Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Araku Valley and Adivasi Farmers

DISCLAIMER: A friend of mine recently made me aware that the NGO that took me around in Araku Valley is also working with a huge, very destructive mining and aluminum processing company called Vedanta to get good press in a nearby state for "helping the poor" when they are actually doing the opposite. While I still appreciate the experience I had in Araku and I do think they are doing good work here, it's important to understand that these nation-wide, well-funded NGOs often have more than one side to them and sometimes get into bed with some unsavory characters. So, understand that I am not trying to completely endorse Naandi and all that they do, but only to relay a couple weeks of my travel experience in India.

With Auroville fading as a weird and out of place memory, I soon found myself in the coastal town of Vishakapatnam on the very northeast tip of Andhra Pradesh. This was only a brief stopover before traveling up to Araku Valley, a reputedly beautiful hilly area which is home to a heavy concentration of indigenous tribal people, generically known as Adivasi. I had randomly read a newspaper article while across the country in Rajasthan about a project in Araku to plug Adivasi farmers into organic certification and marketing schemes, and also to receive carbon credits for reforestation. It seemed to be worth checking out and the NGO heading this work emailed me back quickly after I found them through an internet search. After a train ride through very Appalachian-looking hills, I was greeted by a friendly chap at the train station who would give me a ride into the interior areas.

Naandi Foundation is a pretty big and well-funded NGO working on a diverse set of health, education, and livelihood issues in different parts of rural India. While there might be a bigger hierarchy at play, I found myself being hosted and taken around by very humble, helpful, and down to earth folks who were all from the local area. Once again on the back of a motorbike, it was a very strange but beautiful world I found myself in. The entire area was full of big hills, and though the people lacked much of anything in the way of tools or infrastructure, there were huge, well designed terraces everywhere for growing rice and other crops. People had ingeniously directed water from its source to flow through each of these fields so that they could be flooded and irrigated at key times. The dwellings were very simple, mostly made of packed mud or wood with clay tile roofs, and people (mostly women) were engaged in lots of different kinds of manual labor, like chopping wood, carrying water on their heads, planting rice, and working with water buffalo. I didn't know it at the time, but this scenery would come to be quite common to me over the next two months.

Our first stop was a village that was too remote to receive any connection to the national power grid (the villages that were "connected" had a single thin wire that supplied only enough power for light bulbs for maybe 3-4 hours per day), and it was chosen by TERI for a solar lighting project. A small set of solar panels were connected to an array of battery-powered lanterns, which the villagers charged everyday and then used to be able to see at night. From here we checked out some of their reforestation-cum-coffee plantation projects, whereby people were taught to grow shade-giving trees (silver oak) together with organic coffee. Apparently Naandi has been able to get carbon credits for the reforestation bit because these hillsides have been seriously denuded due to overharvesting and population pressure, whereas they were once densely forested carbon sinks. By dusk we had reached the state-of-the-art coffee processing facility that had also been built through Naandi. Apparently all of the growers in their program bring their beans here to be dehulled, cleaned, and ready to be sent off to roasters, and I believe it was done in a cooperative framework wherein the villagers are involved with the running of the plant as well. The hulls are are turned into biodynamic vermicompost, and the beans are mostly sold to high-end markets in Europe, bringing the most possible profit back to the growers.

I checked out their organic training center/tree nursery the next day, and learned a bit about the teaching programs they have to make innovative organic growing methods known to the local folks. David Hogg, originally a New Zealander who's been in India for the past 30 years, is the head of this whole farming development program and is very much into creation of biodynamic composts and pesticides, so that is the main focus of their methods here. Looked like some pretty potent stuff, maybe I'll try mixing up a brew when I get back to Kentucky. We went to one more village which was kind of a model because all of the different aspects of the program (coffee/reforestation, organic farming, biodynamic compost/pesticide production, and a Naandi-funded school) were happening here. Through my guide/translator, I was able to spend a fair amount of time talking with these folks about how this transition from mainly rice production with synthetic fertilizer to diversified organic agriculture has really benefited their lives. I was a bit surprised to see a flag in the middle of a remote village with a big communist symbol on it; apparently a lot of people in this region are not the biggest fans of the central Indian government and don't believe it really cares for the welfare of the rural poor.

I wanted to climb one of the hills, so the fellow who had been taking me around on motorbike and I reached the top and surveyed the surrounding farming valleys and hills rising off to the distance. I noticed that there was a big plume of steam rising from somewhere around the base of the hill, and descended to discover a pretty interesting scene. A bunch of guys were processing sugar cane into jaggery by pressing the juice from the cane with a diesel engine-driven press system, and then boiling the juice in a huge vat to leave only the thick, sticky crystals that are formed into big, solid chunks. They gave us some raw cane to chew on while we watched, and I just remember being almost overwhelmed by the wafts of sugar-filled steam that kept rising. This would be my last stop with Naandi, and I was very grateful to their generosity as I packed my things to go. As with many times on this trip, my hosts and travel guides wouldn't accept a penny from me as thanks.

On my way out of Araku, I made a stop over at Borra Caves, one of the biggest cave complexes in India. It was definitely impressive, but being in the villages for the past several days had caused me to forget how intensely obnoxious Indian families on vacation from the cities can be. The caves were filled with children and youth hollering and going crazy, and I had to go outside and wander off the beaten path to find an apparently unknown set of caves and waterfalls that were just down the river from the main set. I was the only soul around, and it was very good to sit and take in these surroundings before jumping back onto a train and into the cities.


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