Agro-ecology, Nayakrishi and women

Farida Akhter | Published: 00:00, Oct 15,2020


— Ubinig

AGRO-ECOLOGY is an evolving art and practice from a multidisciplinary approach to agriculture. It is now officially adopted into international institutions like the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations as a transitional management of farming to move away from the farming practice of high-external inputs of pesticides, chemicals and ground water wastage. And to move away from practices that are endangering and making extinct farmer’s knowledge systems in favour of laboratory based corporate ideas of technological fixes to solve crisis of food production merely for profit. External resource and capital-intensive agricultural systems are no more in vogue because of massive deforestation, water scarcities, biodiversity loss, soil depletion and high levels of greenhouse gas emissions. Despite governments’ claims to gain political mileage, hunger and extreme poverty persist as critical global challenges. Even where poverty has been reduced, pervasive inequalities and other forms of oppressive structures such as patriarchy persists. These failures raise serious questions about the neo-liberal economic and development policies and the role of reductionist and high-tech oriented modern science and technology. Instead an eco-systemic approach to agriculture and landscape designing has been emerging for the last few decades. The Nayakrishi Andolon in Bangladesh has been contributing to this global shift in vision and practice of farming and to strengthening of the FAO’s Common Vision for Sustainable Food and Agriculture. More so, agro-ecology is a key component of the global response to the climate disaster. The evidence based agrarian knowledge production, practice and solution to livelihood questions and the vital component of eliminating repressive socio-political structures, that affect mostly women, are fast growing. Agro-ecology and, in particular, Nayakrishi are integral to feminist discourses and practices.

In Bangladesh, one of the biodiversity rich countries of the world, agro-ecological practices have been operating in her bio-geographical areas for hundreds of years. The bio-geography of Bangladesh is generally characterised by four broad eco-systems such as coastal and marine ecosystems, inland freshwater ecosystems, terrestrial forest ecosystems and hilly ecosystems. The diversity in the haor (depressed land) wetlands and its natural ecosystem are also very unique. These diverse agro-ecosystems offer rich sources of genetic resources and diversity of plants and animals. Their maintenance and regeneration is dependent on the community’s interaction with the environment. Women play the most critical role in collection, conservation and regeneration of seed and genetic resources and translate their knowledge into social and cultural practices.

In such a rich agro-biodiversity, so-called modern chemical-based agriculture has been promoted for over the last half a century with state support causing visible and hidden destruction of life, livelihood and communities’ relation of mutual care with their immediate environment. Chemical-based agricultural practices led to the decline of the source of food crops for the common people, who could live on a variety of cultivated and uncultivated sources of food. Unplanned mechanisation displaced people from farming activities. People lost sources of livelihood since loss of biodiversity directly impacts socio-economic lives.

Nayakrishi Andolon, a movement led by women farmers, follows the biodiversity-based farming practices integrating them into an agro-ecological approach based on their own indigenous and feminine knowledge. Using local variety of seeds for crops, mixed and intercropping for pest management, use of legumes for soil fertility, water management and integrating fish and livestock rearing into farming households are some of the primary practices. However, Nayakrishi did not start following agro-ecological principles abstractly; Nayakrishi had its own set of principles. The ten principles of Nayakrishi are holistic in nature and the main focus has always been the reconstruction of a novel household that commands and leads the vital flows of production cycles, food chains and various nutritional, biochemical and biological cycles. Conventional economist notions of ‘subsistence household’ can never grasp the value, complexity and richness of ecological households that defy narrow economic calculation. A household becomes a complex nodal unit and forms a robust ecosystem that maintains various life forms, eg, animals, poultry, fish, crops, fuel wood, medicinal plants, etc. Women are central in ensuring various bio-natural chains and cycles and therefore become powerful by ensuring their command over agrarian production cycles.

Women were very frustrated with modern agriculture mostly because the seed preservation works were taken away from them. New laboratory seeds, known as high-yielding varieties or hybrid seeds, were sold to farmers for cultivation of food crops particularly rice, vegetables and fruits. While women, even in small farming households, were preserving at least five to ten different varieties of rice, modern agriculture reduced it to only one or two. Diverse rice varieties are needed because farmers have different levels of land such as high, medium or low lying wet lands or very dry upland according to different agro-ecological settings. Diverse rice varieties are also needed because climatic conditions are not the same in different ecosystems. Nayakrishi farmers have been cultivating several drought resistant varieties such as Pakri, Chiniguri, Kalijira, Kalobokri, Begunbichi, etc. On the other hand, some rice varieties such as Kalapata, Hidi, Pakri, Chamara, Bhawailiya digha, Dhaladigha can survive in 8–10 feet of water. These varieties compete with rising water and grow above the water. These are deep-water rice varieties. Vorilota rice variety grows both in dry and wet condition.

Diversity in rice varieties is required to prepare different food items on different social and cultural occasions and festivals, and for family needs of young children, pregnant and lactating mothers, and elderly people with various illnesses. To be poor does not mean they are out of social norms and responsibilities. They could survive on the diversity of resources they had.

Let me give some examples of rice varieties which are used for the most common dishes prepared on special occasions, religious or social festivals. The dishes are payesh, kheer and firni, pulao, khichuri and chaler-ruti (bread made with rice flour). For Payesh (or kheer) and firni at least eight different aromatic and non-aromatic varieties of white rice are used and these are: Bashmoti, Begunbichi, Chiniguri, Jamai aduri, Kalijira, Kartik jhul, Najirshail and Paijam, and these grown by different farmers in the villages. For chaler-ruti, 13 red and two white rice varieties are used. These are: Ajoldigha, Bhorilota, Kalijira (white variety), Chamara, Hijol digha, Jhuldhan, Kalobakri, Kartik shail, Kartikjhul, Laldhepa, Pakri, Sadadhepa (white variety) and Shaini dhan. Both white and red varieties are grown in two major cropping seasons known as Aus (mid-March/April to mid-June/July) and Aman (mid-July to mid-November/December). These are just a few examples of the 3000 varieties of rice preserved by Nayakrishi farmers. Women’s concerns for maintaining the diversity of crops come from their role as food providers in their families and their role to keep the social bonding alive among relatives, friends and society. They preserve seeds and exchange them with other farmers.

One of the major contributions of Nayakrishi has been the emphasis on uncultivated space where plants, undomesticated birds and animals live and thrive. The uncultivated space serves as the site from where community members can always collect naturally grown edible fruits, roots, stems, fish, game birds and leaving such spaces to be is a fundamental part of the notion of farming. This space is being excluded from the modern industrial notion of ‘cultivation’. Industrialisation of the agrarian space uses it as merely a site culled from nature for food production and leaves the rest as receptors of industrial pollution. Environmental destruction is the invisible cost of industrial modernity. Nature, left for industrial destruction, is later romanticised and reconstructed for mourning the loss of nature. Agriculture for Nayakrishi is the management and caring of both the cultivated and the uncultivated space. The unity of two moments signifies both our active and passive roles in our relation to Mother Earth. The idea of dominating nature is from the notorious era of patriarchal violence against nature which we must leave behind in history and we must reinforce our role as the steward and caretaker of nature. It is time we learned to be the daughters of Mother Nature and not of the horde of patricidal brotherhood, the archetype, which is mythically grounded upon domination, power and destruction. The unity of cultivated and uncultivated space in Nayakrishi is a fundamental feminine notion and we are translating this unity into practice. These farming practices and ecological agricultural designs, thus, allow the availability of plants that are uncultivated and safe to be used as food, fodder, medicine and more.


Farida Akhter is the executive director of UBINIG and organiser of Nayakrishi Andolon.

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