November 2020 by Suma
Following natural and sustainable practices has moved from being a choice to a necessity. A resource that needs our immediate attention is soil. There are two very critical angles to this issue – Water and Air
There has been a lot of focus on global warming in the past one year before our attention shifted to COVID 19. Greta Thurnberg with her emotionally charged speeches managed to grab world attention and to a large extent sympathy. Quite a few nations pledged to cut their carbon emissions by significant percentages. However, scientists have been insisting that we have gone past the point where just slowing down is not going to stop our fall off the cliff. We need to start driving the other way. How do we do this? Well it’s quite simple actually, reversal of carbon emissions is by definition, carbon sequestration i.e, pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it somewhere. It is not rocket science, we have machines that do that but they are nowhere as scalable or as efficient as something we find naturally and have ignored for far too long – Our forests.
Recommended reading: Why We Need To Take Soil More Seriously – PART 1 : WATER
Plants are the most perfect systems we know, that suck carbon dioxide out of air and use it to convert it into living tissue i.e, in effect, every ring on a tree is carbon pulled out of the atmosphere. And when these plants die, if the soil on which they fall has organisms in it, then the carbon stored in the tissue is consumed by these organisms rather than getting emitted back into the air. Usually canopy trees grow for several 100 years before they fall, so in that sense the scope of sequestering carbon is immense by just growing forests back. Moreover, forests don’t just die all at once. So the emission, if any, into the atmosphere by a tree dying and rotting is a gradual process and doesn’t just happen overnight. For this mechanism to really work, three things need to happen consistently, there has to be life in the soil, there has to be more plants growing than the ones falling down, the life of any plant that does grow needs to be long. Hence the focus on growing perennial forest systems and not annual crops.
By forests we don’t quite mean national parks. We are only referring to self fulfilling cycles, ecosystems that can support themselves in terms of fundamental requirements like nutrition, water and air. Whether we do food extraction from them is immaterial as long as that balance is maintained. In fact, if all agricultural land on earth were to shift towards food forests, we will be able to not only support 5 times more people but also continuously increase the soil carbon content every year. It is estimated that 1% increase in soil carbon content amounts to offsetting all carbon emissions of the last 40 years.
All said and done, it is easy to see now how a person in Chennai needs to care about the forest systems and the soil in Malenadu, South Karnataka. How a Hyderabadi should care about what is really happening in Adilabad and Nashik. We have to really stop picking apart the ecosystem and stop solving the issues in silos because nature doesn’t work in silos. It is all one giant interdependent set of relationships. Pulling one thread in coorg, would affect a tap in Bangalore. It is time we understood these relationships or at least acknowledged them and moved beyond agreement to action. As we race towards a point of no return, solutions are possible at this stage to reverse it back to a stable equilibrium and we need to seize this opportunity. Anything short of that is just conversation.
The present pandemic situation has made almost everyone relook at their lifestyles. There is an immediate and urgent desire to move to a simpler lifestyle, where you can take charge of the quality of food you eat, the water you drink and the air you breath and the space you raise your family in.
Last week, we conducted an open house ‘Conversations: Life at a beforest collective. An open discussion’ .Over 50 individuals joined us for a discussion where we covered some very interesting and practical questions over living on a collective. Over the next months we will be conducting many live and interactive sessions with experts from the field of natural farming, biodiversity, foresting, water conservation etc. Each of these interactions can take you one step closer to living a sustainable lifestyle, wherever you are.
One such event will be a Facebook live session Expert speak with one of India’s leading wildlife expert Dr. Shekhar Kolipaka. Shekhar comes with years of experience across the world. He is also working with beforest for an extensive biodiversity study of the landscapes and to see how we can create an environment of coexistence with wildlife. We hope to see you at this session that is sure to be an engaging one!
Meanwhile, here are some of the things we discussed over ‘Conversations’:
How long does it take to move from city to farm?
If you plan to start a farm on your own, it is a long process. The steps maybe something like this: Understand your priorities, scout for land, set up fencing, study the landscape & local vegetation, plant, grow and market the products. Depending on your life stage, you may need to also scout for education and medical facilities around the property.
This takes a lot of time and travel, but considering it a long term plan, it will be well worth the effort.
At beforest collectives, we have covered most of these steps over the past 3 years in great detail. Currently, just our staff at Poomale lives at the collective. We are in the process of setting up shared house facilities now and will be starting individual houses in the next year. Families plan to start moving in as soon as possible.
Who looks after the maintenance of the farm in case we decide not to reside there right away?
If you are an Urban farmer or a weekend farmer, you would need to find someone with experience to work full time at your farm. A farm takes a lot of work and involvement, especially in the initial couple of years.
At beforest, we have created a hierarchy of staff who are all employees of the collective. This would include farm staff all the way to the estate manager. Most of the processes are autonomous and now need only supervision and basic direction from our side. In addition, member suggestions and involvement are welcome while the groundwork can be handled by the staff under beforest supervision.
What is it like, to live on a farm?
Life at a farm, while deeply satisfying, can be as gruelling as life in a corporate job. It is not all bonfires and camping, but getting your hands dirty with real physical labour on days. The first couple of years can be quite frustrating, since you would mostly learn through trials, errors and experience. If you are running your own farm, the labour involved will be more. While you can hire workers, someone needs to be deeply involved during critical times.
If you are part of a collective like beforest or hire competent people to look after your farm, you can rest easy and pitch in whenever possible.
If we move to a collective farm, can members continue to follow their professions through remote working, or do they have to actively participate in farming 100% of their time?
Short answer – At a collective like beforest, it is your choice and decision.
As a beforest collective member, think of yourself as a promoter and beforest as a CEO you have hired to run the show. What this means is, whether you show up or not, operations carry on, but to a plan we have made up. If you have some aspirations from the farm, it makes sense to participate at least in the decision making If not the day to day operations.
Typically, 30 to 40% of our members are looking to move to one of the collectives. Some of these members are retired and look forward to participating in the farm labour. The others have jobs which allow them to work remotely. To facilitate this, we are in the process of enabling high bandwidth Internet connectivity, relay and network just for the collectives.
In fact, at a collective like Hyderabad, it may even be possible for you to commute to work daily and also participate in the farm work during your free time if you wish.
What kind of expertise do you need to run a farm or farming collective?
You need information if not experience. If you are starting a farm on your own, you could take to reading and courses offered in India on permaculture and sustainable agriculture. We would be happy to suggest a few.
At beforest, we have engaged the best modern minds in different fields. Biome environmental solutions Pvt Ltd to develop a self-sustaining ecosystem. We have also engaged United designers who come with a large team and years of global experience in the field of permaculture, wildlife and human – wildlife interaction.
Dr. Shekhar Kolipaka, a renowned authority on wildlife is one of our consultants on preserving wildlife at Poomale. It is exciting to say the least, that we are crossing over from mere theoretical concepts to new frontiers of techniques in the field.
Permaculture over such a large land has rarely been attempted at the level of detail we are trying to go down to.
What is the scope of social projects that can be undertaken at the collectives?
There is so much that can be done. If you are a motivated human being, you will give back to the society, regardless of where you are.
beforest created jobs for 20 locals to start with. We will be creating employment for 50-100 people over the next 2 years. Essentially, beforest is a platform and members are free to mutually create any avenues to contribute to the local communities or society in general.
Some of the ideas under consideration are – conservation projects for weaver communities of India and, education/awareness in permaculture and natural farming to interested local farming communities so that they can be self-reliant too, providing transportation to children who had to drop out of school when they could not afford bus fares.
There are many such ground level issues that we definitely will involve in as we get to know communities around each of our collectives and the problems they are facing.
We will answer many more pertinent questions through blog posts and videos in the coming months. Make sure you follow us and stay tuned!
For a few millennia before the 1600s, the term ‘Black Gold’ referred to the humble pepper. Coal claimed that title with the advent of the internal combustion engine but until then, it was pepper that really determined the fate of the seas and the land. Too hard to believe? Read on.
Pepper is a native of the western ghats in Southern India, what is now mostly Kerala and South-West Karnataka. The ancient trade routes carried spices on land across the spice route – across the himalayas through arabia to the west and to the east mostly to SouthEast Asia and China. This long and arduous journey meant that it was a super premium commodity. This continued until a sea route was discovered by the trading merchants of Kerala from Malabar coast to North Africa, into the Red Sea Canal to be dropped off at Alexandria. From there it would be carried over land and distributed through the rest of europe. This direct access to Europe changed the game in many ways. The roman city states like Genoa grew obscenely rich and controlled most of this spice trade from India. In fact, Pliny – the Roman natural historian in his landmark piece titled “Naturalis Historia” complains – “There is no year in which India does not drain the Roman Empire of 50 million sesterces”, With the city states growing increasingly powerful, in particular Genoa, the spaniards and the portugese who otherwise had strong maritime capabilities decided to figure out alternatives and thus began the famous expedition of July 1497, of Vasco Da Gama to find the route past the Cape of Good Hope to the malabar coast. Imagine That! – how the humble pepper influenced world politics.
But why pepper? That’s something we wondered as well because we understand the need to brave the unknown seas in search of gold but why pepper? Turns out the answer to this literally lies in the term ‘black gold’. Pepper was so rare and so controlled in its distribution that it was considered legal tender which made it the equivalent of Gold!
From ancient Egypt till the fall of the Roman Empire, pepper captured the imagination of the world. It was the most traded spice with India pretty much monopolising the production. However, for the most part, it was the food of the rich – the kings and emperors – pretty much like gold! During this time, it was also legal tender as we mentioned earlier. This literally means that one could walk in a market, buy goods by paying in pepper corns. One could even put their pepper assets as a collateral for loans with the European banking system including the Medicis. This tradition continues to this day in some parts of the world including the US and Australia where a ‘peppercorn payment’ is a legal tender for token amounts.
With the Portuguese creating an alternative route to India, which basically cut out the middle men, they were able to get hold of this much sought after commodity at a much lower cost compared to their earlier arrangements with the roman city states. Until then, the supply of pepper was controlled artificially by these city states, in a manner that is similar to the OPEC policy on oil production. The portuguese unfortunately disrupted this system. This unwanted intrusion on what was a Roman monopoly, led to a lot of banker induced wars between the maritime states of Spain, Portugal and the merchant city states. Medicis again!
The effect of the portuguese entry to the indian trading ports, had another effect as well. It opened up a new market. Portugal was not the only one in Europe with a strong maritime presence. Seeing the enormous wealth being accumulated by Portugal, the English and the Dutch entered the fray as well.
By 1600s, taking advantage of the spanish occupation of Portugal, the new entrants had completely taken over the portugese trade routes to India. It is not entirely untrue to say that it was perhaps the Black Gold, that brought the English to Indian Shores.
With competing european powers, who could never reach an understanding of controlled pricing, the quantity of pepper being sent to European shores grew exponentially with every passing year and this led to a drop in the price. What was once the food of the rich, began to be more common place with every passing decade. In addition, with the Portuguese unable to compete with the others for access to the Malabar port, they competed in a different form. They brought in another spice that gave a similar sharpness to the food – the red chilli. Within our country, this red chilli could be grown anywhere and din’t have to be restricted to the western ghats alone. So most of the common folks in the country gradually adopted this new spice to add that sharpness to their food that few had tasted before. The availability of a newly introduced, easy to grow spice led to the gradual but undeniable decline of the premium that pepper had.
The adoption of the red chilli in the cuisine in our country led to an explosion of variants and new dishes around this time. The galouti kebab, the dum biryani are some examples of the same.
400 years since the first red chilli was brought to the Indian shores, we cannot imagine our lives without it but for at least 3 millennia before that, spicy hot indian food could only be served in royal banquets and the halls of rich merchants and none of it could be done without the humble black pepper.
It is quite surprising that the use of pepper has come so much into fashion, seeing that in other substances which we use, it is sometimes their sweetness, and sometimes their appearance that has attracted our notice; whereas, pepper has nothing in it that can plead as a recommendation to either fruit or berry, it’s only desirable quality being a certain pungency; and yet it is for this that we import it all the way from India! Who was the first to make trial of it as an article of food? and who, I wonder, was the man that was not content to prepare himself by hunger only for the satisfying of a greedy appetite?
Today when we harvest pepper in our collective in coorg, we recognise and acknowledge the influence this little berry has had on our lives. We cannot help but share a feeling of history and legacy when we harvest this pepper in the old ways – from the forest, uncultivated. The next time you order some wild pepper with us, take a moment to acknowledge the enormous influence this little one has had on the world. Believe me it adds a sense of wonder to the experience.