>About Vanastree & a lot more before lunch

>“Loss of genetic diversity in agriculture is leading us to a rendezvous with extinction – to the doorstep of hunger on a scale we refuse to imagine. To simplify the environment as we have done with agriculture is to destroy the complex interrelationships that hold the natural world together. Reducing the diversity of life, we narrow our options for the future and render our own survival more precarious.”
– Cary Fowler and Pat Mooney, Shattering: Food, Politics and the Loss of Genetic Diversity

Vanastree, the organization that has taken me on as chief cook and bottle washer (ie, intern), is one of many NGOs tackling this issue of genetic diversity in agriculture. Basically, thanks to the “green revolution” of pesticides and hybrid crops, India’s agricultural land is in danger of becoming a giant, Monsanto-owned rice paddy, susceptible to disease and chaos and not coming near to providing enough food for its constituents. By decentralizing the food supply and reducing the heavy dependence on chemical inputs, food security (both in terms of safety and availability) becomes a much easier task.
Vanastree’s mission is to promote biodiversity in cultivated plants, which means it’s involved in a variety of activities. Documenting the infinite varieties of rice, vegetables, medicinal plants and food-producing trees in the region is a major task. We also organize farmers into seed-exchange groups, and get people started in home-based, conservation-oriented businesses (ie drying bananas for sale or hosting ecology camps).
And who does all this work? Well, there’s the collective of farmers that make up Vanastree’s 80-some member base. They keep the seeds, comprising a regional seed bank that uses the landscape itself instead of some subzero vault in the arctic. Then there’s Sunita, who basically does everything else from the organizational standpoint. Sunita started the organization in 2001, and is probably the most dedicated person I’ve ever met outside of my workaholic family. Burnout is not in her vocabulary. (Luckily, she also has a great sense of humor and knows how to take a break.)

So far, my job as an intern has been to get Vanastree up to date, technology wise (Sunita jokes that she’s the only Indian without computer skills), complete a bunch of background research for myself so I can get some grasp on the issues, and do photodocumentation of farms/home gardens and food processing. This last task has been the most fun and interesting, and not just because I’m out in the field. As a journalism student, I’ll take any excuse I can get to stick a camera in someone’s face.
This Tuesday, I got one of those opportunities – a trip to the coast to tour home gardens with a partner NGO. Except that at six in the morning when Sunita politely asked me to get up already, I was not ready to be a dutiful intern. Neither was I relishing the thought of the 16-hour day ahead. Having been awake half the night under mosquito assault, I wondered if economists had ever tried to calculate the lost GDP due to bloodthirsty insects. It would probably be enough dough to swathe the entire country in mosquito netting.
Nonetheless, here’s a rundown of the day:

Our driver, Mushtaq (the same one who picked me up from the airport), arrives just on time; that is, ten minutes early. I grab my camera and climb in the van with Sunita and Manorama, a Vanastree trustee who not only takes care of her farm and family but also does much of the organization’s documentation work – she probably could identify hundreds of local vegetable varieties by sight, along with their ideal growing conditions, pest management techniques and preparation methods. With her quiet yet inquisitive manner she pulls data out of even the most secretive gardeners.
Mushtaq throws the van into gear and we go bumping off down the road. I’ve been on a few trips now with Mushtaq at the wheel and have gained an appreciation for both his skillful driving and his sense of style. Like many young Indian men, he typically wears clothing flamboyant enough for an American preteen girl: rhinestone-studded jeans embroidered with colorful patterns; tight, brightly colored t-shirts emblazoned with brand names; chunky shoes. His van has just as much personality. A gold plastic tablet with text from the Koran (Mushtaq is part of the large Muslim minority here) hangs from the rearview mirror; on the side mirror, pink text instructs the viewer to SMILE.

Anyway, after climbing up and down hills for nearly two hours, we arrive at the coast. Our guide to the home gardens today is Rekha, a woman from the NGO Sneha Kunja. Sneha Kunja is a health organization that runs a hospital combining traditional (Ayurvedic, naturopathic, etc) and conventional (Western) medical practices. They also have several outreach programs, and promoting good nutrition through home gardens is one of them. We meet up Rekha for a quick breakfast of chai and dosas – thin pancakes made from rice flour –and head out to the first garden.
This part of the coast is home to the Hallaki Vokkal tribe, a unique but swiftly diminishing group that has farmed and fished here for thousands of years. Although they never had the bureaucratic clout to gain official tribal status from the government (a process that takes time, negotiating skills and money), the Hallaki Vokkal maintain their distinct appearance and way of life. The women traditionally wear a backless sari topped with thick layers of beaded necklaces, and men perform work according to their caste – the family we visited specializes in carpentry.
After admiring the patch of tall white okra plants and a thorny cow fence, we head down to the house where the vegetables for home consumption are grown. The greenery is flourishing despite what seem like impossible conditions – a whopping 13 feet of rainfall per year (most of it in the last three months) and soil that resembles reddish gravel. We stop inside the house for a few minutes to eat some surplus bananas; with different varieties ripening all year round, it’s a tough job in these parts, but somebody’s got to do it. We also get our foreheads dusted with red and yellow powders, a ritual performed on all guests to traditional households. Then we head back to the van, wake Mushtaq from his nap, and hit the potholes to the next garden.
On the way, we make a tender coconut stop. Tender coconuts are a fleshy, green cousin of the usual brown-husked coconut, mostly prized for their juice. Not only does they contain salts to replenish your ever-depleted sweat glands, but tender coconuts are also a guaranteed pathogen-free source of hydration. The roadside vendor sells them for about eight rupees (20 cents) each, and uses his machete to lop off the top. Then you pour the cool, slightly tangy juice down your throat and hand the empty coconut back to him. He makes a series of cuts to slice it in half and fashion a spoon out of the hull, which you can then use to scrape out the thin layer of gooey innards. That part is a bit too mucousy for me but the liquid was refreshing. We toss our coconut shells onto the large mound next to the vendor’s stand. They’ll dry there and be used to fuel someone’s fire. Because the coast is so densely populated, wood is hard to come by – the forests are as free of leaf litter as a well maintained city park – and any burnable scrap is valuable property.
While Sunita and I were getting coconuts, Rekha had made a few phone calls and discovered that there weren’t any more gardens for us to visit that day. We decide instead to take a look at Rekha’s house and then go to an island hosting a sustainable fishing village.
At Rekha’s house, I pet a cute calf and get more powder rubbed on my forehead. From there, it’s a short distance down the road to the river.
The river is the Aghanashini, one of four main rivers in this district. It’s one of the few rivers that hasn’t been dammed in India and as a result still feeds a huge estuary, rich with birds, fish and other wildlife. The island we’re visiting, Aigalkurve, is in one of these backwater reaches.
When we get out of the van, the boatman is waiting to ferry us to the island. He pushes the wood canoe across the estuary using a long stick – this is shallow, completely still water. I stick my hand in and half wish for a swim. The rains have been receding and I’m discovering how hot the sun here can get, even when behind a layer of clouds. The high humidity makes even a trace of heat magnified a thousand times. But the lush jungle on either side of the river promises shade and it’s a short ride. I still have no idea what’s on the island, but I have a feeling it will be interesting, if only because it looks like I’m entering the set of Lost.
I check my watch. It’s 11 am. I don’t remember the last time I’ve seen so many different things before lunchtime.

To be continued…


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