for 2019-20 and suggests that it be shared with farmers on a per hectare basis. “High-yielding varieties can serve four times the population. Take a look at the fertiliser consumption of India and China. It is 157 kg/hectare in India and 500 kg/hectare in China. China’s overall crop area is 166 million hectares as compared to India which is 198 million hectares. But China produces three-and-a-half times more than us. We need new technologies, as we can’t simply rely on traditional methods to give enough food. India not only needs smart agriculture solutions, but smart policies too,” he adds.

Crisis situation

* In the 2019 Global Hunger Index, India secured the 102nd rank among 117 countries, slipping from its 2018 position of 95

* Global mean crop yields of rice, maize and wheat are projected to decrease 3-10% per degree of global warming adversely impacting livestock

* As per the 2019 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, global food production systems, including agriculture, forestry, livestock and other land uses, account for 13% carbon dioxide, 44% methane and 82% nitrous oxide emissions, accounting for a third of all greenhouse gas emissions

* By 2050, nearly 120 million people will be at risk of undernourishment because of climate change, as per a 2019 PwC-Assocham report

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