Learning, from, with and in India: A study tour of the Agroecology Initiative

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Over the last two years of implementing the CGIAR initiative on agroecology, the team has experienced how the application of its principles varies from one context and country to the other. It is therefore important to witness firsthand these very different pathways to achieve agroecological transformations that all aim at enhancing food system resilience, equity and sustainability. The best-known Indian pathway is Natural Farming and the Initiative decided to go on a tour to see and understand the phenomena.

Alok Sikka IWMI, IndiaDuring recent years, agroecology has gained momentum in India as part of an effort to curb degradation of food, land, and water systems. Several state governments promote farming systems based on agroecological principles, including an approach pioneered by the Andhra Pradesh Community-Managed Natural Farming (APCNF) program, in which six million farmers were enrolled by 2022.

The study tour took place in November 2023 and included three moments: A visit of the initiative’s leadership team to Mandla in Madhya Pradesh where the initiative has recently started to work, followed by an exchange visit of 60 researchers, including 16 partner organizations from 8 countries to the Andhra Pradesh Community-Managed Natural Farming (APCNF) under the coordination of the non-profit Rythu Sadhikara Samstha (RySS), and finally a Partners Day and an Initiative Pause and Reflect workshop in Bangalore to devise 2024 initiative implementation based on what we learned over the first two years and this visit to India.

Mandla: Ecological service provision in the commons

Most of the farmland in Mandla is rainfed, meeting food requirements for 6 months; during the rest of the year, people depend on income from wage labor and the sale of forest products. Most of the forests are highly degraded due to over-exploitation and other pressures. Community-led restoration initiatives supported by NGOs have improved ecological service provision in the commons, benefitting forest-dependent communities. Building on current government schemes, communities have restored commons and implemented measures for soil erosion control and water conservation, which have begun to enhance crop yields. Community projects have created women’s self-help groups over the last 7 years. Meeting twice a month, they now actively participate in community decision-making related for example to village planning and are supported by men who see the benefits of the collective concerns being addressed. Women report that domestic violence has reduced in this process.

The initiative will work in Narayanganj, Bichiyya and Niwas blocks (district subdivisions). The population is tribal, agriculture is only one part of their activities and mainly aims at self-consumption. Women self-help groups are the main entry point for discussing the potential of agroecological interventions that interests them such as the environment-friendly production of nutritious food, better water management practices or the provision of opportunities for Youth. The visit was guided by two NGOs and collaborators of GIZ with deep knowledge in agroecology, the area and its people: PRADAN (Professional Assistance for Development Action) and FES (Foundation for Ecological Security).

Stakeholders in Mandla expect that the Initiative’s scientific lens will help generate evidence for scaling and policy influence. Rajeev Ahal is the Director of Natural Resource Management and Agroecology at the German GIZ India and shared his thoughts with the initiative’s leaders. “We have built substantive social capital in Madhya Pradesh and are interested in a collaboration to generate evidence on the need to work simultaneously at the farm and landscape level for a more holistic approach.” An ex-post impact assessment study is currently under preparation.

Andhra Pradesh: The hot spot of Natural Farming

Vijay Kumar and Marcela Quintero during the field trip in Andhra Pradesh

The state of Andhra Pradesh (AP) encompasses six agroclimatic zones, enabling it to grow a wide variety of crops throughout the year, such as rice, cotton, groundnuts, pulses, oilseeds, and coarse grains. However, AP experiences severe droughts and flooding, and there is also serious concern about declining groundwater resources as well as injudicious use of chemical agricultural inputs, which pose a threat to ecosystem and human health. APCNF, the successor of an earlier program called Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF), addresses such threats by promoting natural farming principles, which include year-round crop cover, crop diversity, integration of animals into farming, and no use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, or herbicides.

In his introductory remarks to the exchange visit in AP, Mr. Vijay Kumar, Advisor to Government of Andhra Pradesh for Agriculture & Cooperation, and Co-Vice Chairman of RySS (Rythu Sadhikara Samstha, who organized and hosted the exchange visit) made it clear that Natural Farming has gone way beyond the experimental stage. In collaboration with 14 Indian States, millions of farmers have been enrolled and rural women organized in self-help groups, receiving training but also encouragement to act as scientists and find out what agroecological practices work best in their specific contexts.

“We regard the visit of the CGIAR Initiative on Agroecology to Andhra Pradesh as an important landmark in strengthening our research and science agenda. Here, we believe that farmers are the ‘original’ scientists, closest to the field, observing and learning from their interactions with mother nature every day. Their collaboration with formal scientific stream has huge benefits for both.” T Vijay Kumar, Executive Vice Chairman, Rythu Sadhikara Samstha ( A Govt. Corporation  for Farmers’ Empowerment) , and, Ex Officio Spl Chief Secretary to Govt ( Natural Farming), Agriculture and Cooperation Dept, Govt of Andhra Pradesh

Participants were divided in 5 groups, each group visited one site for two days witnessing the application of Natural Farming principles, such as the preparation of soil bio-stimulants, the pelleting of seeds before planting, or the full soil coverage with up to 25 crops cultivated in one plot as kitchen gardens or crop production for sale. It was also an opportunity to meet Natural Farming practitioners and their families. RySS works mainly with poor farmers, organizes the women in networked self-help groups, supports their access to credit, and builds farmer-led shops that give access to Natural Farming inputs. The groups also exchanged with students of the recently formed research Academy (IGGAARC) which has enrolled 600 farmers who become researchers, mentors and Natural Farming champions.

“Through field visits, we’ve discerned that to nurture sustainable agroecology over generations, we must reevaluate and refine the entire landscape of land tenure systems.” Christopher Gadzirayi, BioHUB Trust, Zimbabwe 

“It was a unique experience where we not only shared knowledge and experiences with the local communities but also among our teams. The exchange visit showcases a profound shift, a transformative exploration of sustainable living in harmony with nature.” Shalliny Ramírez, Terra Nuova, Project Manager for Terra Nuova and the EU, Peru

During the analysis of the visit with Vijay Kumar and Marcela Quintero,  two opportunities for further collaboration were detected: One in the context of the Academy with the Initiative potentially contributing to collaborative research and the capacity development of students, and the second opportunity with the organization of exchange visits in the context of the International Network of Living Landscapes (INALLS) that the Initiative started and that could be intensified through a special exchange program.

Initiative Pause and Reflect: Analyzing progress on research, contributions to agroecological transitions and the delivery of outputs and outcomes

Pause and Reflect workshop participants with partners from eight countries

The participants travelling to India included 19 partners representing 16 organizations from 8 countries (national research organizations, governmental agencies, international and national NGOs). In addition, the group had the privilege to count on the presence of several stakeholders from India throughout the study tour. A Partners Day was organized after the field trips to share insights and learn from each other to identify practices that could be applied in other contexts and countries. An additional three days were dedicated to analyzing 1) if the initiative is addressing the research questions that were proposed at the outset, 2) if the different thematic approaches that the initiative uses (economic, behavioral, political economy and policies) are effective to contribute to agroecological transitions in countries, and 3) if the teams are on target with reporting their outputs and outcomes. Marcela Quintero, leader of the initiative, closed the meeting emphasizing the need to build on the current progress achieved by the initiative: “We will honor the engagement with our partners and the food system actors on the ground, and work together to assure local and national ownership of agroecological transitions, fulfilling our purpose as research for impact organization, which is to evolve from local learning to the formulation of global recommendations”.

The Initiative expresses its gratitude to the India team of the International Water Management Institute for a flawless organization of this series of intense and fruitful activities.

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