Chapter 9: The Wealth of the Social Landscape

Image: Children of Tangail, Bangladesh.

From the moment of my first visit to Bangladesh in the mid 1990s I was uplifted and strengthened by people involved in the Nayakrishi Andolon (New Agriculture Movement). The movement revolves around some 300,000 farmers in different parts of Bangladesh engaged in ecological farming.
Two dear friends, Farhad Mazhar and Farida Akhter, introduced me to the day to day practices of the Nayakrishi Andolon.

Farhad is an accomplished poet and one of Bangaldesh’s best known and most independent-minded political activists. I met him in 1995 shortly after I joined the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and was immediately drawn to his intellect and passionate character. He became a mentor to me.

Farida is a fearless and formidable champion of women’s rights, best known in Asian feminist circles for putting international attention on the sexist and racist uses of Depo-provera as a birth control measure. She is the guiding force behind efforts to push tobacco companies out of Bangladeshi agriculture, a story I tell in the next chapter. The farming practices Farhad and Farida introduced me to, and the political and spiritual ideas of the region, opened my mind to a hidden, and hopeful world.

My travels to Bangladesh with the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) initially focused on cultivated agricultural biodiversity — the thousands of locally adapted varieties of crops that still make up the vast majority of the seeds used in world agriculture. The topic was central to work at the IDRC on the contributions of traditional seeds to the stability and productivity of food systems, now and in the future. Along the way, I became fascinated with the culture, landscape, and people of this improbable country. My passport accumulated three and sometimes four Bangladesh visas a year for many years, and I created the unwarranted impression among Bengalis that I spoke the language. There was even a room in one of the centres I stayed at known as “Daniel’s room.” Farhad fondly chided me recently for not visiting in some time, saying that when he sleeps in the room people ask him, “Why are you using Daniel’s room?”

I felt not only welcome in the centres run by UBINIG but also at home in the rural landscape. For the most part, Bangladesh is a lush and green country, and more water than land at some times of the year. The fields around Tangail in central Bangladesh, the centre I visited most often, are bound by narrow bunds and simple dirt tracks connecting people and villages. Human figures dot the landscape in all directions, collecting grass, shepherding a few goats, carrying a head-load of jute stalks, or simply walking to and from their home. These byways are literally roads to nature, so different from the roads to the cities congested with machines and toxic fumes. Everything in the rural landscape seems connected in a slow dance, bathed in the sun and embraced by humidity.

Image: Mother and son taking their goats to feed.

My response to the heat of rural Bangladesh was to relax and let the sweat absorb into the long cotton shirt or kurta Farhad had ordered for me. In the privacy of the walled centre, I wore a lungi , a bolt of cotton cloth wrapped around the waist like a skirt. I loved the feeling of air moving on my legs, but had to constantly adjust the knot to keep it from slipping off to the ground. Pants were safer when visiting and facilitating work in villages, which at first focused on the study of seed.

Seed Wealth

The Nayakrishi Andolon is guided by ten rules. These are the foundation for what the farmers and the movement describe as the path to a joyful life, shohoj ananda in Bangla.

The first rule is “Keep seeds in your hands, Sisters.” By keeping their own seed, farmers remain self-reliant and ensure access to a wide range of food items good to eat at different times of the year. This kind of farming is “a ready-made supermarket: nutritious eating, tasty eating, varied eating, culturally satisfying eating.”

In the early morning I would visit the “Community Seed Wealth Centres” established in every UBINIG centre. A sturdy bamboo and palm structure, the centres are stocked with samples of hundreds of plants adapted to local conditions. Vegetable seeds are stored in small glass bottles, suspended in colourful macrame holders to maximize the storage space. Gourds have their own protective shells. Sitting on lattice work shelves that allow air to circulate, each one stores a unique variety of pumpkin or squash. Rice varieties are stored in clay pots made by local potters. For longer term storage, the pots are sealed with a mixture of mud and neem leaves to control insects.

The depth of women’s knowledge embodied in seed keeping is breathtaking. A knowledgeable seed caretaker can easily distinguish between dozens of different rice varieties, most of which look the same to my untrained eye. In addition to size, shape, and colour, the taste of the seed and how it breaks between the teeth can be tell-tale signs of varieties distinguishing between deep water types, upland types, and types for different seasons within the year-round agricultural cycle in Bangladesh. Seed caretakers at the centres periodically empty the pots and spread the stored seed out on woven palm mats to dry, choosing sunlight for some species, shade for others and moonlight for more delicate seed types.

The term “community seed wealth centre” is profoundly political in meaning. It acknowledges and communicates the collective origins of all agricultural seed, developed over centuries by farming communities. It also celebrates the idea of abundance or wealth for all.

Image: Seed keeper drying seed stored in a seed wealth centre at Tangail.

By contrast, the term “seed bank” associated with the Green Revolution centres where I worked in the early 1990s, is a commercial metaphor. Seeds in these banks, including a “Doomsday Vault” inside a mountain in Norway, hold examples of most of the world’s agricultural diversity “in trust for the world.” However, much of what actually happens with the collective intellectual property bound up in the seeds benefits commercial seed companies with private, and sometimes nefarious, agendas. The most common of the changes to plant traits offered by global seed companies is resistance to herbicides sold by these same companies, making use of their seed bound up with use of their highly profitable, and polluting, chemical products. It is a vertical integration of farming technologies dangerous to global food security by virtue of the control it hands over to private corporate interests.

Keeping seeds in farmers’ hands creates autonomy for farmers and keeps the seed alive in other ways as well. In farmer’s fields, crop genetic resources are actively managed “in-situ,” as opposed to being frozen in time in “ex-situ” seed banks. While both are important to conservation in case of major disruptions to the global food system, seeds planted every year stay relevant to living farming systems, co-evolving in a specific environment.

The steady stream of farmers I saw visit the Bangladesh seed wealth centres, sometimes exchanging seed of their own for a variety they wanted to try, gave a human face to the technical concept of in-situ conservation. So too did the reasons they gave for their visit: to replace a seed type lost after a recent flood or untimely rains, a memory of a variety with a special taste, a search for a variety resistant to a pest. As Farida explained, “the seed types conserved by farming women in the centres and in their homes are able to support others. This is why we must keep seeds in our hands.”

Image: Seed stored in a seed wealth centre at Tangail. Below, an UBINIG poster.

There is no weed on our land

A second rule of the Nayakrishi Andolon, linked to the robust plant diversity of the cropping system, is to reject all commercial pesticides in agriculture. “Pesticides are poison to health,” proclaims one of the many T-shirts from UBINIG.

The benefits of the rule are multi-faceted. Occupational health risks from the use of herbicides and pesticides can be severe among farm workers and their families, particularly where poor knowledge or financial circumstances limit the use of protective equipment. I learned this first hand when Alvaro, a farmer I worked with in Mexico, died from herbicide exposure (Chapter 7). The risk, and the associated health costs, are avoided by firmly rejecting pesticide use. Spending scarce money on chemical inputs is also avoided.

Damage to crops from pests, which can be devastating in mono-cropping systems, is limited by using crop diversity and mixed cropping as the first line of defence. The physical distance between infected plants of the same species created by high diversity reduces the spread of pests and diseases. If one plant is damaged, other species nearby can take their resources and grow more vigorously, a response that partly compensates for losses.

Pest management through means other than pesticides (frequent crop rotation, feeding the soil to produce healthy plants, insect traps and the use of insect predators, etc.) has also proven to be effective in many traditional and ecological farming systems around the world. Hand weeding, while costly in time, is a viable option on the hundreds of thousands of small-scale farms spread across the Bangladesh landscape.

The rule, while initially focused on the harms of pesticides to people’s health and the health of the environment, took a surprising turn as a result of research we did with the poorest women farmers, unreachable by most development agencies. Farida told me that even finding them to interview was difficult at first. “When we asked, where are the poorest of the poor, the answer came back, ‘chak’ meaning ‘out there’ in the open fields.”

The women were collecting their family’s daily nourishment from the borders between fields, along roadsides, in small patches of forest or fallow land, in ponds and other water bodies, as well as in the cultivated fields and homesteads. As they moved through a cultivated field doing weeding for the landowners, they made two piles of weeds, plants for humans and plants for animals, bringing both home as part of their wages from nature. Without damaging the growing plant, they also collected the secondary parts of cultivated crops such as jute leaf, pumpkin leaf, amaranth leaves and the tender leaves of potato. “This relationship with cultivated and uncultivated spaces and the gifts of nature,” Farhad told me, “was initially hidden by our own biases and a narrow focus on the cultivated components of agriculture.”

Pesticide and herbicide use destroy these food sources, or render them unsafe to eat. While this observation was obvious, our careful study of the totality of both cultivated and uncultivated plants and animals collected from the land, the uses as food, fodder, and fuel, and the availability of these sources to different segments of the rural population, revealed an intriguing picture. The research we published — Food Sovereignty and Uncultivated Biodiversity in South Asia— found that uncultivated food sources, including plants and small fish from open water bodies, made up, on average, 65 percent of the food by weight consumed by the poorest segment of the rural population in Nayakrishi Andolon villages. Animal feed and fuel were also drawn in large part from uncultivated sources.

“You do not need to spend money for the uncultivated food. It is available,” reported Saleha Begum, a young Bangladeshi mother responsible for feeding herself and two children while her husband was away for long periods working as a labourer.

P.V. Satheesh from Medak on the dry Deccan Plateau in India (Chapter x) was also involved in the research on uncultivated foods, sponsored by IDRC and the South Asia Network on Food, Ecology and Culture (SANFEC). Farming women of Medak use some 80 different species of uncultivated leafy greens as food, providing to their diets outstanding sources of vitamin A, calcium, zinc, magnesium, manganese, copper and phosphorous important to human health. Many of the plants collected are also rich in iron, and therefore helpful in the prevention of iron deficiency anaemia, a condition especially harmful for pregnant and menstruating women and their babies.
“What do you mean by weeds?” asks Eeramma, an older woman farmer from village Shekhapur in the Deccan. “There is nothing like a weed in our agriculture. We eat whatever grows on our land. If we can’t, our cattle eat them. There is no weed on our land.”

The research in Bangladesh and on the Deccan in India had a profound impact on my understanding of agriculture and my perspective on the complexity of food systems. Living and hunting for caribou in the Yukon had shown me the value of “wild foods” and their role in the contemporary culture and diet of Indigenous peoples and some rural Canadians. I also knew about “famine foods” referenced by humanitarian agencies as making the difference between those that live and those that die during times of extreme hardship. What the research on uncultivated agricultural biodiversity brought to a discussion of food and food security was entirely original, pointing to a social landscape where food, ecology and culture converge. The margin between the cultivated and the uncultivated, domesticated and wild, lost its sharp edge. All are gifts of nature.

Poor families in biodiversity-rich landscapes not only consume what they collect, they also exchange these plants and animals for other things they need. In Bangladesh, leafy greens and small fish are exchanged for rice, chiles and pulses for daily meals, or for rice husks and rice straw used as feed and fodder. Keeping hens, ducks, and goats fed largely from uncultivated sources becomes a source of income to purchase soap, oil, salt, spices and clothes. So-called waste products are also transformed into sources of income. Cow or bullock dung, for example, picked up from a road or pathway and applied to a jute stalk makes a valuable fuel for sale during periods of the year when fuel is scarce. There is also a demand for leafy greens and small fish in local markets, particularly during the monsoon when cultivated vegetables and protein sources are scarce and expensive.

In a pesticide and herbicide-free environment, the poorest of women are able to feed themselves and their families while at the same time making direct contributions to community life. They do the weeding work needed to grow crops and provide a nutrient-dense and strategic portion of the food needs of other community members across all social classes: for reasons of class and caste, better-off women do not go out themselves to collect uncultivated items they want to add to foods prepared for their families. Reciprocity between women of different socio-economic circumstances fashions a “social landscape,” a kind of safety net and community builder, that ensures survival for all, no matter how difficult that may be.

I became aware of this reality through the research, and in conversation with others. When stopped along the road overlooking flooded fields in Bangladesh, Farhad asked me, “Who do you think owns the water?” The question had never occurred to me and my response turned first to the owners of the flooded land. Then I noticed boys fishing in a culvert below the bridge and dozens of lift nets scattered across the landscape as far as I could see. “Bangladesh is a land of water,” said Farhad. “When the land floods during the monsoon, water flows in and out of the fields. This converts the private land into common property available for fishing to any member of the community.”

Satheesh offered other examples from the Medak in India. “It is a common sight in the Deccan to see women go with one or two goats when they leave home for weeding in someone else’s field and graze them in a limited area while they are working. The farmer is happy with this arrangement because the animals deposit urine and dung on her or his farm, increasing the fertility of the soil.”

The castes on the margins are also a part of the barter system. In the Deccan, Satheesh told me, “The Begaris are the grave diggers for the community and the Madigas do the ‘undoable’ jobs like disposing of cattle carcasses. They come to the field the day after the harvest and go straight to the threshing floor where any grain leftover is theirs, no questions asked. They are also entitled to go round the harvested fields collecting fallen grains, an activity that can easily result in 30 to 40 kilograms of grain over a few days.”

Hearing these stories and walking through fields in India and Bangladesh made me think of the 1857 painting “The Gleaners” by the French artist Jean-François Millet. It depicts class strife on a large-scale farm, a political message that in French culture gradually became veiled in nostalgia tinged with guilt. By the turn of the 19th century, the work had become part of the cultural legacy of la France profonde, a patriotic and touristic embrace of what France had been and what they dreamed it could become again. [1]

Image: Mother and son collecting sugar cane roots for firewood from a farmer's field.

Image: Bangladeshi woman preparing fuel from cow dung and jute sticks.

Our attention to uncultivated foods started as a preoccupation with the agriculture of the disadvantaged. It was not, however, an exercise in romanticism and nostalgia, blind to suffering, class conflict and severe exploitation at the hands of local people. Traditional community institutions are often inequitable and may be unjust. We came to understand, however, that the use of uncultivated biodiversity and the ecological farming practices and local institutions that make that possible, are real survival strategies built up by rural communities over the course of human history. As such, they should not be ignored or forgotten.

Uncultivated biodiversity is also a lens through which to question the kinds of policies and programs brought forward in regions of the world where access to food cannot be solved through international trade and aid. Bangladesh is a cash-poor country, with few options for the foreign exchange needed to import food. It also has a long agricultural tradition, rich in water, fertile soil, and sunshine. Depending on food aid is neither necessary nor acceptable to its farming communities.

Food security, the elusive goal of international development organizations across the world, was being ensured in Nayakrishi communities simply by practising biodiversity-based, mixed farming in an environment free of pesticides. The research showed too that the totality of both cultivated and uncultivated biodiversity, and its availability, matters not only to the well being of the disadvantaged but also to the broader rural community. Until and unless governments can guarantee significant new rural employment for the very poor, something that has been impossible to achieve for decades, it would be irrational and unethical to destroy what currently sustains life and keeps certain obligations alive.

The Technology of Cooking

When I was a young child my mother would occasionally serve me green peas from a can. When she was not looking, I would take a few in my fingers and crush them into an edge under the table, out of sight and out of my mouth. Only later, in the 70s, when frozen peas became readily available and cheap did I learn to tolerate them. While I have fond memories of other food my mother made for me, peas and green vegetables generally are not one of them.

My experience of industrial food, common among North Americans, was very different from the experience of most South Asians of my generation, regardless of socio-economic class. Nostalgia for mother’s food in South Asia includes a wide range of dishes made with leafy greens, small tubers and roots, leaves of trees, and hearts of stalks and grasses collected from the land or purchased in the market place. They are called shak, an inclusive term for delicious green curries.

Cultural differences around the experience of food were evident at a workshop on uncultivated agricultural biodiversity I helped organize with members of the South Asia Network on Food, Ecology, and Culture (SANFEC). UBINIG and DDS, the organizations run by Farhad and Farida in Bangladesh and Satheesh in India, convened the event in 2003 to share early findings and stimulate similar research by organizations in Pakistan, Nepal, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

Part way through the event, participants were invited to search the surrounding rural landscape for plants they recognized. Their assignment was to prepare a shak to be shared with others. With no personal history or knowledge of local plants to draw on, I sat out of the exercise. I felt vulnerable, because none of the plants I could see around me were food to me. I did not know what to cook or how to cook anything. We would have starved if it had been up to me.

Mothers and grandmothers in South Asia are the main repositories of the knowledge of transforming plants into food, the inedible into the edible. As they light the chula, a conical clay stand used to concentrate fire on the cooking pot, they send the girls in the household to collect the plants they want for the meal. The boys are also helpful in the collection of leafy greens, roots and tubers such as the lotus from the rainy season water bodies. Typically, they combine this activity with the collection of mollusks to feed to ducks and small fish captured with a small fishing net or even by hand in shallow puddles formed by tidal forces. Within 15 to 30 minutes the children gather the items and bring them home, before or after school, where they are sorted, checked for spider eggs and other insects, and washed until the water is clean of dirt. The plants are cooked as soon as they are collected.

The role of cooking in the development of human societies is a highly specialized theme in anthropology. Richard Wrangham of Harvard University, author of “the cooking hypothesis,” argues that cooking, and in particular cooking of tubers, is what made us human.[2] Cooking de-natures proteins, gelatinizes starches, and helps kill pathogens. This makes it easier for our guts to absorb calories, diverting energy from chewing and digesting foods toward the expansion of the brain, the distinguishing evolutionary development in the emergence of Homo erectus.

Anthropologists do not all agree with this hypothesis. The alternative view, dominant in the discipline, is that hunting and a change to eating meat caused the evolutionary shift to smaller guts and larger brains. Cooking came later, they say.

The implications of the competing theories are imbued with a particular gender perspective: one says that meat-hunting men were responsible for the evolutionary development of the human species and the other gives this place of honour to tuber-cooking women. Our book on uncultivated foods, subtitled The Poverty of Food Policy and Wealth of the Community Landscape, places women, and women’s knowledge, at the centre of agriculture. Collection and harvest merges seamlessly with the science and technology of cooking, linking plant genetic resources directly with the local cuisine system.

The range of foods from uncultivated sources I experienced in Bangladesh was striking. Bhaji is a curry made without the ubiquitous preservative turmeric, to be eaten immediately after cooking. A bhorta is a preparation of tender leafy greens mixed with onion, garlic and green chilies, mashed and only partially cooked. Charchari is a dish of greens cooked over a very hot fire with mustard oil, small uncultivated fish, and spices such as coriander or chili paste. It is ready when the combination makes a distinctive ‘char char’ sound indicating that the water has dried up and the greens, fish, and oil are properly mixed. The small fish used in the preparation are susceptible to rapid decomposition, a kind of fermentation that, when carefully managed with heat, enhances their nutritional qualities. Ghonto is a dish mixing cultivated and uncultivated plants in boiling water to extract and make available the nutritional and medicinal properties of very bitter or tasteless parts of uncultivated plants. I came to enjoy all of these and to strip tiny fish clean through my teeth and suck the juices from fish heads.

While memories of my mother’s food, when roast beef and wiener schnitzel were mouth-watering to me, have now faded into a long ago past. The food of Bengal, built around rice, fish, and shak , still delight.

Ecological Ethics

The experience of being in Bangladesh, and learning from the Nayakrishi Andolon and from Farhad and Farida, provided me with an original and far reaching perspective on ecology and the ethics of community life. It linked my values, goals and sense of self built up over decades into a unifying perspective, grounded in real life and lifted by a spiritual core. The people and ideas clicked into place with my world view.

“Nayakrishi is a powerful way of doing things, in real life, not some fancy idea that doesn’t work,” said Farhad in a discussion about theory and practice. This practical dimension appealed, prompting me to study a wide range of ecological farming experiments beyond seed and uncultivated plants. I learned how to make compost from different kinds of plants, including the water hyacinth bountiful in water bodies. I reviewed collections of photographs of local poultry breeds, and dozens of detailed drawings of small fish species, marvelling at their diversity. I took notes on integrating livestock, poultry and fish, learning how the three work together to create a complex household ecology and maximize total benefits. The unassailable logic of other rules of the Nayakrishi Andolon, such as the importance of harvesting surface water and the principle of integrated homestead design, became self-evident to me.

Every time I would visit an UBINIG centre, each with a different set of environmental conditions, resources, and people, I encountered new experiments and new modes of livelihood. I found specialization within common core practices: the cash crop potato in some households, jute in others. Farhad said to me in a recent Zoom conversation, “The future of community must allow genuine experiments people are doing with their lives, not by universalizing them but rather learning from them and from what we have lost from the past.” The humility of his perspective, backed up by his fierce opposition to the aggression of industrial agriculture, helped me position my own thinking and practice in the highly political world of global food and agriculture.

“We continue to learn,” said Farida recently. “Now we understand much better how to link poultry, a good source of income, with ecological farming and fish ponds.” Their recent research estimates that free range rearing of chicks reduces the use of purchased or cultivated grains: some 70% of their food comes from grass, cow dung, and insects on the land. Open spaces also eliminate the use of antibiotics and helps manage the excreta, deposited on the land in the day and into the water of fish ponds when the chickens are roosting overhead at night. Fish eat the algae blooming from the waste, completing the cycle of nutrient outputs and inputs. “There is only one problem,” Farida concluded with a smile, “there are many more cocks in the flocks, and they are shouting all day.”

The joy and optimism of the farmers I met and the people working with Farhad and Farida was a constant source of inspiration. Every morning I would rise just before dawn and join others in the common room to sing the songs of Lalon Shah, a 19th century philosopher whose teachings Farhad and Farida have carefully and lovingly reclaimed for modern times. These popular cultural and oral discourses, recognized by UNESCO as "a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity,” challenge various forms of hierarchical oppression such as caste, class, and patriarchy.

The daily singing ritual at the UBINIG centres acknowledges the Muslim practice of morning prayers, and provides a culturally appropriate way to start the work day for UBINIG staff living in village settings. The practice, I learned, had been established early on in UBINIG’s organizational life to create safety for the young, unmarried men and women who work for UBINIG in villages, and who themselves come from conservative village traditions.

Morning sessions draw on quiet and reflective songs, launching the day with peaceful intent. A small harmonium (reed organ) is a constant in every centre, along with the ektara, the single stringed musical instrument Lalon himself used to accompany his songs. In the Kushtia centre in western Bangladesh, located right next to Lalon’s grave, many more instruments enrich the musical and spiritual experience: the tabla drum, the two stringed dotara, tiny cymbals, a reed flute.

The centre also runs a school of music for peasant children in the town of Kushtia, and hosts an annual gathering of hundreds of Lalon disciples from all over Bangladesh. While attending one of these, I meet Farhad’s spiritual teacher and many other disciples. Most, as is common in the tradition, lived and travelled as male and female couples, equals in a life devoted to each other and to earthly manifestations of the feminine divine. Tantric rituals, including controlled sexual activity, precise food habits, traditional attire, and the making of one’s own musical instruments, are part of the practice. Farhad and Farida integrated Lalon’s teaching of respect for the female body and spirit into UBINIG’s operations by making women’s leadership central to its organizational practice.

Evening sessions in the centres accommodate a wide range of expression, including humour and story telling. During one of the first I attended in Tangail, a region with a long tradition of weaving textiles, a tall, thin villager did a pantomime based on a trip to Paris, France. A weaver as well as a farmer, he went there with UBINIG staff to promote traditional hand-loom products and traditional designs. Tailored to the needs of the fashion industry, the textiles garner higher prices than those from mechanical looms, helping to revive a hand-craft that had been in decline. His evening performance reproduced the movements and gestures of female models walking down a catwalk as they showed off the clothes of famous fashion designers. It was hilarious, conveying the outlandish qualities of the industry but also the pride of Bangladeshi weavers in having their fabrics shown with such pizazz.

Guests, such as myself, were encouraged to share songs or stories from their own traditions. I brought the lyrics and music of a number of songs from the Unitarian hymn book where Debra and I taught Sunday school. One song in particular proved to be immensely popular among UBINIG staff, and was translated and added to the flipchart of lyrics for morning songs at the Tangail centre. The song was written by Natalie Sleeth, a composer of hymns and choral music used in a number of Methodist, United, and Unitarian churches. It is normally sung as a round:

Go now in Peace, go now in Peace
May our love and care surround you
Everywhere, everywhere
You may go.

During the evening sessions I also performed magic, and told children’s jokes I’d learned from my brother Steve. As a child, I had learned magic, culminating in performances at grade school and in our basement home. My most dramatic trick was from my father’s days as a science teacher, before he joined the Air Force. It required a one gallon can with a screw top, commonly used to hold cooking oil. Boiling off a small amount of water in the bottom of the can, and quickly sealing the screw top, created a vacuum inside the can. I would announce to the audience that I would crush the can from a distance, using only my mind. Properly timed, the vacuum in the can would comply.

While I never performed that trick in Bangladesh — the right can was not generally available for destruction — my tricks grew increasingly sophisticated every time I travelled to Bangladesh. I learned new ones, and practised them in our front yard in Ottawa for our son Ryan and his friends. Eventually I had a 10 minute repertoire of cut-and-restore rope tricks and an effective disappearing coin trick. These always ended with laughter as the secrets behind my tricks were unveiled by prying eyes or my gags touched the funny bone. I felt embraced by the warm response, even loved by people I could barely communicate with in their own language. If music is a universal language, so too is laughter.

Lalon’s teachings and songs are immensely popular among Nayakrishi farmers not only because they celebrate the equality of human beings but also because the perspectives help to situate ecological farming practices in the context of spiritual knowledge. Take, for example, the understanding of waste in the factory model of production. A factory typically focuses on the production of a single commodity and relies on an uninterrupted flow of external inputs. It is not capable of recycling its own wastes internally, instead generating social and environmental impacts the one-dimensional world of mainstream economics calls “externalities.” It is an unarguable truth, however, that waste, like weeds, has no existence in nature. Nothing separates it from the unity of nature.

The songs provide a bridge between agriculture and the human experience of nature. I came to understand from Farhad that Lalon’s spiritual ideas contribute very concretely to the ecological farming movement, elevating composting, agricultural biodiversity, surface water management and other ecological farming practices to another level. Here is how Farhad summarized the relationship for me recently:

Lalon’s teachings and Nayakrishi farming are the same thing. It is a way of being and thinking where all your faculties get involved. Plowing, sowing seed, harvesting: all your faculties are sensuously engaged with nature. When you think about nature intellectually, nature becomes an object of thought. Nature is seen either as a means for consumption or a means for producing something. Problems appear from the intellectual assumption this creates of separation from nature. It is better to dwell in nature. This form of human being, manifesting with all faculties through active engagement with nature, is where we are both nature and human, not separate. The consequences of forgetting that we dwell in nature are profound. It ends in climate disaster and destruction of the whole life world.

The UBINIG and Nayakrishi project to reclaim ecology and ethics in the context of spiritual knowledge is a conceptual breakthrough, with practical and policy implications deserving vastly more attention and support than they have received to date. It raises fundamental questions regarding how to feed people everywhere. Is industrial agriculture, which destroys all life except a few privileged food sources, the best way to feed the world? Or can we begin to see nature not as an external world human beings interact with but rather as the body we inhabit and are therefore part of?

It was a disappointment to me that our book on uncultivated foods received limited attention from policy makers, academics and NGOs in the field. I designed it as a series of essays and, with help from Justin Wonnacot, an Ottawa-based photographer, filled it with photographs from my own work and the work of UBINIG and Deccan photographers. The effort, which took several years to accomplish amid competing priorities, represented for me the integration of text and visual ideas needed to convey the way of life and insight I had witnessed.

By the time the book was published, I had left IDRC and was no longer in a privileged position to promote it and the policy contributions it contains. These remained buried by the cacophony of voices competing for attention on the international development scene. I don’t know what more I could have done at the time, however, and it remains a beautiful book I am proud of. Living and writing about the interstices of the public and the private, the uncultivated and the cultivated, helped me see the wealth of the social landscape. Eventually, it also helped me realize that genuine and thoughtful effort is never wasted, even in a world that makes it difficult to live one’s dreams.

  1. Bradley Fratello, 2003. France Embraces Millet: The Intertwined Fates of “The Gleaners” and “The Angelus.” The Art Bulletin, Vol. 85, No. 4, pp. 685-701. ↩︎

  2. Wrangham, R. 2009. Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. Basic Books, New York. ↩︎

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