Alleviating Poverty with Regenerative Agriculture in India

May East, Gaia Education
Thursday, 10th December 2015

May East describes how tribal communities have strengthened their food security, improved the status of women and developed more varied agricultural systems to help them tackle the root causes of poverty and climate change.

Rice has been cultivated in the East Indian state of Odisha since ancient times, its fertile land and running rivers supporting paddy cultivation as the mainstay of its people. Odisha is similar to the Latin word for rice (Oryza) and some believe the name of the State derives from the crop known as Oryza Sativa, also known as Asian rice.

Koraput is a district of Odisha known for its abundance of paddy fields as well as many varieties of millets, yam, and tuber crops, which are gradually vanishing due to the introduction of cash crops and genetically modified (GM) seeds, and the increasing impact of climate change.

In Odisha, 70 per cent of the population is dependent on agriculture. Although endowed with rich natural resources, 66.2 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line, earning just 28,400 Rupees per capita a year, the fourth lowest income of the 17 major Indian states according to the Economic Report Survey 2014-2015.

In partnership with the NGO THREAD and the women's federation Orissa Nari Samaj, and funded by the Scottish Government, we have been supporting tribal communities from the Koraput District to strengthen their agro-ecological production, whilst attempting to address the deeper structural changes needed to tackle the root causes of poverty and climate change.


The project aims to break the cycle of food insecurity, strengthen social linkages and improve the status of women. Through permaculture and sustainable farming practices, the project is improving the health of the soils, diversifying the crops, enhancing the villagers' livelihoods and wellbeing. This is exemplified by Sabitri Sawnta from Dangapaiguda Village who sustains 33 types of vegetables, fruit trees, herbs and flowers in her kitchen garden of 45 m2.

Tragically it is those who have contributed the least to greenhouse gas emissions that are suffering the worst effects of climate change. We are constantly developing new climate resilient agriculture approaches which are very close to the traditional ways of food growing. Drought tolerant plants combined with mulching, fortified composting, vermi-composting vermiculture, herbal pesticides, green manures have so far significantly improved the productivity of their soils and the nutrition of their meals.

The heart of the project is the campaign 'Grow your own Food' to counteract so called 'Climate-Smart Agriculture' (CSA) techniques. CSA encourages the use of modified seeds, chemical pesticides, and synthetic fertilisers, as well as high-risk technologies, such as synthetic biology, nano-technology and geo-engineering. This imposition of new biotechnology has been particularly damaging for farmers in India. As one leading expert put it: "For the world's small farmers, there is nothing smart about this. It is just another way to push corporate controlled technologies into their fields and rob them of their land".

The Grow your Own Food campaign has two key components: a community learning element incorporating ecovillage and permaculture approaches, combined with seed preservation and distribution of seedlings of various fruits and vegetables.


The monsoon is the real Minister of Agriculture of India as it controls the course of farming. This year, a late and insufficient monsoon has created difficulties for the kitchen gardens of the villagers. Instead of the usual two and half months of rain, the region received only 15 days. The women still managed to plant their saplings but the harvest was small. New water-use efficiency techniques for vegetable cultivation have been introduced through our training programmes and next year, biochar techniques will also be taught to keep up the moisture in the soil when there is no rain.

The constant change in the environment of our partners in the Global South creates an imperative for constant learning. However, learning is an organic, internal process and ultimately our role can only be to support the emergence of locally adapted learning responses.

Gaia Education is one voice amongst thousands calling and acting for climate justice. As world leaders consider their next steps, we join in solidarity with the women of Odisha who, in the face of looming crisis, are tackling climate change in their own dignified manner.


May East is Chief International Officer of Gaia Education and director of CIFAL Scotland.

Cross-posted from Outreach magazine on climate change and sustainable development.


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