Drawing on over a decade of successful experience working with small local groups to stop large-scale lumbering and other forms of environmental destruction, Pandurang Hegde is now turning to the even harder job of helping them restore the land and establish new patterns of sustainable agriculture fitted to each area's particular condition. He's focusing initially on the areas once covered by tropical forest along India's west coast, the region where he was born and where he earlier was a founding activist and leader of the Appiko Andolan Movement, in effect the south's own indigenous Chipko Movement.
Ironically, as poverty has increased, poor people commonly press yet harder on their eroding natural resource basecutting more wood to sell and opening even more marginal fields. The government's response has been to push farmers to adapt to high-input and therefore high-cost technologies heavily dependent on chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Their higher costs put small farmers at risk whenever anything goes wrong. Moreover, critics argue that these methods weaken the plants, cumulatively making the farmer's whole agricultural undertaking more and more vulnerable.
The day-to-day effort this requires fits well with Pandurang's newer work to help lead these same communities to fresh, more sustainable ways of organizing their own use of the land. Both changes are necessary to safeguard nature, and neither will happen without mass understanding and involvement by all the region's peoples. To win this mass support Pandurang will continue to help the communities maintain their local organizations, chiefly groups of small and marginal farmers. He'll also continue to reinforce his own direct efforts through use of his journalistic skills and by helping other voluntary organizations.
However, this new, second thrust requires much more. Just as Pandurang had to develop organizing techniques fitted to his region in the 1980s, now he's got to develop specific agricultural techniques fitted both to the region's tropical environment and to what its people will readily understand and take up.
On the one hand this is a very technical and nitty-gritty business. Pandurang feels he can be credible only if he is growing and depending on what he's suggesting that others who have no margin for experimental error grow. Consequently a six-acre demonstration farm is central to his plan. He'll learn very directly what works and what doesn't. Increasingly the farm will use advanced alternative farming techniques allowing it to be a model for the agricultural-thought leaders in the region and beyond. But its chief function is to help define specific alternatives that will work in the area.
The ideas and the experiments will be done all over the region, not just at Pandurang's demonstration farm. However, operating from his base at the farm and using his Appiko network, Pandurang will help pull all these experiences together. Gradually he and his neighbors will build a locally adapted alternative agriculture that works for them.
Because he is intensely concerned with what local small farmers are likely to quickly understand, Pandurang has decided especially to emphasize organic approaches to alternative agriculture first. Most farmers either still use or only relatively recently stopped using such techniques. By contrast, he feels these farmers would take a long time to intuit that "no till" approaches are plausible.
Pandurang plans to build an institution on the farm, the Centre for Sustainable Development, that will structure the several dimensions of this effort. It will collect, systematically document, and spread the indigenously developed, sustainable tropical land-use techniques the project will be testing and proving. The institution will organize local seed banks to collect, preserve, and make available locally adapted seeds likely to produce hardy, disease-resistant crops. It will also manage the farm, organize programs to reforest wastelands, help disseminate organic farming techniques such as composting and green leaf fertilization, and organize to carry what is learned in this region to the rest of the country.
Although Pandurang will be focusing chiefly on five districts of western Karnataka to begin with, from the start he's been aware of the importance of sharing what he's learning more widely. Already he's working with groups from other southern and central states. Ultimately, he hopes that these lessons will affect state and national forest, agriculture, and environment policies.
After his father died ... Read More [+] he lived with his brother, following him to postings in Nagpur and Bombay. After graduating from Karnataka University with a B. Comm., he worked in Delhi as a chartered accountant. However, his spirit was in public service, not accounts, and he enrolled and did well in the Delhi School of Social Work. Preferring to work in the rural areas, he spent four years in a voluntary organization in Damoh, Madhya Pradesh. He also worked in and was deeply moved by the Chipko Movement, a people's movement chiefly of women that effectively stopped the contract logging that was devastating the region.
With little other than these experiences and his own spirit he threw himself into helping build the Appiko Andolan Movement in the hills he knew as a boy. Intentionally faceless, working not to be a banyan tree whose shadow would prevent others coming up and leading, he served as an activist wherever he was needed. He received his room and food from the villagers whose energy and confidence he helped free.
Now he will be helping those in the country take the next, even more ambitious step millions of farmers practicing sustainable agriculture.