Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Biochar in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu

Mumbai wasn't nearly as much of a shock to the senses as I'd expected, but the sleeper class train (basically the lowest class and cheapest trains where you can lay down) I took to Hyderabad was a bit more of an experience than I thought it would be. I guess I had gotten used to the relative comfort of the AC trains with their cleaner berths, fairly sane comings and goings of passengers, and controlled environment, so the wide-open windows, tons of people squeezing onto one seat, and unkempt nature of the ride was yet another adjustment in this country of constant assaults on the senses. It really wasn't so bad and despite being constantly stared at by the youths crowded together I really enjoyed being able to see the scenery so clearly, as well as the random conversations with folks happy to practice their English skills.

The next stop was Hyderabad, a mostly uninteresting city which is now becoming one of India's fast growing IT outsourcing hubs. I was there to meet with Dr. Saibaskar Reddy, a fellow trained in geology but now one of the country's main proponents of biochar as a means to sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide in charcoal and use it for improving agricultural land. The approach his group, GEO, has taken is to build and distribute low-cost small cookstoves to rural villages which enable people to remove the charcoal before it completely turns to ash and which also create much less smoke than traditional wood-fired cooking methods. I spent a couple of days out in the countryside with him visiting places where the stoves are made from completely recycled materials, seeing their biochar training center, and also villages where the stoves are being used.

This was definitely one of the poorer areas I'd visited so far, and it's been strange to see the limited means people have to work with yet how they generally seem to be in better spirits than people from more "developed" places. They were also uniformly friendly and happy to share with outsiders like myself. I was also a bit surprised to see a couple of monuments adorned with communist flags; apparently this region produces some of the leaders of the Maoist Naxalite movement from time to time. Through Dr. Reddy I made a contact with a group in Tamil Nadu that was just starting to work on a biochar project, and after receiving a positive response from them I made plans to travel to the Nilgiris area of the Western Ghats mountains as my next stop. After checking out Golconda Fort and a nice museum, I boarded a bus headed to Bangalore where I would get another bus to Gudalur.

One of my favorite aspects of this trip is watching the countryside change from a bus or train window, and this time I got to see the arid plains of Andhra Pradesh turn into the tropical farmlands of Karnataka and then into the forested hills of NW Tamil Nadu. I was lucky enough to see a wild elephant as I passed through the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, and soon I was finding my way to the office of the Shola Trust where I would be collaborating on their biochar project for a couple of weeks. The Shola Trust has a few different focus areas (biological conservation, tribal livelihood development, etc), and this biochar project touched on a few of these. There is an invasive shrub known as lantana camara which has taken over large areas of the ecologically sensitive Mudumalai Tiger reserve, and it's particularly nasty because the leaves are inedible to wildlife, the roots exude chemicals which prevent other plants from growing nearby, and it resprouts more vigorously when cut or burned. Therefore Shola is working with the Forest Service and nearby tribal communities to uproot lantana, remove it from the forest (open burning in the forest leads to forest fires and actually encourages lantana), use the nicer branches for tribal-made furniture, and convert the rest into biochar to be mixed with manure/compost and applied to agricultural land.

My task was to design and build a portable, efficient biochar kiln that could be taken to villages to utilize the nearby lantana and also use the excess heat to remove the bark from the lantana branches that they would be using for furniture making. After some hours of internet searching I had a basic design, and the next day I started working with a local metalworker to cut, weld, and put everything into place. This was a growing experience in a few ways. First, this fellow spoke almost no English, and I had to communicate only through drawing, gestures, and moving pieces of metal around. Second, I was amazed at their working methods, as they use hammer and chisel to cut thick pieces of angle iron and there was no welding mask in sight, despite quite a bit of high voltage arc welding. Finally, this fellow and his family were devout Christians, and they were the first I'd met in those mostly Hindu country. I came to find out that South India and Tamil Nadu in particular has a much more even mix of Christian/Muslim/Hindu peoples, and that here they coexist very peacefully.

After a few days it was time to test this oil barrel + galvanized pipe + angle iron contraption, and thank the Lord it worked as it was supposed. It always ended up being a bit of a party when we would do a test firing as everybody wanted to come and help with building the containment walls, getting the wood ready, starting the initial fire, and watching the flames roar out of the gasification pipe. As far as I know they're using the unit out in the field now, but unfortunately I felt like my time was too limited to stick around for more than 2 1/2 weeks.

I'll just say a quick note about some other people and projects in the area that are definitely worth mentioning. Many parts of India have serious problems with the exploitation of the indigenous tribal peoples (known as Adivasis), and this mountainous area is no different. Back in the 1980s a very inspiring fellow named Stan Thaekaera started an organization called Accord, and they have had many important victories which have forced the government and non-tribal Indians to recognize Adivasi land rights even when they don't have a formal document asserting their ownership. There is a hospital and school in Gudalur dedicated to Advasis, and both were excellent models of non-condescending ways to help locals. From Accord, a side group known as Just Change developed in the 1990s with the aim of empowering Adivasis through community owned sustainable enterprises and an international marketing framework that takes "Fair Trade" a step farther. The Shola Trust was started by the Stan's son Tarsh, and they share an office with Just Change. Finally, there's this awesome guy Madhu who rescues snakes (including lots of cobras) who have come into contact with humans as Shola's wildlife conservation fellow and releases them into safe habitats, and sometime soon I'll try to post a youtube video of one of his capers.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

India: The First Month or so

I have to admit that I was experiencing a fair amount of anxiety and trepidation as the flight from Germany to India finally got into the air. I had never been to a “developing” country before (unless you count Appalachia), and most people I had talked to had given me more to worry about than to look forward to. However, I had chosen this destination for good reasons, and I was determined to at least spend a few solid weeks in the country before giving up.

Upon arriving in Delhi, my first day went about as wrong as it could have. Air India lost several people's checked baggage (including mine) in Germany, and we had to wait for hours only to find that they would take our information and deliver the baggage when and if they found it. I had been planning to stay with someone that I had contacted on www.couchsurfing.org, but I couldn't access the internet anywhere to look up their number so I got a taxi ride to a part of town that I heard had cheapish hotels.

To make a long story short, the taxi driver drove me through some very sketchy looking streets to arrive at a relatively opulent hotel which was way more expensive than I was looking for. My senses were overwhelmed on the ride there by the completely new sights, sounds, and smells of one of the biggest and fastest growing cities in the world, including traffic with no rules whatsoever, random cattle all over the place, lots of tiny three-wheeled cargo vehicles, horse carts right next to huge trucks, and the most intense haze of smog I've ever seen. Basically he pulled a tried-and-true scam where a shell-shocked foreigner who has just arrived in super crazy Delhi is shown some of the “rougher” parts of town and then delivered to a cushy hotel, and the driver gets a fat commission if the tourist stays there. It was getting dark and I didn't have the energy or guts to go searching for somewhere cheaper in this overwhelming place, so I paid my 1800 rupees and got some sleep.

I spent the night wondering if I would be able to handle this place for any length of time, although I had barely seen anything at all. Thankfully everything started to change almost immediately the next day. I finally did hook up with the fellow I had found on couchsurfing.org, and I eventually made it over to his flat after visiting the Qutb Minar monuments. Abhinav and his flatmates were all young professional Indians (mostly with MBAs) living in the area of town known as Mehrauli, technically the oldest part of Delhi as it existed as an independent town even before the actual city. I spent some time wandering through the amazingly congested and chaotic narrow streets filled with cows, motorcycles, bicycles carrying amazing loads, little kids, trash, and every kind of shop you could imagine. I definitely felt like I was in a different world, and I don't think words can describe the intense sensory onslaught. Somehow I felt relatively comfortable walking through these streets where I was the only white person around, and I no longer felt overwhelmed as when I had first arrived.

I quickly came to be familiar with the public transport system in Delhi as I was mainly there to have meetings and make contacts that would ideally help pave the way for the rest of my time in India. I was reasonably able to get around town on my own only using the metro and my feet, which I felt proud about considering how chaotic this place can be. I met up with people at the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE), The Energy Research Institute (TERI), Indian Institute of Technology's Centre for Energy Studies, and someone associated with Navdanya. In the end I wasn't sure how useful it was overall, as I came out of the week with only a few additional contacts and no more set places to go. I missed out on most of the more “touristy” attractions in and around Delhi (like the Taj Mahal), but this didn't concern me so much as I was pretty determined to not be a typical India tourist.

Before heading to my next “official” engagement, I made a four-day detour up to McLeod Ganj, AKA the home of the Dalai Lama and a Tibetan refugee settlement. I mainly went to go see some Himalayan foothills and interesting cultural stuff, but I ended up being very affected by the situations that the Tibetans are in. I've always been vaguely aware of the issue of Tibet having been violently taken over by China in the late 1950s with most of their ancient monasteries destroyed and many peaceful monks tortured and/or killed, but it never really hit home til I was in their capitol-in-refuge. Through documentaries and hanging out with young Tibetans who spoke broken English, I came to learn about the ongoing systematic undermining of their culture by the Chinese authority and the persecution of any dissidents within the country. Unfortunately this left me feeling mostly frustrated and powerless, but it did plant the idea of possibly going to Tibet to see things there with my own eyes if I end up going to China later. Otherwise I got to see some very beautiful mountains and waterfalls and such, and then onto an extremely uncomfortable overnight bus ride to my next destination.

I had planned for some time to go to the Bija Vidyapeeth organic training farm outside of Dehradun in Uttarakhand. This was originally set up by world-infamous author, speaker, activist etc Vandana Shiva along with a couple of other people back in the 1980s. Not only does it contain about 25 acres of organic fruit, vegetable, herb, and grain production, they also have a diversified seed bank and they host research, development, and regional farmer trainings. Bija Vidyapeeth is the demonstration farm for Navdanya, a nationwide organization that sets up seed banks, trains farmers to grow organically, and which also helps them with marketing and branding with many branches and operatives working in several regions. This is significant considering that at least 60% of this country of 1.2 billion people still makes a primary living from agriculture, and since the 1960s they have become quite dependent on synthetic chemical inputs that they can scarcely afford and which contribute to further degradation of already damaged lands.

I was excited to arrive and jump straight into hands-on work alongside the Indians who work there full time, but this was thwarted on the first day by a crippling stomach illness. I had been told that I would probably get sick at some point in India, and so I had attempted to inoculate myself in the first week by eating samosas from street vendors. I still don't know what triggered it, but after two weeks into the trip I found myself struggling with the most unpleasant night of vileness that I can remember. For the next several days I was much weaker than usual with a very limited appetite. Eventually I got violently ill again, and finally decided to go to the doctor for antibiotics. I was cured within a day or so and have not had any such episode again.

Although I was at less than full capacity for about half of my time at Navdanya, it was at least good to see and spend time with an organization that is doing activities all over the country that are similar to what I would like to do with organic farming in Appalachia. I can't say that I really learned anything new about farming as I didn't notice anything particularly innovative about their methods, and it was surprisingly expensive to stay and volunteer there. In fact I have the feeling that the financial side of the organization is significantly propped up by the high prices foreigners pay (about $14 per day, which is a ton of money here) to come have an authentic Indian farming experience, as well as the very high prices they charge for their products in fancy markets in Delhi and Dehradun. I certainly could have spent my money on worse causes, and while I wonder about the overall financial sustainability of a model that depends on constant input from foreigners I do think they are doing good work that deserves to be supported.

I had planned to go from Navdanya back to Delhi for a week and then over to the mining regions of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, but this was not to be the case. I met an Indian visitor at Navdanya who's family lives in Rajasthan, and soon I found myself pulled in an unexpected direction. Rajasthan is known as a mostly arid desert state which is home to some of India's most impressive ancient structures (built by the old-time kings known as Rajputs) and also beautiful folk art and music. I ended up spending about 2 weeks traveling through Jodhpur, Jaipur, and Jaisalmer, and while it wasn't all completely relevant to my project it was definitely an unforgettable experience in many ways.

Without going into too much detail, I received the most luxurious treatment of my life due to my friend's father being very high-ranking in the Indian railway system (the largest employer in the world apparently), I got to see massive old forts built on top of sandstone mountains, I spent New Year's Eve camping on a sand dune after riding for awhile on camelback, and I rode a motorcycle for the first time with a Rajasthani village native into his home area and then spent the night in a mud hut there after trying their version of moonshine. Actually this fellow is trying to set up an organic farm in his village that visitors can come to and spend time, and I would highly recommend hooking up with Shivnath if you have the chance (http://dumpalorganicfarm.blogspot.com/). I could easily write an entire entry about those two weeks only, but it would end up being too much in the way of personal details and little of project relevancy.

Finally I got back on track and ended up in Mumbai (Bombay) for a few days to have some meetings, again with the intention of making contacts that could help pave the way for my next steps. That did happen to some extent (i.e. coordinator for Biochar India and a fellow running Oikos, an ecological design business), and also I can now say that I have spent time in and successfully navigated around the world's 2nd largest city. Highlights include the Elephanta island caves where massive thousand-year-old Hindu carvings adorn the walls, seeing the sunset from the beach, catching the extremely crowded local trains, driving around the city in a top-down jeep with one of my “contacts,” and touring the Dharavi slum (2nd biggest slum in the world) with someone I randomly met at a dental appointment. Just like with Delhi, I experienced anxiety and trepidation on the train ride in, and within a day I felt strangely safe and comfortable moving around a ridiculously huge city on my own.

This covers the first month and a half or so of my time in India, and from here I end up heading south to spend time in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu. Hopefully I'll have the next entry finished in much less time than it took to put this one out, so stay tuned.

PS I know I'm being very sparse on details so as always feel free to ask me more about specific people, places, and/or projects at nathandavidhall@gmail.com.