Ecoagriculture Snapshot » Vanita Mahila Mahasang: A Women’s Initiative to Secure Livelihoods and Secure Biodiversity in Dahod District, Gujarat
Dahod District, Gujarat, India
|A couple plowing their field in the traditional manner, on the border of Gujarat and Matter Pradesh. They plant in the furrows of the field at the start of the winter season when the climate is cooler. As is traditional in the Adivasi culture, the woman covers her face of front of any man who is not her husband. Source: Ariela Summit|
|This woman is planting onion sprouts that she has purchased in the market with money through a women’s micro credit and savings group in her village of Gangadi Faddia. Working through the Vanita Shakti Mahila Sangh, or Women’s Federation, the women of this village have started growing a variety of vegetables such as eggplant, okra, onions, and greens, and selling their surplus on the market. Source: Ariela Summit|
|Methni ni baghi sprouts in a backyard garden. Methi ni baghi is an indigenous green vegetable used in flat wheat cakes and widely renowned for its nutritional value. Source: Ariela Summit|
|A field of young bananas. While bananas are not traditionally gown in this dry region of Gujarat, this experiment on the border of Gujarat and Matter Pradesh is made possible by the use of a village dam, with water use regulated between all farmers. Bananas get a good price at market and grow quickly. Source: Ariela Summit|
In Dahod district of rural Gujarat, medicinal plants hold great traditional importance, but much of the knowledge about the various species and how to tend them has been lost as families struggle to cope with poverty. Cultivation of indigenous food crops has also dried up as multinational and hybrid seed producers have moved into the market. While these new varieties may promise higher yields, they also require more water and chemical inputs than their indigenous cousins. Families try to save seed to plant the next crop cycle, but this can be an impossible task, as drought often forces them to consume their seed stores. If this happens, they must borrow money, often lent at exorbitant interest rates, to buy new seed and chemical inputs for their crops, contributing to the cycle of poverty. This chronic poverty and hunger puts additional pressure on the environment, as food-stressed families are forced to clear more land for cultivation and loot protected forests for fuel and firewood.
Originally a mix of dry deciduous scrub and tropical thorn forest, Dahod district is now severely degraded by intensive farming and over-grazing of livestock. The landscape is predominantly cultivated by smallholder farmers of the Adivasi tribe growing maize, wheat, chickpea, lentil, and vegetables for subsistence purposes. Population pressure is high in the area, which is characterized by saline and shallow groundwater, erratic monsoon rains, and soil erosion. It is difficult to survive on farming alone, and consequently many of the men and some of the women migrate seasonally to cities to perform manual labor.
Vanita Mahila Mahasang was created to teach Dahod’s women – who are increasingly responsible for households – alternative ways to cultivate crops and medicinal plants that will help them both mitigate the effects of poverty and begin to conserve and recover their traditional biodiversity. Organized by several village-level savings and microcredit groups with the support of a local NGO called Utthan, Vanita Mahila Mahasang is a federation of 3,500 women who are exploring models to establish local seed banks and medicinal plant nurseries.
In a region where women are expected to act modestly and rarely speak outside the home, meetings of Vanita Mahila Mahasang are a sight to behold. At meetings, the women chatter and greet each other enthusiastically, their bangles clinking. At one recent meeting, Kantaben, a widow from a nearby village, recounted her experience with an indigenous maize plant she’d been growing. She sat in the center of a circle of women, holding indigenous corn kernels in one hand and hybrid seeds from the city market in the other. She spoke softly but emphatically, describing her plot of indigenous maize grown without the use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides. While a similar experiment in a nearby village failed due to pests, she says, with scrupulous tending her plot produced enough corn to feed her and her children. She even had a surplus, which she offered for sale to the other members of the group.
The seed bank model that the group promotes is designed such that each woman collects the best quality seeds from her own plot, preserves them using traditional techniques – neem leaves, arani, and ash – and then seals them in fiber baskets caked in cow dung (kothis) to keep fresh through the dry season. At the beginning of the wet season, seed is sold to other group members at the market rate. So, if a family has had to consume their feed stores during the dry season, they can get new seed from Vanita Mahila Mahasang at a fair price. Utthan is also working to link these women with an ongoing vermiculture project that is looking to provide alternatives to chemical fertilizers.
The group is also piloting a medicinal plant nursery to provide another source of income for local women. A big challenge, however, is reclaiming knowledge about medicinal plants that has been lost. At another group meeting, a white-bearded local healer held up a root caked in red dust. "Does anyone know what this is used for?" he asked in the local dialect of Gujarati. No one raised a hand. While headway is slow, important progress has already been made. In 2004, 12 women from Vanita Mahila Mahasang were trained in nursery management and have since planted over 8000 seedlings of more than 10 local medicinal herbs and bushes. When many of the seedlings were damaged in the summer monsoons, members of the Vanita Mahila Mahasang took home the rest to care for in their kitchen gardens.
In this traditional area where change is slow to come, the Vanita Mahila Mahasang initiative is bringing new opportunities to protect plant diversity and build sustainable livelihoods. At the whim of global forces, local circumstances, and personal hardships, the women of Dahod district finally have some say in their own future.
For more information, please visit http://utthangujarat.org or email Pallavi Sobti-Rajpal at email@example.com.
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