Sustainability in Exile: Tibetan Farmers Cultivating Compassion

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By Neva Knott

Sustainability in Exile is a film that documents the sustainable agriculture projects of Tibetans in exile in four Tibetan refugee settlements in India: Bylakuppe, Hunsur, Mundgod, Kollegal. Tibetans are pioneering new relationships with food sources, landscapes, each other in terms of community, water sources…and, elephants.

About 130, 000 Tibetans live in India, exiled from their homeland of Nepal. Upon arrival to India, these refugees set up farming for sustenance in the mono-crop, GMO, chemical input methods used by Indian farmers. At the urging of the Dalai Lama, they switched to sustainable agriculture. His Holiness saw the inherent destruction in contemporary farming. His vision for adopting sustainable methods was to improve the quality of life for place, self, and future generations. These ideals are in line with the Buddhist practice of doing no harm. In fact, one of the farmers describes organic farming as expression of a “softer soul.” In 2004, to this end, the refuges began working with Dr. Jonathan Scherch of Antioch University Seattle, and Lobsang Tsering, a Fulbright Scholar at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. Tsering was raised in an Indian refugee camp. He teamed up with Dr. Scherch to complete his thesis, focusing on Permaculture Design and sustainable agriculture in the Indian Tibetan settlements. The film was made to document their work.



Last winter, I attended a talk about Sustainability in Exile given by Dr. Scherch. I learned much that evening, and was inspired by the forward thinking and compassion in the Tibetan farmers, especially given their refugee status.

The farmers have met many challenges in transitioning from conventional to sustainable agriculture.

The land is severely depleted from growing the same crop year after year and from the harsh inputs of chemical fertilizers. This quality of the soil made it hard to establish new crops and to move away from using fertilizers. To amend the soil, the farmers are applying a slurry of dung as fertilizer and using vermiculture—worm-produced compost. Both the slurry and the compost are organic matter that comes from farming production and can be recycled into the land to improve its nutrient value. A secondary benefit to the use of organic matter is that it costs nothing, whereas chemical fertilizers are expensive.



In a cultural sense, the 60s, 70s and 80s were the age of farmers in India and maintaining the food source was a normal occupation. Now, the younger generation doesn’t want to work hard in fields. As Dr. Scherch stated this point, a ripple of knowing laughter made its way around the room—this problem felt familiar, and is not limited to Tibetan farmers. It does raise the very essential question—who will succeed current farmers in food production and in food security?

Elephants trampling crops was a problem as farmers worked to establish their plots. The refugee camps were situated near elephant habitat grounds, and elephants need a large habitat. For these Buddhist farmers, simply killing the offending elephants was never an option. Instead, they developed deterrents. At night, watchers sit in trees, on alert for elephants. And, by surrounding the fields with deep trenches that the elephants cannot cross, they have been able to redirect traffic, saving both elephants and crops.

Many of the changes to sustainable organic farming caused economic improvements, and certainly secured a food source for the refugees. But, the market yield from the crops—the food left after families are fed—doesn’t provide enough cash to support the large, extended families that are part of Tibetan culture. So, the program developed a processing facility to package and brand crop abundance as Tibetan Organics.


There’s much innovation in Sustainability in Exile program. Farmers are producing biogas from animal waste to use as cooking fuel, employing labor-saving/efficiency promoting practices such as permaculture, keeping a seed bank, running a training center. They aren’t just growing crops; they’re building a food system for the future. As one farmer suggests in the film, “We are setting a good example for Indian farmers…when they see our success they will copy us.”

I hope the world will copy these examples of Tibetan farmers who are cultivating with compassion.


Please watch this amazing film. Here is a link to the film, and to a short video on a the work at Morethana Farm:

Sustainability in Exile: Tibetan Farmers Cultivating Compassion

Morethana Youtube

All Photographs are from the Sustainability in Exile website and are used with the permission of Dr. Scherch.

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