Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Three Month Report

Hello All.
Below is the three month summary I sent to The Watson Staff. It was nearly impossible to sum up the past 3 months in 3 pages. So, I will also post a longer 10 page rought draft. Also, please check out my pictures!! The links are below in the next post down or click "my photos" on the right of this page
Sorry the formatting is so bad on this report.

First Watson Report
Adam Forbes
Crops and Cultures: The Preservation of Heirloom Varieties

Preface to My Report:

Trying to sum up the past three months in a concise report is an extremely difficult task. Over the past few days I have attempted to start this report many times and given up when I became overwhelmed with all the memories. Today, I typed 10 pages attempting to sum up my experiences and did not even get halfway. In the simplest terms the past three months in India has been a roller coaster ride of challenging situations, excellent tastes, foul smells, educational experiences, eye-opening moments, piercing headaches, and inspirational interviews. As I reflect on my time spent in India countless memories rush back. I remember walking through the “cancer villages” in Punjab with pesticides filling my nose and mouth. I remember the old- nearly toothless woman as she climbs down into her seed bank and returns with countless varieties of spices, millet, amaranth, rice, and beans. I remember laughing with farmers as we harvest rice and crying with farmers as we discuss their debt and the death of their son. India has shocked me, depressed me, and provided me an immense amount of hope for the world – all at the same time. I could write fifty pages on just one day spent touring farms in Garwhal or in Punjab. Nonetheless, I will attempt to sum up my experiences in a somewhat cohesive manner so you get a sense of my journey.

I woke up groggy as our plane neared Chennai and looked to the man next to me. He was praying passionately over images of Krishna; clutching the faded pictures tight to his chest, moving his hands in a rhythmic pattern. All of a sudden, I became exuberant as I realized that my trip was beginning and this was the start of a year of freedom and personal growth. However, these happy feelings were soon changed drastically. After landing in a chaotic, dirty, and extremely muggy Indian city at 3 am I was hassled by taxi drivers, swindled into a more expensive room, and pestered incessantly by hotel staff. As I finally lay down in my room I began to cry uncontrollably. The tears mixed with my sweat and the lingering water from the shower that wouldn’t dry. It seemed as if things couldn’t get any worse.

Three months later, I am now preparing to board another plane to leave this magical land and am filled with feelings of sadness that I never thought I would feel. The original sense of anger towards the filthy streets, incessant honking, and extremes between rich and poor have now morphed into a love for the chaos that is India. After three months I have come to understand why yoga and meditation emerged from this region. India is an intensely spiritual place in which religion infuses every part of life. However, it is also a truly chaotic and insane country that requires the patience gained through yoga or relaxation to deal with it happily. A week after my tough introduction to life in India I smiled for the first time as I woke up to see the sun rising over fields of corn, rice, and lentils. I had been traveling overnight from Delhi in a crowded and hot Indian bus. However, I couldn’t help but smile from ear to ear as I saw the dappled light of the early morning sun shine down on fields of villagers waking to the day – collecting water and beginning their work in the fields. Only one week into my trip I was beginning to accept the extremes of India and constant up and downs that made up my experience here.

Now after three incredible months I have adjusted to the retched smells and striking poverty, the different notions of time and the constant hassles of being a white person. I have also adapted to the massive gaps between rich and poor in a country where some people have four cell phones and drop hundreds of dollars on drinks while others who are sick from pesticide-laden water lie on the street receiving no help. As I try to remember the details of my trip, all the memories of challenges in India somehow mix with the delicious food, plethora of unique seeds and associated stories, colorful dresses, friendly families, inspiring social movements, toothless old women with bags of beans, energetic children and soulful music to create a vibrant tapestry of life in this developing nation that will stick with me for years to come.

My three months in India have developed spontaneously, as I had hoped. The only major challenges I have faced are language barriers and some health issues (mainly chronic migraines which began before the trip). Other than that I have been incredibly lucky. Not only have I escaped the many ailments that stalk travelers here, but I have also been given countless opportunities for which I am eternally grateful. My research time began at the Navdanya Biodiversity Conservation Farm. While working here I was able learn practical skills related to seed saving and organic agriculture. Additionally I was given a glimpse into the workings of an NGO dedicated to addressing these issues of seed saving and food security. Hard work on the farm was interspersed with ample reading time, learning Hindi, and over 26 interviews with farmers in the local region. My reading and interviews with both Navdanya staff and local farmers provided me a well rounded view as to why seed saving is so important, what the state of agriculture is in India, and what can be done to address the agricultural crisis that we are facing worldwide. Navdanya has done everything from starting seed banks to teaching compost workshops, educating farmers about food policy, and creating a market in the cities to sell organic produce from small scale farmers. They are a brilliant example of a successful NGO that is empowering rural farmers by reconnecting them to their roots of traditional agriculture, seed saving and cooperative sharing.

During my interviews, some farmers spoke to me simply – only telling me that seeds are life and asking how anybody could survive without seeds. Others talked to me about the great taste found in native varieties and cooked a delicious meal for me from traditional recipes. Others still taught me about the many complexities of modern agriculture and the green revolution. I have learned more from my talks with farmers and first-hand observation than I learned in all my university classes related to food combined. The narrow notion I had of the importance of biodiversity and seed sovereignty has been shattered as I have been exposed to the reality of agriculture here in India, where thousands of farmers have taken their lives as a result of debt or even failed hybrid seeds. Luckily, every time I have learned some depressing information, I have also been exposed to hope. This hope comes in the form of native rice varieties adapted to saltpan and flooding, which have saved agriculture in Orissa after the 2004 Tsunami. The hope comes in the form of a poor farmer going against his neighbors and family to create an organic farm in the middle of a desert of genetically engineered cotton and pesticides. Hope comes in many forms during this trip. It has filled my soul and given me the energy to tackle all the challenges of India. After what I have seen I can now dream of a brighter future and reject the slightly pessimistic attitude that plagues my mind.

Using the oasis of the Navdanya farm as a home base I traveled to Punjab, two different areas in the Himalayas, Delhi, Hardwar and other local jaunts. In Punjab I was first deeply depressed by visits to “cancer villages” in which 30% of the inhabitants have cancer. I spoke to women whose toxic breast milk killed their babies, looked into polluted waterways that were once rushing rivers, and felt the burn of pesticides in my mouth and nose. Despite all this, I also saw an incredibly inspiring movement that is using the symbol of the seed as a way to galvanize a diverse mass social movement. In one crazy week we met with farmers (ranging from 1 acre to 400 acres), lawyers, professors, activists, journalists, and doctors regarding this movement against the green revolution and genetic engineering. The sheer number and diversity of people passionate about this movement shocked me. In the middle of a polluted land, thousands are working together to address issues of health, nutrition, pollution, seed ownership, and most importantly rural sustainability. I didn’t truly know the vast effects of modern agriculture and the inherent contradictions until viewing the situation first-hand here in India. To me, Punjab is a symbol both for the harms of chemical agriculture and the possibility of a positive rural future based on traditional crops and sustainable agriculture.

My two visits to the hills exposed me to different social movements addressing these same issues. However, in the hills all is not lost like in Punjab. There is still a culture of seed saving, cooperation, and sharing among neighbors. In one region I visited every house has a seed bank attached, which is intricately carved and built into the earth so it is always cool. In these regions I saw how people can live happily and peacefully without relying on the market. During one family stay, we only ate things from their farm for four days and it was delicious! The inhabitants of Garwhal directly rely on the environment around them for food, medicine, tools, and their entire livelihood. In turn, they recognize the importance of their traditional crops, agricultural practices, and diet. Even rural farmers have become aware of the complex science and data that shows the loss in nutritional quality from hybrid of GM food.

India has exposed me to a drastically different life. Through my work with numerous different NGO’s and social movements I have been pushed to ponder my own existence, the impact I have on the planet, and my future role as a farmer and social activist. Old notions I had about sustainable agriculture were reinforced while I learned an immense amount of new information regarding the green revolution, genetic engineering, the importance of traditional varieties of crops, and the various ways social movements can be organized. Theoretical knowledge learned through numerous conferences and books has combined with first hand experiences and memories to create an infinite web of new thoughts and ideas in my head.

I leave India enlightened about the negatives of the current path we are on and extremely hopeful that a possibility exists. The original feelings I had of loneliness and selfishness that I wasn’t doing enough to help have slightly faded as I have embraced the Watson experience. I am eternally grateful to be given this opportunity and cant believe I have 9 more months to go. These three months have flown by, but I feel as if a lifetime has passed since I left the states. I fear I will never be able to convey what I have learned on this trip to others – its just too much. However, I move on to Italy tomorrow, continuing to live in the present and ready to tackle whatever lays ahead. Namaste and Ciao!

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