growing food in uncertain weather

Bindu writes about climate change, climate justice, and the need for resilience in the context of growing food in uncertain weather in Auroville, an international community in south India based on the Integral Yoga philosophy of Sri Aurobindo. Image: The Souryan Garden, the first vegetable garden of Budda Garden in Auroville.

I remember when the onslaught of globalization hit Auroville: I was living in the off-grid greenbelt community of Pitchandikulam, and Joss, the steward, disgusted by the fact that one could choose between six varieties of toothbrushes at Pour Tous (the community store in Kuyilapalayam), announced that he would put out some neem twigs for free distribution among the toothbrushes.

Even though Auroville’s philosophy of Integral Yoga with its focus on individual freedom does not espouse this, voluntary simplicity is an ethos that I and many, many Aurovilians subscribe to. Not out of a moral stance, but simply out of the realization that “no man [woman] is an island.” Evolution is not so much about individual growth, but about individual growth in connection to human society and nature. And, not withstanding Sri Aurobindo’s futuristic promise of the transformation of matter, our integral connection to and dependence on nature, enjoins us to cultivate a lifestyle that is in harmony with the limits and patterns of nature. And after decades of unbridled industrialization and globalized capitalism, human kind is being forced to reckon that the price of our economic growth and the plethora of goods that we enjoy is climate change.

It would be too optimistic to say that human kind is coming to terms with the threat of climate change. For the truth is, much to the frustration of environmental activists and scientists, politicians and mainstream society are still largely indifferent to this single greatest threat that humanity has ever faced: climate change with its attendant loss of life and food insecurity. Eminent novelist and the occasional but astute social commentator, Amitav Ghosh points out:

There is no threat to any society, anywhere, that is remotely comparable to that of climate change. How can people summon so much indignation on so many matters and yet remain indifferent to a process that threatens their very existence?

Nowhere is the disjunction more confounding than in India, which is likely to be one of the worst-affected countries in the world. Over the last couple of decades, as television has penetrated into once-remote areas, India’s population has become highly politicized. Millions of people regularly take to the streets on account of matters ranging from religious outrage to corruption. Yet climate change does not seem to have sparked mass outrage in the country. This despite the fact that India has many eminent climate scientists, some fine environmental reporters and several excellent environmental organizations. Nor is ‘denial’ an issue in India as it is in the Anglosphere: the majority of the population is aware that the climate is changing – yet that awareness does not seem to translate into a major political concern. . . . When crops fail the focus is usually on political and human stories, not on changes in climate;[1]

Auroville, embedded in India embedded in the world, is a microcosm that often mirrors global trends in humanity. The lack of productivity in our farms is often viewed as the failure of individual farmers to manage their farms, when in reality, there is a host of other contributing factors—poor soil, lack of investments, and yes, changing weather patterns.

Cyclone Thane in 2011 resulted in losses for most farms in Auroville. Last year, the unprecedented rainfall in December destroyed huge swathes of the millet crops: Annapurna farm estimates that it lost half of its Varagu crop and so did Kalpavruksha, a relatively new farm. Currently, we are experiencing an unusual summer monsoon. In the summer, the rain comes down in short spells, followed by bright intense sunlight. In August, there were days on end when the skies were overcast, as with the winter monsoon. Perhaps it is only farmers, whose work and lives are intertwined with the weather, who are worried by such changes. For most of us extra rain and cloudy skies are a welcome break from the unrelenting heat. But, for vegetable farmers, the lack of sunlight has disrupted the rhythms of plant-growth and production. Many farmers reported extremely poor harvests of long beans. And in Buddha Garden, pumpkin seedlings were attacked and destroyed by an infestation of a red bug. Normally, sunlight would have kept this pest in check (the heat would have destroyed the eggs, if not the insect itself), but this season, the duration and intensity of sunlight was simply inadequate. The result: A marked decline in the pumpkin harvest in the coming months. While it is notoriously difficult, if not impossible, to establish strict cause-and-effect linkages between climate change and poor harvests, no one will dispute that weather patterns have been seriously disrupted in the past decade in Auroville and cultivating food is a bit of a gamble.

December 2015 rains flooded the bioregion

Heavy rains in Dec 2015 flooded Auroville’s bioregion

To mitigate the loss in production and subsequent income loss, Buddha Garden farmers, Priya and Vivek, acted quickly and planted rucola and lettuce. These crops, which would have been generally planted later in the year, like cool wet weather and with luck (that is, if the climate does not hold any more nasty surprises) they will thrive and prove the resilience of Buddha Garden as a farm. But ideally, Auroville should be coming to terms with the fact that if we want to secure healthy food for the community and others in the bioregion, we should be looking at promoting resilience in various ways, such as increasing crop diversity, increasing cultivation area by creating vegetable gardens in all communities of Auroville, learning how to create compost and best utilize our biomass, and changing our food-habits.

Due to climate change, the average global temperature on Earth has increased by about 0.8° Celsius since 1880. Two-thirds of this increase has occurred since 1975, probably due to the industrialization of post-colonial countries. While all the effects of climate change cannot be mapped due to the complex cycles of nature, science tells us that higher temperatures cause more evaporation. Also, a warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture, so globally water vapour increases by 7% for every degree centigrade of warming. Climate change thus increases precipitation worldwide. But unfortunately, our best scientific predictions show that, as the rate of evaporation is slower than the capacity of the atmosphere to retain moisture, this precipitation will be in the form of intense rain that causes flooding followed by dry spells or even droughts. All in all, the writing in the wall is pretty clear: unpredictable weather patterns are now the norm, and this will increasingly affect crop yields leading to food shortage.[2]

The crop losses that our farmers are facing highlight another issue related to climate change: the need for climate justice. The Paris COP brought for the first time, the concept of climate justice to international political attention. Climate justice simply means that vulnerable communities and nations that will be hit hardest by climate change are generally the least responsible for causing it and have the least capacity to adapt.

Bringing this concept of climate justice home to Auroville would mean ensuring that the burden of crop losses due to changes in weather should not be faced by our farmers alone: Food is a basic human need, and food security should be a community responsibility. What we need is a paradigm-shift that would forge closer relationships between farmers and community members, so that the latter actually understand and help mitigate the problems faced by the farmers. Annapurna has taken a small step in this direction by starting a Support Group of Aurovilian volunteers. It hopes to expand the group in the coming months and create opportunities for community-members to actively help in the farm. Such experiments can easily be replicated in other farms in a far-reaching initiative for community-supported-agriculture.

If there is a silver lining to the problem of climate change, it is this, “There is no such thing as a problem without a gift . . . in its hands,”[3] and the gift of this global problem of climate change is that it calls for an unprecedented unified action by all nations and peoples. Even though most national leaders are dithering in the face of disaster, all over the world, thousands of cities and communities are joining hands to mitigate the effects of climate change by creating strong social bonds and resilient communities that can survive in the face of adversity. It is time Auroville joins this growing movement of an actual human unity.

[1]Sleepwalking Towards Disaster,” 2015.

[2] See “How will climate change affect rainfall?” and “Why does climate change lead to more floods and droughts?

[3] Richard Bach. Illusions. Pan Books, 1977.

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