Farmer to Farmer Agroecology: Q+A with Chukki Nanjundaswamy of Amrita Bhoomi Learning Centre

by Anna Lappé, Mongabay

  • The Amrita Bhoomi Learning Centre in southern India is one of dozens of education hubs around the world providing a space for farmer-to-farmer training in agroecology.
  • In a wide-ranging interview with Mongabay, the center’s Chukki Nanjundaswamy discusses their model of agriculture, its Ghandian roots, and how it grew out of the rejection of Green Revolution farming techniques that rely on chemical inputs and expensive hybrid seeds.
  • Nanjundaswamy shares some of their innovative approaches to growing food without inputs, plus clever techniques to thwart notorious pests like fall armyworm, which is also prevalent in Africa.

Nestled in a verdant valley in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, about a four-hour drive southwest of Bangalore, the agroecology learning center Amrita Bhoomi is one of dozens of farmer-to-farmer training hubs around the world focused on agroecology. The center was born out of organizing efforts of the local farmers’ movement KRRS (Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha) founded by Professor Mahantha Devaru Nanjundaswamy in the early 2000s. The movement’s leadership envisioned a teaching center where farmers could share their agroecological practices, learn new techniques, and situate themselves in a Ghandian tradition of organizing for social justice.

In 2002, movement leadership purchased the land that the center still occupies today, a biodiversity haven home to 80 cultivated acres growing dozens of varieties of crops from dryland horticulture – like mangoes and jackfruit – to coconuts and bananas, modeling rainfed farming in lieu of expensive irrigation. Shortly after breaking ground, Nanjundaswamy passed away, but his daughter Chukki Nanjundaswamy, who was 22-years old at the time and having been raised in the movement, joined the center’s leadership and has been growing the organization ever since, working to create an organization that can be an inspiration for local farmers, and many more who visit from around the world.

As part of a series on agroecology for Mongabay, author and sustainable food advocate Anna Lappé had a chance to catch up with Nanjundaswamy. The two last met in person in early 2020 just before COVID-19 lockdown, when Lappé traveled to Amrita Bhoomi as part of an international learning exchange organized by the Agroecology Fund, a global collaborative of funders invested in supporting agroecology worldwide.

In this conversation, Lappé talks with Nanjundaswamy about her work bringing the movement and practice of agroecology to life. The interview was conducted by Zoom and has been edited for length and clarity.

Agroecology practitioners share views and experiences during an international learning exchange in early 2020 at Amrita Bhoomi Learning Centre. Image by Anna Lappé for Mongabay.

Agroecology practitioners share views and experiences during an international learning exchange in early 2020 at Amrita Bhoomi Learning Centre. Image by Anna Lappé for Mongabay.

Mongabay: Let’s start with the Amrita Bhoomi Learning Centre’s origin story. What was the spark?

Chukki Nanjundaswamy: The idea of starting a center for farmers run by and managed by the farmers themselves was born out of the organizing of the farmers’ movement here, Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha, known by its acronym, KRRS. It was sparked by the farmers’ desire to defend the right to their local seeds.

In the early 1990s, the Indian government had opened up its market for multinational corporations, including for agribusiness giants. The American company Cargill was the first to enter India’s seed sector. Cargill started selling seeds like sunflower and corn—all hybrid seeds [so farmers need to purchase them annually] and all expensive for farmers.

India has had long-held traditions of conserving and sharing seeds within the community and family. For the very first time, corporations were talking about patenting seeds and new global trade regimes like the GATT [the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs] were creating frameworks to enable them to do so, to claim intellectual property rights over seeds.

The movement here saw its organizing as part of fighting back. Dr. Vandana Shiva was very close to the farmers’ movement here and she had started a campaign to protect the farmers’ rights to neem, challenging multinational companies that were trying to patent this plant, which had been grown here for centuries. In 1993, KRRS conducted one of their biggest direct actions, ransacking Cargill’s offices in Bangalore where the company was headquartered.

I was in primary school at the time, but I still remember the action so clearly. After the Cargill demonstration, KRRS members decided to set up a center to save and share local seed varieties. KRRS was organizing to protect our sovereignty, our seeds, our agricultural systems and our biodiversity.

Agroecology practitioners share views and experiences during an international learning eAmrita Bhoomi Learning Centre. Image by Anna Lappé for Mongabay.

Amrita Bhoomi Learning Centre. Image by Anna Lappé for Mongabay.

Mongabay: What’s the center’s pedagogical approach?

Chukki Nanjundaswamy: We’ve been influenced by Dr. Rammanohar Lohia, an Indian Socialist thinker whose slogan was spade-prison-vote—where spade symbolized constructive activity, prison stood for peaceful struggle against injustice, and the vote for political action. For us in KRRS these three symbols are very important.

When we, the next generation, took over Amrita Bhoomi, we learned from agroecology schools in other parts of the world, in Cuba, for instance, and in South America. In these schools, they use a methodology of farmers teaching farmers. It’s an approach we brought to our work. We also take an intergenerational approach, because most senior farmers were farming pre-Green Revolution and we’re losing that knowledge. They’re a treasure.

For nearly two decades, we have also been a teaching center for an agroecological practice known as Zero Budget Natural Farming [ZBNF, also known as Community Managed Natural Farming or Subhash Palekar Natural Farming].

We believe one of the reasons why the farming sector is in such crisis is because our so-called agricultural universities are not doing research for the farming community here. They’re mostly funded by transnational corporations and their research benefits those transnational corporations, like Syngenta, Cargill, Bayer [which bought agrochemical company Monsanto in 2018]. Our farmers have nothing to learn from the scientists; they basically all teach Green Revolution technologies [the hyper-reliance on synthetic inputs like pesticides and fertilizers and the use of hybrid seeds.]

Agroecology practitioners share views and experiences during an international learning exchange in early 2020 at Amrita Bhoomi Learning Centre. Image by Anna Lappé for Mongabay.

Agroecology practitioners share views and experiences during an international learning exchange in early 2020 at Amrita Bhoomi Learning Centre. Image by Anna Lappé for Mongabay.

Mongabay: Can you tell me more about your programs?

Chukki Nanjundaswamy: We’ve tried different approaches over the years. The center is open for farmers to come to the land and learn. Agriculture departments and agricultural universities have run ‘exposure visits’ where researchers come to the land to learn. We also target young people who want to get into farming, and we offer a three-month course where they can come on the weekends. A few times, we have done ‘mega trainings.’ In 2015, for instance, we worked with La Via Campesina to bring 1,000 people, including several dozen from nine other countries, for a seven-day training.

Mongabay: When we visited the center with the Agroecology Fund we saw firsthand some of the techniques practiced under the banner of Zero Budget Natural Farming. Let’s dig into what that is.

Chukki Nanjundaswamy: There are two schools of thought on sustainable farming methods in India. One, organic farming, emerged in the 1980s. Organic farming here had class and caste dimensions, because even though it doesn’t use synthetic fertilizer or pesticides, it does depend on external inputs—often costly ones. It is still an input-based farming system which makes farming expensive and dependent. The farmers’ movement here embraced ZBNF because it is a method that helps farmers become totally self-reliant. It’s not a recipe, there is a lot of scope for farmers to design it according to their own specific conditions, according to their own soil conditions. They don’t have to purchase anything; it’s a knowledge-based technique.

In ZBNF, we refer to fertilizer as a ‘stimulant.’ It is made with jaggery [a traditional cane sugar found in India], some protein, cow manure and urine, and a handful of soil from your own farm. Commercializing it is impossible because you need bacteria from your own farm to multiply. You can’t sell it. In this approach, Mother Earth is everything: you just have to take care of her and nurture her. We just have to give her love.

Making a farmer self-reliant is part of the Gandhian principle of Swaraj which means autonomy. Agroecology is also a fight for such agrarian autonomy.

Agroecology practitioners share views and experiences during an international learning exchange in early 2020 at Amrita Bhoomi Learning Centre. Image by Anna Lappé for Mongabay.

Agroecology practitioners share views and experiences during an international learning exchange in early 2020 at Amrita Bhoomi Learning Centre. Image by Anna Lappé for Mongabay.

Mongabay: Have you done formalized research at the center?

Chukki Nanjundaswamy: No, not exactly, but we consider every farmer a scientist. To give you an example: the fall armyworm is a notorious corn pest. It’s been causing chaos all over the world. Pesticide companies like Syngenta have been pushing products to deal with it. In the past couple of years, in countries in Africa, farmers who were growing corn started using pesticides for the first time to manage armyworm infestations.

But after only a couple of years of experimentation, farmers here came up with a simple technique: spray the corn with a combination of milk and jaggery in the evening. Ants, attracted by the sweet milk, are drawn to the corn where they discover, and eat, the worms. You don’t need pesticides. To me, this is a great example of a simple innovation by farmers on their own farm.

It’s amazing when you learn about what’s possible to do yourself, when big companies are making millions of dollars selling toxic fungicides or pesticides. We’re told, you can’t grow certain vegetables without pesticides. That’s just not true. We have proven it’s possible with very simple techniques, like the fall armyworm approach or using fermented buttermilk as a fungicide. We have shown you can spray it to control pests on vegetables like cabbage or cauliflower, for example. This is the kind of research we’re doing.

Mongabay: What is the response you’re seeing from farmers learning about agroecology through your center for the first time? 

Many agroecology techniques were discussed during an international learning exchange in early 2020 at Amrita Bhoomi Learning Centre. Image by Anna Lappé for Mongabay.

Chukki Nanjundaswamy: It takes time for farmers to change, because the majority here have become addicted to chemicals and believe it’s difficult to change. It takes time for any kind of transformation, but we believe that it’s not a choice anymore. If you want to get out of the hands of corporate agriculture and the corporate system, you have to be self-reliant. Gandhi talked about this when he spoke about what he means by autonomy: self-rule. We have to reclaim agriculture, starting by reclaiming our seeds and reclaiming our knowledge system, which has been given away to pesticide dealers. And, it means reclaiming our biodiversity, because the Green Revolution has taught that monoculture is better, economically. We have seen this is false. We have seen farmers committing suicide [due to their indebtedness from the high costs of commercial seeds and chemical inputs like fertilizer and pesticides, plus irrigation] in the areas where the Green Revolution was brought in the sixties and seventies, states like the Punjab are now totally dominated by wheat and rice.

Mongabay: One criticism of agroecology is that it’s labor-intensive and young people don’t want to go into farming.

Chukki Nanjundaswamy: Agroecology is welcoming young people back to agriculture. We saw this during Covid—how young people, especially educated young people, were coming back to learn agriculture here.

Mongabay: Can you say more about what you’re seeing in terms of more support for agroecology from consumers?

Chukki Nanjundaswamy: In terms of the popular support, we are finding people living in cities are very aware now about the food they’re eating. During COVID, we started doing more direct marketing of vegetables and fruits and we found there’s definitely a great consciousness about the kind of food people want to eat. They are asking for better food and want to support farmers. This is the kind consciousness rising we’ve witnessed.

Let’s talk about the Green Revolution. There’s still a belief among some foundations and governments that it is still the only farming practice that can work at scale. We’re seeing the Alliance for the Green Revolution in Africa, for instance, working to roll out similar practices across that continent based on that argument. What do you say to those who argue that we need Green Revolution technology in order to meet the food security needs of the world?

Chukki Nanjundaswamy: Well, first, using our natural farming techniques, we have seen that you can actually double yields with local varieties and these practices. Farmers in our network are producing a variety of foods—from rice to pulses—without using any chemicals and they still have better yields. It’s clear to us that the Green Revolution is just propaganda to sell products. Unfortunately, at most agricultural universities, nobody shares the stories we’re seeing among our farmers—so we speak among ourselves. We need to create platforms where we work with scientists to build the kind of evidence, the kind of data, that is required by our opponent.

A smallholder vegetable farmer watering plants in Boung Phao Village, Lao PDR. Photo: Asian Development Bank, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Agroecology is a global practice and movement, including in this village in Lao PDR. Image via Asian Development Bank, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Mongabay: We’ve been talking a lot about yields and food security, but biodiversity is a key element of agroecology as well. I’m curious how you see biodiversity intersect with agroecology teaching.

Chukki Nanjundaswamy: Agroecology emphasizes intercropping, multi-cropping, and the symbiotic relationship between crops and the symbiotic relationship with friendly pests. You are creating an environment for your crops to grow happily and to take care of each other. It’s like a traditional, large family; it’s not a nuclear family. It’s a giant family where everyone takes care of each other. This is why biodiversity is so much a part of agroecology.

Mongabay: What’s a hope you have for the future of the center?

Chukki Nanjundaswamy: We would love to have more in-house trainers and offer a more formalized program, where we can also offer a diploma. Especially for those children of farmers who are not getting into university and who are disappointed by the kind of farming that their family has been doing—who want to try agroecology.