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.

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A PERMACULTURE DESIGN WORKSHOP AT BYLAKUPPE SETTLEMENT

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.

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A LANDSCAPE OF WIND-SWEPT FARMS AT KOLLEGAL SETTLEMENT. DECADES OF CONVENTIONAL FARMING METHODS HAVE CREATED CHALLENGES AND DIFFICULTIES . . .

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.

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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.

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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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Lessons from Species at the Brink

A group of African White-backed vultures (Gyps africanus) at a carcass in the Sahel of Senegal, West Africa.  The large vulture arriving in the foreground may be a Ruppell's Vulture (Gyps rueppellii).  Photo copyright Richard Telford, 2004.

A group of African White-backed vultures (Gyps africanus) at a carcass in the Sahel of Senegal, West Africa. The large vulture arriving in the foreground may be a Ruppell’s Vulture (Gyps rueppellii). Photo copyright Richard Telford, 2004.

By Richard Telford

In the eighth chapter of her landmark 1962 book Silent Spring, Rachel Carson imagines a world in which no birds sing.  She invokes the catastrophic declines of two iconic birds in American culture to deliver a passionate rebuke of the indiscriminate use of DDT and other insecticides.  She documents precipitous American Robin (Turdus migratorius) and Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) declines, attributing both to the consumption of prey containing bioaccumulated toxins (earthworms for the robins, fish for the eagles), lowering reproductive capacity, inhibiting embryonic development, and reducing nestling survival.  It is an object lesson in our capacity to alter natural systems, bringing species forcefully to the brink of extinction.  It is an object lesson from which we need to learn more fully:  to react more decisively to such crises and to act more proactively to avoid them when possible.  The response to recent catastrophic Afrotropical (Old World) vulture declines in Asia suggests that such learning is possible.

The long-term implications of vulture population declines in South Asia, as well as Africa, are manifold and complex, and, if they continue at their present rate, the imminent extinctions that follow will produce an equally catastrophic cascade of far-reaching effects, some of which are already evident in areas suffering the worst vulture declines.  A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science in 2012 noted that in 1997 “>30,000 of the world’s 35,000-50,000 rabies deaths took place in India where feral dog and rat populations have exploded after the decline of vultures.”  While the potential extinction of any species should ring alarm bells, vultures are not simply any species.

While the two groups are phylogenetically and biogeographically distinct, Afrotropical (Old World) and Neotropical (New World) vultures serve an equally critical role in the systems they inhabit.  This parallel role, along with morphological and behavioral similarities, has contributed to the two vulture groups being viewed as the textbook example or classic case of convergent evolution.  The fact that these two groups have evolved to fill precisely the same niche role in distinct natural systems serves to emphasize the unique and critical nature of that role. Vultures are the only known vertebrate terrestrial obligate scavengers.  Such specialization, while providing benefits to a species, likewise makes it highly vulnerable to extinction.  The Gyps genus of vultures, comprised of eight of the sixteen Afrotropical vultures, offers a stark illustration of this vulnerability.

Between 1992 and 2007, the Indian White-rumped Vulture (Gyps bengalensis) experienced a staggering 99.9% population drop in India, a decline directly linked to the veterinary use of the nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac in livestock treatment, a practice that began in India in 1993.  G. bengalensis likewise experienced a 91% population drop in Nepal between 1995 and 2011, due principally to diclofenac poisoning, and the 1998 introduction of diclofenac in Pakistan caused similarly rapid, massive vulture declines.  The effects of diclofenac on many Afrotropical vultures have subsequently been well documented.  The consumption of diclofenac-tainted carrion leads to rapid renal failure and visceral gout in at least five Gyps species, causing death in as little as 48 hours.  As of this writing, the IUCN lists three Gyps species as critically endangered:  the Indian White-rumped Vulture (G. bengalensis), the Slender-billed Vulture (G. tenuirostris), and the Long-billed Vulture (G. indicus).  All three declines have been causally linked to diclofenac poisoning, and this link, in conjunction with the realization of the potentially catastrophic effects of local vulture population extinctions, has prompted four South Asian countries to ban veterinary use of diclofenac since 2006, a decision lauded by the World Conservation Congress, which noted that “these massive declines of vultures are unequivocally caused primarily by a single human activity and could be reversed.”

The ban on veterinary use of diclofenac instituted by the governments of India, Nepal, and Pakistan in 2006, and Bangladesh in 2010, in conjunction with conservation efforts undertaken by the SAVE (Saving Asian Vultures from Extinction) consortium as well as a large number of NGOs including The Peregrine Fund, The Darwin Initiative, WWF Pakistan, and others, has yielded clear, though modest, success in helping affected vulture populations to recover.  This success has been most notable in Pakistan.  However, much work remains.  The lessons here are many.  Definitive evidence can, for example, prompt decisive action, though no one decisive action can wholly address a complex conservation problem.  This is well illustrated in India where, at the present time, there is concern that diclofenac packaged for human consumption is illicitly being used in veterinary applications, prompting calls for stricter regulation.  Vulture conservation efforts in South Asia also demonstrate the potentially greater efficacy of regional approaches.  Such efforts, however, require significant coordination among governmental agencies, NGOs, and, perhaps most importantly, local constituencies.  Vulture conservation efforts in Africa, for example, have lagged behind those in Asia in part due to the lack of such a coordinated effort.  Additionally, vulture declines in Africa, unlike those in Asia, have not been linked principally to one central cause, making the path to decisive action less clear.

Finally, perhaps the most important lesson of the vulture crisis in Asia is one with which we are too familiar, but it bears repeating.  We have a tremendous capacity to catastrophically disrupt natural systems through fairly isolated actions, such as the introduction of a single non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug into a bioregional food web.  It is precisely this power that Rachel Carson wrote about in 1962.  The inherent danger in successfully bringing a species back from the brink of extinction in such circumstances lies in the false sense of confidence that such an action can produce:  the belief that, with our technology and know-how, we will always succeed in doing so.  The object lesson here is that failure in some of these efforts is inevitable.  The greater efficacy in conservation efforts lies in being proactive rather than reactive.  As a result of the vulture crisis, there are efforts underway in South Asia to require more thorough testing of all veterinary medicines for their potential ecological effects before being put into use.  Here, too, is reason for hope.  If, as Rachel Carson stated, “the beauty and the ordered world of nature still have a meaning that is deep and imperative,” we must shift our thinking and our actions accordingly.