Like for many parts of the country Meghalaya’s economy is still highly dependent on agriculture. The primary sector (which includes agriculture and other natural resources extraction activities) contributes around 30% of the state’s GDP i.e., Rs. 8,168 crore out of the Rs. 27,228 crore economy. With more than half of the population still connected to agriculture the state cannot imagine to achieve any sustainable economic growth by neglecting people who are working in this sector, i.e., the farmers. But when it comes to enjoying the share of the economic pie theirs is the smallest share. Average annual income of farmers in India is just over Rs. 37 thousand or only Rs. 3000 per month; it is similar in Meghalaya (see discussion below). This means that in spite of farmers making huge contributions to the state’s economy they are mostly ignored. Who are these farmers who form the backbone of the state’s economy? What is their story? This article will tell the story of an indigenous farmer who epitomises the struggles of other farmers in the state. In spite of the immense difficulties they face always these farmers have the common good as their raison d’être.
Kong Phron Kassar is a 51-year-old farmer from Shkenpyrsit village which falls under Amlarem CRD Block, West Jaintia Hills. Her mother was (L) Kong Shida Kassar who arrived from Umladkhur village to Shkenpyrsit in search of livelihood. Kong Kassar studied only till Class III at the Shkenpyrsit LP village, unable to continue because of financial difficulties. By the time she was 12 years old she started helping her mother in the farm. In time like her mother (who was also a cow trader) she managed to own 10 cows. But 13 years ago she sold them for Rs. 45,000 to educate her children, determined not to allow her fate befall her children.
Presently Kong Kassar cultivates a variety of crops, viz., ginger, pumpkin, garlic, beans, mustard, peas, rice, radish, potato, sweet potato, cauliflower, cabbage, spinach, carrot, cucumber, coriander, etc. In her garden she also has fruit trees like those of sohiong, salangi and peach. She also keeps poultry, piggery and practised apiculture (bee keeping). According to her, the average annual earnings from her farm comes to Rs. 20,000 to 25,000 from vegetables, Rs. 8000-9000 from piggery, Rs. 4000-5000 for poultry. Curiously, when the upper range is combined it gives total annual earnings of Rs. 39,000 which when divided by twelve months give a monthly income of Rs. 3250 or Rs. 110 per day, similar to the national average. What needs to be kept into perspective is that this is lower than the prescribed minimum daily wage of a highly skilled worker in Meghalaya for agriculture which is Rs. 420.
For a time in order to boost her income Kong Kassar used chemical fertilizers like DAP for increased production. One day the chemical spilled on her leg and the skin started itching. Struck by this she was horrified by the thought of how the chemicals might be affecting the crops, soils and the people. Appalled by the realisation Kong Kassar vowed to never use any more chemicals in her farm and practise only organic farming. Concern for common good was more important for her than personal gains. Currently, she and many other farmers from Jaintia Hills are working with SURE (Society for Urban and Rural Empowerment) and NESFAS (North East Society for Agrobiodiversity and Slow Food) on adoption of agroecological methods for food production.
The 2018 IPES (International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems) Food, publication “Breaking away from industrial food and farming systems” states that Agroecology is an umbrella term for various alternatives to industrial agriculture viz., organic, biodynamic, permaculture, alternative, sustainable, regenerative, community supported agriculture (CSA), cooperative food system initiatives, or urban food transitions. A growing archive of case studies from around the world is demonstrating that Agroecology is providing immense benefits (economic, social and food security) while ensuring climate justice and restoring soils and the environment. In April 2018, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) also underlined the potential of Agroecology to underpin sustainable food system transitions at the 2nd FAO International Symposium on Agroecology: Scaling up Agroecology to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.
Coming back to Kong Kassar she explained that when she started engaging in organic farming she used eit masi (cown dung), eit sniang (pig waste), eit syiar (chicken waste) and skum kba (rice husk) for making compost. A pit would be dug on the ground and filled with animal wastes. Later skum kba and ashes are added and left to decompose. When the compost was ready it was dug up and applied to the plot. In the past SURE had also assisted Kong Kassar in attending trainings on composting.
Furthermore, determined not to use any chemicals, Kong Kassar invented her own organic pesticide by using a local plant called chyrmit kyndeh (Acmella alba also commonly known as toothache plant). She grinds the plant and mixes it with water. This concoction is then sprayed on the cabbages. According to her, it is best to apply before the leaves begin to fold and it has been very effective in prevent pests attack on the crop. Kong Kassar informed that the vegetables grown without using chemical fertilizers and pesticides are only very tasty but also keep the soil healthy.
Kong Kassar got the idea of using the plant as a pesticide by noticing that the local community has been using the plant as a traditional cure for toothache since time immemorial. Acmella alba actually has local anaesthetic properties. Kong Kassar surmised that since it already has medicinal properties, it must also have pest repellent properties. It should be mentioned that Kong Kassar is also a traditional healer. She is proficient in traditional massage therapy using mustard oil to cure people’s ailments. Kong Kassar has revealed that she is experimenting with the bio-pesticide on other crops as well to gauge its effectiveness.
Change in production practises from dependence on external inputs to agrecological methods which consisted of adopting biological pest and disease-management solutions including predators, insect pathogens and disease antagonists, plants with insecticidal, fungicidal, bactericidal and herbicidal qualities (practised by Kong Kassar), and parasitic nematodes was one of the main outcomes of the transition in the seven case studies, viz., USA, Nicaragua and Mexico, Tanzania, France, China, Spain and Cuba, reported in “Breaking away from industrial food and farming systems”. To achieve change in production practises NESFAS and SURE are promoting Agroecology Learning Circles (ALC). These are farmer groups aimed at empowering local communities to recognize, revive, practice, and eventually further develop traditional agroecology practices and stimulate local innovations for sustainable local food systems. Six participatory researches developed and implemented by farmers on pest management and soil improvement across six different locations are currently in progress. In total 38 farmers, 28 female and 10 male from the Khasi and Garo indigenous communities are taking part in the experiments.
Kong Kassar gave an interesting insight of how during elections ginger is in great demand. The local therefore has decided to plant more of it in the following year. The seeds are those that she got from her grandmother. She is determined to adhere to the principles of Agroecology which is not only about food security but achieving food sovereignty as well. “Food Sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems” – La Via Campesina.
Kong Kassar sells her produce in the local market of Shkentalang. Sometimes, customers visit the village to buy produce directly as well. In the past farmers from Shkenpyrsit grew only for self-consumption. Now production for market is increasing. To supplement her income Kong Kassar has been working as a mid day meal cook at Dongwah SSA School Shkenpyrist since 2006. She was one of the first people from the village to be appointed as a cook. Initially receiving a paltry sum of Rs. 150 per day, now she gets Rs. 1000 per month.
Farmers like Kong Kassar’s contribution to the local as well state economy cannot be understated. Without an improvement in their lot the resulting economic model of the state will be one of instability and high inequality. Instead Agroecology provides a framework for a transition towards sustainable food and farming systems. Only when indigenous farmers like Kong Kassar are supported a truly prosperous, sustainable, fair and healthy society will be created.
About the authors:
Deadidakami Mohrmen is a Field Coordinator in Society for Urban and Rural & Rural Empowerment (SURE) and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Coriniki Slong is a Field Coordinator in Society for Urban and Rural & Rural Empowerment (SURE) and can be reached at email@example.com
Bhogtoram Mawroh is a Senior Associate in NESFAS and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org