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Agriculture – a life of inter-connectedness

Seed festivals are instrumental in conserving many varieties which otherwise would have gone extinct

Strongly believing in diversity, around 5000 farmers in Kerala have been preserving and nurturing seed diversity, over years. Exchanging and conserving not only seeds but also knowledge associated with it during their annual seed festivals, these 5000 farming families along with their collectives, are making an investment in the sustainability of agriculture and life on this planet.

With the increasing alienation from soil and life processes that we experience today, our thoughts and forms of living have become increasingly abstract, diminishing our capacity to engage with the immediate and physical. It is almost absurd: what is alienated and abstracted have come to feel immediate and real for us, dishonoring the real processes that sustain our life. Only a true engagement with soil and the ones who work with it and help sustain our bodies, can allow all other works that we do today, to become whole and complete.

With sustaining efforts of FTAK (Fair Trade Alliance Kerala), about twenty five thousand people from four northern districts of Kerala, (Kozhikode, Kannur, Wayanad, Kasargod) for the last twelve years have been procuring,  preserving and exchanging all sorts of seeds,   planting material, indigenous livestock, medicinal plants, indigenous and wild trees, and other living things in a focused and sustained manner.

Conscious consumers now understand the real value of safe produce

Born at the peak of the agrarian crises in Kerala, FTAK was formed in 2005 by Tomy Mathew of Kerala’s oldest organic store, Elements in Kozhikode. The 300 families from Wayanad who were its first members initially were looking to increase market access for their farm produce and to negotiate better prices to ensure trade justice. The dignity of farmers was at the center of the collective. Now under its umbrella over 5000 families, adding up to about 25000 people, have made a mark in the hilly tracts of Malabar, by its pioneering efforts at fair market access for the hill produces of Kerala. The organization has been a trendsetter in procuring agricultural commodities like cashew, coffee, spices, coconut etc., from its members, at prices that match the cost of sustainable production.

The organization initially focused on remunerative prices and fair market access. Today the organization has managed to build on this and become a force in sustainable and organic farming practices, rejecting monocropping for biodiversity. It is thumping a finger at terminator technology. They are recapturing seeds for the public good. At another level, it is bringing the focus back on food sovereignty. The aim is to make each member’s farm a miniature rain forest with a multitude of fauna and flora, typical for the western ghats region, now a declared protected biosphere.

FTAK has become valuable as an institution for its members, not only for marketing their products for fair prices but also providing mid- and long-range proposals on how to improve their livelihoods and lives on a very regional and pragmatic way, with a strong democratic process.

The festivals are a platform for exchanging seeds and knowledge

Seed festival – a gathering of custodians of seeds

In this context, FTAK’s seed festival is moving and reassuring. It pulses with hope for the future. It seeks to enliven both the functional and symbolic spirit of the land and community. Its participants present a vision of life as abundance – an abundance of life. Not a wasteful or accumulative affluence, but satiation and sharing, where we remember and learn again from teachers who have come to us in different forms – soil, rain, trees, plants, birds, animals and elements, and from each other as a community. The farms and the venue of the seed festivals become a place for  sharing experience and knowledge related to preservation and propagation of indigenous seeds.

We are living in a time witnessing an increasing aggression in our lives, fueled by obscure and abstract institutionalized forms of faith. Paradoxically, the innate and transcending nature of these faiths are being repressed and predictably producing seeds of threats and hatred. But in the seed festival, along with the preservation of life-sustaining seeds, the important values of caring, nurturing, preserving and sharing are also nurtured. So to my mind, it is not just about preserving seeds, it is about who is preserving them and how. It is often the people at the margins and the vulnerable are the ones who preserve many of the transcending visions, breathing them into the daily life. An observation from a visitor who took many rounds and spoke with each stall said, “What we get to see in the stalls are not just seeds but also the spirit of dedicated collectives. The seeds reflects their labor of love. Hence they spoke from their hearts. It expressed the dignity of their work, the beauty of the togetherness, confidence and contentment. They see the work as their contribution to the coming generation.”

If you went to view the exhibition the way we visit other shows, we would miss the meaning. Around sixty stalls all display seeds with extraordinary diversity, over 6000 of them: ordinary, extraordinary, unique, nearly extinct and common – all are there. Around 200 varieties of rice, one hundred and fifty kinds of beans (payaru), many kinds of brinjal, chilies, pepper, yams, spinach, tubers, fruits, nuts, medicinal plants, engendered livestock, all make a testimony. These are presented by those who have cared to keep them alive. Not just alive, but thriving with health and purity. As faith communities fight over issues of purity, here these humble farmers with urgency and mindfulness, with open eyes and hands, work in the soil to maintain its moisture, micro-organisms, air, warmth and all that is necessary for a seed to sprout, grow, and blossom to give healthy seeds again, year after year. That way they hope that along with all these rich diverse and interdependent forms of vegetation and other forms of life, our life too would regain health and sanity. One visitor said, “Their understanding of the holistic nature of farming was most erudite… I felt that if these were the women farmers, then there was vast wealth of potential trainers and resource persons inside the organization.” What is important is that most of the people who come to visit the seed festival are also keen to care for life and committed to learn the nurturing of it. So it is the place for the gathering of minds to share their seeds and the knowledge of preservation that to my mind is doing a duty that is sacramental. Because it is the true work for our times, an investment in the continuity of agriculture and the life on this soil.

If one visits any of the farms, half-acre to three-acre plots, one would see multiple crops like coffee, spices, coconuts, fruits and vegetables all on one farm and growing amidst each other. From the tubers underground to the tallest coconut trees, from the soil to the sky, many, many varieties of food and cash crops. A farm looks more like a very large tropical allotment. Here with the involvement of over 5000 farming families, with their collectives, we see the largest indigenous seed preservation effort in the western ghats of India. The focus of the seed fest now is on seed sovereignty, vittu swaraj.

Today each collective has become a seed bank. A seed keeper from a collective says, “Today, I do not even need to buy groceries, except for sugar, salt and tea. Everything is in my farm or the neighbors.” Seeds that were only with one person at the beginning of the seed festivals are now with many. When the farmers speak, we can hear how these seeds are cared for with personal attention. “All is done with our own hand … this needs to be experienced personally,” they say. If a visitor is not alert enough to the alertness of the seed keeper, he would miss this bodily connection she is whispering, the secret of Life.

Thich Nhat Hanh said once that “if you are a poet you will clearly see that there is cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud there will be no rain, without rain, no trees and without trees, no paper.” If we take a moment to see the story in reverse, we will get to see the poems in the clouds and not need to write them on paper. So that the trees, rain and clouds all would return. These seed keepers see the poems in the soil and the seeds. It is the poetry of bodily connection, celebrating life.

Visitors at the FTAK seed festival

The seeds stay together knowing each other

In keeping with the spirit of this mindful preoccupation, the fest itself is different from the exhibitions that we normally get to see. At a time when our tastes, without even our own knowing, are defined by the studio aesthetics of corporate world, the seed fest defies all that smartness. All who come there are part of one caring. The event carries the sensibility of land, done without event managers, PR agencies and media hype. A true farmer knows what is necessary, what is wasteful and how something is made functional. So it is not an exhibition for an alienated consumption, but reminds us of our own simple taste and shows us possibilities of how one can be light. It shows our own forgotten ways of togetherness, and how one can go beyond the financially-driven economy and participate in a social economy.

Conscious consumers

Sections of people today are becoming more sensitive to the effects of their consumer behavior and are increasingly trying to avoid a negative impact in the upstream value chain by making an educated choice. It is time for a conscious consumer to understand the real value of the produce they take away at a bargain.

Fair trade as a concept recognizes the skewed market and tries to appeal to the buyer’s sense of justice. It rests on the principle of consumers supporting producers directly and a willingness to pay more than the conventional market price in exchange for healthier products. As a visitor says, “FTAK’s effort is at the very heart of the struggle between a sustainable food system centered on the work and knowledge of small farmers, and an unsustainable industrialized food system dominated by a handful of multinational corporations.”

In a social as against a financially-driven economy, new ideas spread not by creating large corporations, but by the rich examples of forms that are smaller and in human scale. They inspire others and spread like seeds from a pod. FTAK in its short life has been just such an inspiration.

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C.F. John can be contacted at cfjohn23@gmail.com