The art of growing good things

SEED SAVERS

The art of growing good things

Treasure chest: Vanastree works towards protecting traditional seeds

The Malnad Forest Garden and Seed Keepers’ Collective was born in 2001 as a result of Sunita Rao’s dedicated belief in preserving the biodiversity of the Malnad region of the Western Ghats. It began as a network of seed exchange groups, focused on celebrating and endorsing biodiversity.

From 2003, Vanastree, which translates as ‘women of the forest’ in Kannada, began promoting sustainable livelihoods through conservation-oriented enterprises. The seed collective officially registered as a trust in 2008.

Sunita studied pure science at the Pondicherry Central University, and definitely didn’t want to be “producing research papers” all her life.

“I worked for eight years in the Indian Institute of Public Administration and developed this romantic notion of living on a farm. So in 2001 I acquired some land and moved to Sirsi to discover for myself the practical meaning of sustainability,” she says.

“The women there were completely self-reliant. They just stepped out into their gardens or the forest and produced the most delicious meals. I too wanted to know where to get these seeds from. Traditionally, they saved the seeds after the harvest and exchanged them in a very informal manner with little or no reliance on big companies selling hybrid seeds,” she explains.

Excerpts from an interview.

What is a forest home garden?
Forest home gardens vary in size and structure; from a tiny patch of vegetables outside a house to an acre or more of mixed crops. They share in common a great diversity of plants in addition to domesticated and wild tree species as space allows. The vegetables grown include varieties of amaranth, spinach, cucumbers, gourds and pumpkins, lady’s finger, brinjal, tubers, beans, chillies and others.

What do you mean by traditional seeds?
Traditional seeds are ones that have evolved and stabilised over millennia. They are open-pollinated — these seeds can be saved again and again from produce to be sown. They may have many properties including the ability to withstand pests, the vagaries of the weather etc. Mainly, they allow gardeners and farmers to be independent of seed companies, since they can save their own seeds.

Organic is generally regarded as being more expensive. Is it more difficult to sustain? How do you cope?
Organic may seem expensive because inorganic fertilisers are heavily subsidised by our government, so we really don’t know the true cost of inorganic food we buy. If these subsidies were stopped, organic food may be on par or, in fact, cheaper than inorganic food. Also how do you put a price tag on a disease you get due to consumption of pesticides?

What are the views of the farmers? Were they open to conservation?
The Malnad home gardeners were amazed at the natural wealth which they have been cultivating and protecting for centuries. Realising how valuable and vulnerable their gardens, forests and knowledge are, they were keen to take part in conservation activities, along with, of course, some livelihood activities.

What about the women? What role do they play?
Vanastree also emphasises the traditional role of women in conservation. We believe that any biodiversity conservation plan aimed at arresting genetic erosion must recognise the role of women as gardeners, seed savers, and sources of knowledge. Women have a huge role to play in the conservation of not only seeds, but also cuisine, folklore, culture and lifestyles. Anthropologists have ample evidence to prove this and we must recognise the role of rural women in conservation.

Does Vanastree have any big growth plans for the future?
Vanastree has NO big plans...we do not want to upscale. We prefer to stay small, but pass on our knowledge and work to other groups that can begin and sustain similar efforts. However, our future plans and main objectives are to:
 Promote cultivated and wild biodiversity in farms and forest home gardens.
 Encourage seed saving and conservation of traditional crop varieties.
 Provide networking and extension services.

Have your products been accepted in Bangalore?
Yes, we do get a lot of suggestions on what products to bring. One happy thing is that our seeds, adapted to the high rainfall humid Malnad region, seem to do well in Bangalore and we’ve had a lot of takers for the organic, open-pollinated heirloom seeds that we bring to the gardeners here. We always tell people to take our seeds and then make their own and pass them on!

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