Drawing on over a decade of successful experience working with small local groups to stop large-scale lumbering and other forms of environmental destruction, Pandurang Hegde is now turning to the even harder job of helping them restore the land and establish new patterns of sustainable agriculture fitted to each area's particular condition. He's focusing initially on the areas once covered by tropical forest along India's west coast, the region where he was born and where he earlier was a founding activist and leader of the Appiko Andolan Movement, in effect the south's own indigenous Chipko Movement.
Pandurang Hegde was born in 1956 in a nine-house village amidst the tropical forests of Karnataka, the same region that he has done so much to protect. He remembers warmly what these forests were like when he was a young boy.After his father died he lived with his brother, following him to postings in Nagpur and Bombay. After graduating from Karnataka University with a B. Comm., he worked in Delhi as a chartered accountant. However, his spirit was in public service, not accounts, and he enrolled and did well in the Delhi School of Social Work. Preferring to work in the rural areas, he spent four years in a voluntary organization in Damoh, Madhya Pradesh. He also worked in and was deeply moved by the Chipko Movement, a people's movement chiefly of women that effectively stopped the contract logging that was devastating the region.With little other than these experiences and his own spirit he threw himself into helping build the Appiko Andolan Movement in the hills he knew as a boy. Intentionally faceless, working not to be a banyan tree whose shadow would prevent others coming up and leading, he served as an activist wherever he was needed. He received his room and food from the villagers whose energy and confidence he helped free.Now he will be helping those in the country take the next, even more ambitious step – millions of farmers practicing sustainable agriculture.
After five years' grassroots struggle the Appiko Andolan won a watershed victory; it persuaded the government to stop selling the remnants of the western Indian forests that had protected the hills, water system, soil, and climate of the region. Though deforestation continues, this change opened the possibility of restoration and renewal.This was not a victory won in the drawing rooms of a distant capital. It was one of the first major examples of poor, seemingly powerless local people organizing in gradually widening circles in peaceful but persistent defense of their environment. It began in Sirsi, Pandurang's home village, and eventually engulfed five hill districts and exerted an influence by example well beyond.Pandurang is now turning to the next, even longer and more difficult job – how to build a grassroots mass movement that will not only continue the still necessary struggle against further damage to the region's environment but help thousands of villagers take up regionally adapted, sustainable agriculture. These alternative forms of agriculture would have to develop from what the farmers already know – but would take them in a quite different direction than the government's current policy. Instead of fostering the "green revolution," with its heavy dependence on chemicals and high financial costs, Pandurang plans to lead in the direction of locally adapted, organically oriented farming.He will be demonstrating and helping spread some of the most advanced forms of alternative agriculture, drawing heavily on the Japanese One Straw Revolution and Australian Permaculture models. Working closely with the two or three other leading groups that are working with these ideas in other parts of central and southern India, he hopes his work will become a regional center from which these ideas spread broadly. However, his central focus is on the grassroots. Having the most advanced models accessible is important. But far more urgent, is reaching the missions of small farmers and helping them learn and eventually become the champions of a new, profitable (especially for small farmers), easily understandable, and environmentally safe and sustainable way of working with the land. This is where his long, extraordinarily intense and successful years of building a people's Appiko Andolan Movement puts him in a unique position. He knows in his spirit as well as in his mind how to proceed. Although still mastering the agricultural techniques he hopes to spread, he knows both the realities facing his small-farmer neighbors and how they think. He knows how to help them take up new ideas and approaches individually, and also how to help them build up a powerful movement with staying power.Pandurang Hegde is, in effect, hoping to create the first people's movement of alternative agriculture. It will build on the technical ideas others have been demonstrating. It will also build on the people's movement he helped create to stop the earlier headlong environmental destruction taking place in the region. But the goal is much more ambitious than either of these building blocks.
All over India the forests have been cut and cut for years. In Pandurang's Uttara Kannada District, Karnataka State, the forest that covered 82 percent of the land in 1952 had shrunk to cover only 20 percent in 1982. As a result, the climate and rainfall have become more erratic. Soil erosion has accelerated. A good many water resources have dried up or become intermittent, further disrupting both the natural ecosystem and human agriculture.Ironically, as poverty has increased, poor people commonly press yet harder on their eroding natural resource base–cutting more wood to sell and opening even more marginal fields. The government's response has been to push farmers to adapt to high-input and therefore high-cost technologies heavily dependent on chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Their higher costs put small farmers at risk whenever anything goes wrong. Moreover, critics argue that these methods weaken the plants, cumulatively making the farmer's whole agricultural undertaking more and more vulnerable.
Pandurang's work has several major stands. He needs to continue helping sustain and build popular commitment to defending the region's environment against outside attack. The Appiko Andolan's early years of intense mass commitment are past, but a long struggle requiring a steady effort remains. The day-to-day effort this requires fits well with Pandurang's newer work to help lead these same communities to fresh, more sustainable ways of organizing their own use of the land. Both changes are necessary to safeguard nature, and neither will happen without mass understanding and involvement by all the region's peoples. To win this mass support Pandurang will continue to help the communities maintain their local organizations, chiefly groups of small and marginal farmers. He'll also continue to reinforce his own direct efforts through use of his journalistic skills and by helping other voluntary organizations.However, this new, second thrust requires much more. Just as Pandurang had to develop organizing techniques fitted to his region in the 1980s, now he's got to develop specific agricultural techniques fitted both to the region's tropical environment and to what its people will readily understand and take up.On the one hand this is a very technical and nitty-gritty business. Pandurang feels he can be credible only if he is growing and depending on what he's suggesting that others – who have no margin for experimental error – grow. Consequently a six-acre demonstration farm is central to his plan. He'll learn very directly what works and what doesn't. Increasingly the farm will use advanced alternative farming techniques allowing it to be a model for the agricultural-thought leaders in the region and beyond. But its chief function is to help define specific alternatives that will work in the area.The ideas and the experiments will be done all over the region, not just at Pandurang's demonstration farm. However, operating from his base at the farm and using his Appiko network, Pandurang will help pull all these experiences together. Gradually he and his neighbors will build a locally adapted alternative agriculture that works for them.Because he is intensely concerned with what local small farmers are likely to quickly understand, Pandurang has decided especially to emphasize organic approaches to alternative agriculture first. Most farmers either still use or only relatively recently stopped using such techniques. By contrast, he feels these farmers would take a long time to intuit that "no till" approaches are plausible.Pandurang plans to build an institution on the farm, the Centre for Sustainable Development, that will structure the several dimensions of this effort. It will collect, systematically document, and spread the indigenously developed, sustainable tropical land-use techniques the project will be testing and proving. The institution will organize local seed banks to collect, preserve, and make available locally adapted seeds likely to produce hardy, disease-resistant crops. It will also manage the farm, organize programs to reforest wastelands, help disseminate organic farming techniques such as composting and green leaf fertilization, and organize to carry what is learned in this region to the rest of the country. Although Pandurang will be focusing chiefly on five districts of western Karnataka to begin with, from the start he's been aware of the importance of sharing what he's learning more widely. Already he's working with groups from other southern and central states. Ultimately, he hopes that these lessons will affect state and national forest, agriculture, and environment policies.