Furrowed with deep gullies, its topsoil all but gone, this degraded patch of land near Odagaon in Odishas Nayagarh district was once a dense forest. Whenever nature tried to reclaim it, the little shoots would be nibbled away by goats and sheep. The villagers who owned the land had lost all hope of ever growing crops here. But for Sabarmatee and her father Radhamohan founders of Sambhav, a non-profit organisation that works on gender and environment this was precisely what they were looking for: the challenge of rejuvenating land that had been written off.
The duo bought 70 acres with the help of donations and set to work. First, they created a bio-fence by planting bamboo on the edges: unlike a compound wall that takes money to create, the bamboo fence becomes a source of income. Within two years, sprigs of grass appeared in the sunken patches. Then began their project to grow rice, fruits and vegetables. That was three decades ago. Today, Sabarmatee and Radhamohan, recipients of this years Padma Shri, gaze upon a food forest where there was once an expanse of fissured earth. Here, 500 varieties of rice, 100 types of vegetables and 40 different fruits now grow. The duo has also began documenting yields and preserving seeds.
Waiting for ants
When they started out in the late 80s there was general mistrust for traditional practices, they recall. Policymakers and academics expressed doubt about traditional agriculture practices, saying theycannot produce enough food to meet the needs of our growing population, says Radhamohan, who was Odishas first information commissioner. His connections with policymakers and bureaucrats helped shape up the idea. And Sabarmatee gave up a successful career to join him.
When they began scouting for land, the government first identified a plot near River Brahmani in Dhenkanal district for them to create a resource centre for organic farming. But we realised that creating a green cover on fertile land would not impress farmers. We needed a more challenging spot to drive home the point that traditional agriculture can be taken up in inhospitable conditions, says Radhamohan. Thats how they picked this place.
To control erosion, they started growing legumes, which spread rapidly. They spread cut grass on the earth and waited for white ants to bore tunnels under the layer. This allowed aeration and water infiltration. Trees began to spring up on their own as bird droppings dispersed seeds.
Upland, low land
The year 1990-91 was exceptional in terms of rainfall, and they started planting mango trees. Low-lying areas were used for horticulture lemon, jackfruit, lychee and coconut while 2.5 acres were dedicated to paddy. Sambhav grows 500 varieties of rice today. Uplands were, however, left untouched to help the forest grow. Seed balls were dispersed around other land patches. The efforts paid off: the campus, now spread over 90 acres, has over 1,000 species of plants.
Creating topsoil was the real challenge. We stacked leaves and crop waste and allowed that to decay. Gradually, it became top soil that was cultivable, says Sabarmatee. Bamboo and grasses were planted to harness the topsoil, and water harvesting structures were created.
Plants dont live in isolation, says Sabarmatee. There is also a huge diversity of insects, aquatic life, amphibians, birds and mammals here.
Seeding ideas
Sabarmatee also began collecting traditional varieties of rice, vegetable and fruits to grow on campus. This helped build a seed bank. Now, Sambhavs seed bank has 700 indigenous varieties of seeds. Their Adopt a Seed initiative gives region-specific varieties to farmers for free on the condition that they popularise them. Many of these are well suited to arid environments and water-logged areas.
Sambhav should not be identified as a museum of seeds, cautions Sabarmatee. Seeds have life. They have to be cultivated regularly, she says. Funds come from the sale of agricultural produce and donations.
Radhamohan, who embarked on a padayatra for forest protection in the 1990s, says it was never their intention to create an oasis in the rain shadow area, but as they distributed saplings the forests regenerated on their own across thousands of acres. Traditional farming sans fertilizer and pesticide can do wonders. Much remains to be done, however: We need to strengthen marketing for organic agricultural products through a separate procurement system, says Radhamohan. And we need to reorient our scientific community and bring changes to agricultural education so as to sharpen the focus on organic produce.