Ravaged and ruined, the soil was as hard and unforgiving as concrete, so degraded that not even a blade of grass could grow. Robbed of the ability to produce food, the region suffered widespread debt, poverty, food insecurity and malnutrition, resulting in nearly 700 farmers committing suicide in the space of ten years; a monumental crisis in an already sparsely populated part of the country.
So how did this happen? Well in 1966, the ‘green revolution’ introduced India to chemical intensive agricultural practices as the ‘answer’ to the country’s food crisis. Reaching Anantapur in the state of Andhra Pradesh in the 1970s, the government offered farmers subsidies to shift from growing traditional crops such as rice, wheat and maize, to cash crops like groundnuts. However, the harsh chemicals that were used to ‘protect’ the crops from unwanted insects and pests, also killed off helpful organisms and destroyed the earth’s delicate balance, which over time not only hampered its ability to replenish but led to diminished harvests to the detriment of the local communities’ livelihoods.
Furthermore, it raised the question of what these chemicals were capable of doing to the consumer. A report found that cauliflowers grown in Punjab contained chlorpyrifos, an insecticide known to affect the central nervous system, 117 times above permissible limits. In Uttar Pradesh, tomatoes were discovered to contain the pesticide DDT, which affects the reproductive system, 108 times above the permissible limit, and it’s suggested that everyday an average Indian consumes vegetables that contain over 40 deadly chemical pesticides.
Faced with a ravaged landscape and poison-covered crops, the outlook wasn’t looking great for the people of Anantapur. However unbeknown to them, a trio of environmentalists, who came to the region in 1989, had the answer that would change everything.
Seeking to restore a 32-acre plot of barren land, Bablu Ganguly, Mary Vattamattam and John D’Souza began experimenting with a holistic approach to restore their newly acquired patch to its former glory, which the Forest Department Gazetteer described as once being one of the finest summer deciduous forests of South India.
Christening the waste land ‘Timbaktu’, meaning ‘where the earth meets the sky’, one of the first things they did was build a dam at the bottom of the hillside to capture and retain rain water that was previously being washed away. With a series of built-in water reserves feeding the earth, newly planted trees began to flourish. Crops were cultivated holistically using seed dibbling and other indigenous traditional farming methods, and every year the dead leaves were swept from the budding forest floor and reused as compost to feed back into the earth. Slowly the texture of the rock-like land softened and the landscape transitioned from dusty brown to vibrant green.
“Agriculture is the art of living with land, with nature,” Bablu Ganguly says. “You look after the land, you make the land feel good, you make it healthy, and you give it love. You call it mother, but the mother has to be looked after.”
Birds, snakes, and butterflies returned, and from 21 species, 400 species migrated independently to the blossoming habitat.
The trio’s experiment of building an agroforest habitat using principles of permaculture, organic farming and nature’s wisdom, was declared a resounding success. It was then the trio realised they could help farmers living and struggling in the local communities mirror their achievements by adopting the same approach, and thus the Timbaktu Collective was born.
Golla Akkulappa is a smallholder farmer, whose story is typical of those who have worked with the collective; shifting to holistic farming, he was one of the first farmers to revive the disappearing supply of Barnyard millet.
“In the beginning when I had just sown my field everyone who saw my farm mocked me, they were all dismissive,” Golla recalls. “But as my crops neared harvest and my land appeared lush and green, passersby wanted to know what I was growing! We were among the first farmers to start growing millets. We began with half an acre and expanded gradually each year. These days farmers use chemicals from the time when the crop is just a sapling right from its birth until it reaches our plate. The crop is pumped with poison causing diseases previously unheard of. We grew groundnut with chemicals for 10-15 years and the land lost its fertility. Our harvest became meagre. We had given up hope. That’s when the Timbaktu Collective approached us, advising us to grow millet organically without any chemicals. They informed and shared with us techniques of organic farming. We chart a seasonal crop plan and go to farmers’ field school where we are told about friendly and unfriendly pests and come up with the right organic manure for each crop.”
Instead of nasty pesticides, Golla uses Neem leaves for its antibacterial properties, Thorn Apple Leaves for its pest repellent attributes, and Swallow Wort leaves for their insect repelling capabilities.
“Millets need very little investment,” Golla continues. “On the other hand, groundnut is very expensive and it is prone to diseases. Now everyone wants to grow millets.”
Golla, and farmers like him, who have been switched on to sustainable agrarian practices, have seen their livelihoods, health, and mentality improve.
Today the Timbaktu Collective is regenerating more than 7,000 acres of wasteland into forests, and works in over 172 villages of Chennekothapalli, Roddam and Ramagiri mandals of the Anantapur district. This substantial reach means they serve almost 21,000 marginalised families, helping to enhance the livelihood resources of the rural poor, landless labourers, and small and marginal farmers, particularly women, children, youth, dalits and the disabled.
“We work towards holistic transformation of rural ecology and economy through community led conservation, nature restoration, social and economic empowerment,” says Siddharth Rao, The Timbaktu Collective’s director of ecology and conservation. “Our underlying philosophy is to ‘make markets work for the poor’ in an environmentally sustainable manner.”
In almost 30 years the Timbuktu Collective has undeniably made an overwhelming difference to the environment and communities of Anantapur, including: widespread restoration of wasteland, promoting and teaching organic farming techniques, creating alternative banking and credit creation, facilitating legal aid and counselling for women, helping the disabled, promoting cultural activities, creating child friendly spaces, and founding two schools, one of which is a residential for underprivileged children.
In short the Timbuktu Collective has changed the face of humanity here, which is probably why it became an irresistible choice of the judges in this year’s Lush Spring Prize, winning one of two Established Projects Awards, and with it £25,000 funding.
“We intend to use the prize money to promote our work in various forums by mentoring individuals and organisations interested in setting up cooperatives. In addition, we intend to allocate a part of the prize money towards the construction of an ‘Ecology/Wildlife Interpretation Centre’ in the Kalpavalli Conservation Area,” says Siddharth. “The Spring Prize reiterates that collective action and community-led efforts are valued and cherished. It means that we are not alone; there are more people out there who envision a fairer and healthier planet.”
The Timbaktu Collective’s work is far from complete; keep up to date with its continual progress at www.timbaktu.org