Volume 17 Number 6
Eco-Savvy Village Shows the Way
01 December 2004
In 1999, a local NGO in Andhra Pradesh (AP), India, suggested that the farmers try out ecological methods, based on the pests’ life-cycle. Five selfhelp groups run by village women provided the determination and support to help make this shift possible.
PUNUKULA—a small, predominantly tribal, village in the state of Andhra Pradesh (AP), India—declared itself pesticide-free in 2003, even for crops which are notorious for their high pesticide consumption. Village farmers claim that their ecological approach to pest management is saving them Rs 3 million (£36,500) a year.
In the past five years, AP has seen frequent spells of drought and thousands of farmer suicides: some 1,200 suicides in three months of 2004 alone. One reason has been the crushing burden of debt incurred to buy expensive seeds and pesticides.
Farmers who migrated from another district of AP brought the cotton crop to Punukula more than 15 years ago, and with it pesticides, which local farmers soon started using. Initially, the pesticides worked well and several pesticide shops opened in the nearby town, where farmers could buy on credit. But gradually the pests became resistant and the ill farmers had to spend more and more on greater quantities of pesticides.
In addition to supplying seeds, fertilisers and pesticides, the dealers started extending loans to the farmers at high interest rates. As pest damage rose, and the debt trap closed in, farmers in Punukula started committing suicide.
The high use of pesticides also led to health problems. Women, who did most of the spraying, complained of skin problems, blurred vision and body pains. Srinu, the son of farmer Hemla Nayak, suffered acute pesticide poisoning— and his treatment cost £200, a huge sum for his family to find.
In 1999, a local NGO, the SocioEconomic and Cultural Upliftment in Rural Environment (SECURE), suggested that the farmers try out ecological methods, based on the pests’ life-cycle. Support for this project was obtained initially from the Centre for World Solidarity (CWS) and later from the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA), both based in Hyderabad. Five selfhelp groups run by village women provided the determination and support to help make this shift possible.
SECURE began work with 20 farmers, including a few women. Earla Dhanamma, whose husband represented the interests of several pesticide companies, also joined in. Instead of chemical sprays, the farmers began preparing sprays made with inexpensive local materials such as neem seed powder and green chilli-garlic extract. The sprays were supplemented by hormone traps to attract the moths and destroy them before they started mating. Some farmers also used ‘crop traps’: planting marigolds and castor, which the pests preferred, alongside the cotton.
One season was enough to show the difference: spiders, wasps and beetles— which feed on cotton pests—returned to the fields once the chemical spraying stopped. In the next season, many other farmers tried out the Earla Dhanamma new approach.
Some farmers, however, still found it easier to buy a container of chemical pesticide, than to go to the trouble of ecological methods.
The women’s selfhelp groups stepped in to prevent their men from going back to pesticide shops. ‘We knew that the savings with the new methods were enormous,’ says Dhanamma. ‘Why, then, would we need to go back to pesticides?’ They took on the work of preparing the ecological anti-pest sprays, and ensured that no one brought pesticides into their village.
By 2003, most farmers in this 200household village had stopped using pesticides. The new methods were used not only in cotton fields, but also in those growing chilli and paddy.
In August 2004, the women’s groups bought a machine to crush the neem seeds into the powder used for the sprays, with support from SECURE and CWS/CSA.
Punukula farmers now have money to invest in house repair, buy land, invest in livestock and repay their debts. They believe that the way to get rid of pests is to rid their farming of pesticides. Neighbouring villages are beginning to show an interest.