Farida Akhtar is one of the founders of UBINIG, a Bangladeshi NGO which has set up one of the biggest community seed banks in the world. Here she talks to Seedling about their successes so far.
Tell us about the beginnings of UBINIG and the Nayakrishi Andolan
The term “UBINIG” is the Bangla acronym of “Policy Research for Development Alternative.” In the early 1980s, there was an urgent need to look for development alternatives and translate them into the policy language in order to influence policy makers. At that time, the World Bank was pushing export-oriented policies and several sectors were being impacted. Shrimp farmers were being affected by large-scale shrimp operations and we were increasingly concerned about the environmental impacts of commercial shrimp culture. Weavers and handloom workers were increasingly losing their jobs as the garment industry relied completely on imported cloth. We began question whether the present approach was something that the people wanted. UBINIG was set up in 1984.
After severe floods in 1988, farmers of Tangail District approached us for help. They had lost everything in the floods and needed to start all over again. They asked us for fertilisers, since they thought the “modern” way of growing food was the only option. We started having discussions with the village women and finding out what the problems really were and what the farmers needed. Our approach built on the ideas of “ecological agriculture” that were sprouting up in Europe and India. So the Naya Krishi Andolan – new agriculture movement – was born. The farmers coined the term themselves. This meant following ecological principles to produce food in harmony with nature. Women were the first to respond as they had come face-to-face with excessive chemical use in agriculture. Midwives were especially concerned about miscarriages and other birth deformities. Then next the small poor farmers responded to Naya Krishi, since they could not afford to buy chemicals.
Why the particular interest in agrobiodversity?
Naya Krishi was not meant to be a quick fix technical solution. We had to do it, experience it and then keep it alive. For pest management and soil management, diversity was the obvious choice. As the farmers developed diverse cropping, they found many partner-plants coming up. The fish returned in the water and there were also other interesting results with cross-pollination. The birds were doing their job better! It was like a whole web of life being reactivated. Seed management is important to maintain diversity. There is a conscious policy to emphasise local seed varieties and farmers facilitate seed exchanges. Because of careful seed management, we have more than a thousand varieties of rice, 37 vegetable varieties and more than 40 varieties of chillies alone.
How do you spread the word?
The farmers who practise Naya Krishi talk about it to others and give demonstrations.
The Bangla people have an appreciation of the gastronomic qualities of food, and when that improves the new way of farming speaks for itself. In Bangla we say, we do not simply eat. We serve our body when we take food. The tongue is important not the teeth.
This taste and variety is made possible by the mixture of cropping.
How is your approach to farming different?
Naya Krishi is not input-based. Modern agriculture is all about high yields and fashion foods. Our agriculture is about nurturing the seed. The main capital is not cash, but farmers' knowledge. It is about restoring “culture” in agriculture. When you ask a farmer how many members there are in her/his family, the reply will be in “1 son, 2 daughters, 2 cows, 5 chickens”all in the same breath. Farming is about tending the whole family. It is about growing a particular kind of paddy because it makes good straw for your cow, even though it does not fetch a good price on the export market. Our approach to farming is more human, as opposed to motivated by greed, as modern agriculture is.
How do the seed banks work?
We do not call them “seed banks,” but “community seed wealth centres.” We have one in each of our regional centres. They work on the basis of give and take. We exchange with the farmers, keeping just enough for a sample. We encourage a decentralised seed system. We do not want to create dependency on UBINIG or its seed centres. So in every village there is a seed hut where seed preservation and seed storage takes place. Indivdual households also have their own collections.
How many people are involved with the Naya Krishi Andolan?
It is growing every day. Today spans over 16 districts and over 100,000 farming families (with an average of five members per family).
The Naya Krishi Andolan is renowned for the way it brings together people from a variety of cultures and religions. Why has it been so successful in doing so?
Bangladesh is 83% Muslim country. But our culture imbibes principles from Buddhism and Hinduism. This mix is reflected in – and is important to – our agriculture. Songs are an important part of our work and community life. As a daily ritual we start the day with spiritual songs, with songs of Krishna who herds the cowseven though we are Muslims. A villager in these parts is happy only because there is song. Modern agriculture pollutes this cultural environment and gives no room or reason for song.
Why are women so important to the movement?
Modern agriculture disempowers women, making them a redundant part of the farming family. Naya Krishi thrives on women's knowledge. And even in a patriarchal society like ours, women's knowledge is being acknowledged in the decisions being made about which crop to grow at what time, in what way. Food security is not possible without women. Missing the crucial link between the seed and the woman is “bogus feminism”.
What is your role in the wider South Asian region?
We do not strive to set standards or be a model. And the South Asian region as a whole is rich in experience and new initiatives. There are several such examples from India, in the famed forest preservation of Himachal or the seed-saving work in Hyderabad. And there are important linkages to be made. That is why in 1996 in preparation of the World Food Summit we got together as groups from South Asia under SANFEC – South Asia Network for Food Ecology and Culture. Our emphasis is equally on food, ecology and culture to keep diversity alive.
SANFEC members are against the patenting of life. There is no compromise on this position. The organisations comprising the membership of SANFEC are all those who are actually working with the people. We regularly interact. The farmers from all the South Asian countries are happy to meet and exchange seeds. The two premiers of India and Pakistan may not be on talking terms, but are farmers are. We constantly hold biodiversity festivals and fairs together.
What are the long term goals?
Our effort comes from the realization that so much has been lost; and so there is so much to bring back and there are so many ways to enhances our biodiversity. We want to establish our fight against the transnational corporations that are destroying agricultlure and show that another life is possible. Biodiversity and diversity alone has the answers.