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June-July 2007

 

Lessons from an uphill battle

- Priya Sundaravalli

Auroville's bio-pesticide campaign is stuck, notwithstanding years of effort at education and awareness-building.


Despite years of campaigning for a pesticide-free bioregion and the abundant availability of neem-based organic alternatives, chemical pesticides are still being openly applied in the cashew topes within and surrounding Auroville. From January to April, a fine mist of pesticides is sprayed over the cashew topes in the area, poisoning t-mosquitoes as well as other, often beneficial, insects and, in passing, the human population. The spraying teams too are in danger, as they have little protection, not even face masks.

In early April, an Aurovilian suffering from the side-effects of pesticide spraying got together with the ‘No more pesticides team' and put out a community-wide appeal, particularly to Tamil Aurovilians, for a brainstorming session on the topic, ‘How to make Auroville and the bioregion pesticide free in 3-5 years.'

The timing was perfect. It was right in the middle of the spraying season. Many residents both in Auroville and the villages were suffering from symptoms of poisoning – headaches, sinusitis, runny noses, burning eyes, and nausea – notwithstanding the availability of Okoubaka, a homeopathic first aid remedy made available by Auroville's homeopaths.

The cashew trial plot in May: waiting for the next season. Photo Priya Sundaravalli


On behalf of the ‘No more pesticide team', Njal reported on the work of the anti-pesticide movement over the last seven years. They have published and distributed over 50,000 informative leaflets in Tamil and English; used street theatre performances, video showings and presentations at schools to spread the message in the surrounding villages; and they ran the successful cashew ‘Trial plot' demonstration site opposite the Solar Kitchen where cashew trees are organically cultivated with natural compost and neem-based sprays. Over the past five years, the cashew harvest from the trial plot has shown a consistent increase, with the exception of the last year, when unseasonable rains destroyed the flowers.

Yet, said Njal, the campaign has not given the effect hoped for.. Why? He gave several reasons.It is difficult to do the work with a small team of only two or three individuals. The work, he felt, needs the support of the entire community.

Another reason given was that farmers do not altogether trust neem-based pesticides, despite efforts at education and awareness building. Though neem-based pesticides are often given for free by Aurovilians to their Tamil neighbours, the farmers often mix them with chemical pesticides “to make the concoction more effective”.

But the Tamil Aurovilians questioned the approach itself and said the efforts of the ‘No-more pesticide team' were too much based on a Western approach. Logical explanations won't work, they said. A more culture-oriented approach, or even a religious one, might have succeeded better as neem is a tree associated with the Goddess Mariamman. They also pointed out that, in the early days of the campaign, several alternatives were promoted, which led to confusion amongst the villagers.

Then there is the financial side of the problem: cashew is a major part of the farmers' income, and they can't afford any risk. That's why they still spray with chemical pesticides and continue to use chemical fertilisers. Couldn't Auroville offer to buy the entire harvest on the condition that it won't be sprayed? One Aurovilian is already doing that, paying his neighbour farmer the money he would have made on his cashew harvest on condition that there is no spraying whatsoever. As a result, the plot is pesticide-free.

The idea is an old one. Auroannam, in the past, tried to do it for selected fields but failed. To undertake such an operation for the entire Auroville area might well be beyond Auroville's means. But the idea merits studying once again. Organic cashews fetch high prices, but for these plots to be certified organic, no spraying can take place for a minimum of five years. If an Auroville unit could be created that would purchase all locally-grown cashew nuts from the farmers with a best-price guarantee, a win-win situation for all concerned would be reached – even more profitable once the plots are certified ‘organic'.

Meanwhile the ‘No more pesticide team' has this to say: “This is not a campaign of a few years; this is a campaign of a lifetime”.

 

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