Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Organized Crime in Nepal


Hello all, I'm getting behind on blogging! I'll might even have to leave out our bike trip from Kathmandu to Namo Buddha. But enough moaning, it’s time for another unfocused, rambling and poorly written update of The Strangest Dream, otherwise known as my life :-). One of my favorite movies is “The Strangest Dream.” Actually it’s a true story about how a group of scientists bridge the iron curtain and work to prevent nuclear war during the Cold War. The theme song of the movie is the peace anthem, “Last Night I had the Strangest Dream”.

“Last Night I had the strangest dream
I’d ever dreamed before
I dreamed the world had all agreed
To put an end to war

I dreamed I saw a mighty room
The room was filled with men
And the paper they were signing said
They’d never fight again
and when the papers all were signed
and a million copies made

They all joined hands and bowed their heads
and grateful prayers were prayed
and the people in the streets below
were dancing round and round
and guns and swords and uniforms were scattered
on the ground

Last night I had the strangest dream
I’d ever dreamed before
I dreamed the world had all agreed
to put an end to war”

I love songs like this. Taking a line from it to describe my life is a bit of a leap of logic since the context doesn’t really fit but the first line of the song repeatedly occurs to me and seems like a good sub-title for my life :-).

I’m living in Nepal at the moment, at a sort of luxury resort (to the left is a photo of my cabin). They grow a lot of their own food so I am here to work on the farm. I want to do some experiments, work on the farm design which means some record keeping and planning and learn lots about the permaculture re-design process. There are lots of odd ideas floating around to explore like entirely new theories of medicine, questions about whether AIDS really does exist, and new, odd ways to make rain. Having been deported from India I have been induced to change focus from studying Gandhi to studying Permaculture as a way to live.

I'm going to skip most the routine crap about how I got here, how long I plan to stay and other boring introduction details. Let's go to some interesting conversation instead.

I’ve found that working in a place gives a very different viewpoint than being a tourist. It’s hard to realize what a rut the tourist track is, and the effect is probably especially pronounced in Nepal. It’s more of a trench than a rut actually; too big to properly see out of!

One day in particular stands out when Jack and I went to the welder to put together the seed ball rolling machine. Standing there gesturing and trying to explain our ideas to a guy who speaks only Hindi and watching him weld together our thing piece by piece was so strange. We were both struck by how our experience in India was so different compared to a normal tourist.

Or there was that time in Chama near the apple orchard when I was trying to buy a handle for a pickaxe. “These are tools for Indians” the shopkeeper told me :-). As if Europeans and Americans never use tools! It’s hard to imagine what Nepali or Indian people must think life is like in materially richer countries. The only people they ever see from these countries spend all their time just hanging around, eating, taking photos and traveling a bit. No wonder they view people from the West as having unlimited time and leisure. Not only does this leave them free to rip you off as much as possible because you obviously have unlimited money, but it fuels a huge desire to move to Canada, US, Germany or wherever to obtain this unlimited money and leisure time.

At Namo Buddha Resort (NBR) I’ve had an unusual look into the world of organized crime in Nepal. The usual tourist trench contains only relics of nice things; ooh, look at the nice Buddhist paintings. Beautiful mountains. The curious habit of eating dhal bhat every day three times a day. A civil war just ended in Nepal but you wouldn’t know it from trench side. A lot of people try to rip you off but it’s almost all low level street crime, no indication of anything larger is visible. And it makes sense for Nepal to show you the best of what they’ve got. But it’s a bit eerie also because you know that there must be more going on. Tourists get hints of this, for example when they try to take a photo of the soccer field that it turns out is a military base inside the city. The military doesn’t like photos :-).
NBR is located in Kavre which is actually one of the most crime ridden areas of Nepal. When I was at HACERA I didn’t notice this. But since I’ve started working here at NBR it has become an issue. There are stories flowing frequently about the local organized crime agents using violence and threats of violence to pressure the owners to purchase land at inflated prices, hire certain people especially for contract work (forcing NBR to use the incompetent local contractors instead of qualified ones from elsewhere), stealing vehicles, threatening workers to the point that they leave the resort and frequent assorted demands of the most unreasonable sort. At the moment they are trying to work their way into the company by pressuring one of the workers who used to be a manager. He appears to be working with them so it looks like he may be fired to protect from further infiltration. The organized crime folks want their man to be the guy in charge of bookkeeping, of all things!
Even the Lama from the nearby famous Buddhist Stupa dips into the pot. Actually his thing is being a money shark; charging 30% interest or more on cash loans.

Some people in this photo are involved in organized crime. Can you tell who? Others are honest people running the nearby school.
All of this is in addition to the usual corruption in the government with bribes left, right and center.
I hesitate to call the local criminals Mafia because their style is very immature and stupid. They don’t have the idea of replacing the government or having any sort of justice or fair system. They are just out to grab whatever they can however they can. Yet at the same time they are different from the guys (yes it always seems to be guys) who show up at night with masks and sticks to demand 500 000 NPR (about $7 000). They are career criminals.
Perhaps the best hope is the Maoists. When they were in charge of the area apparently this organized crime stuff was very much less. The Maoists installed a court system that actually took cases to completion and did serious investigation. They reduced public drunkenness. They built roads. Actually it sounds like things were much more promising when the Maoists were in charge. They are inspiring for me because it seems like they set up a parallel system of government, circumventing the dysfunctional and corrupt version that exists now. Even still in Kathmandu you can observe that the Maoists have their own car license plates. This makes so much sense to me to simply side-step the government and start organizing on your own.
Another option, or rather something additional, is to give money to the schools, get involved in the festivals etc. In this way the community likes NBR and organized crime has a more difficult time making threats since they do not have community support.

Until next time,

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Annapurna Base Camp

Namaste all!

Since my last post I have been hanging out at HACERA farm for a bit before heading out to trek around Nepal. Nepal is famous for the trails it has through mountains and forests. Not only do they go through the highest mountains in the world and some of the most diverse forests, there are also special trails called “teahouse treks”. Teahouse treks are trails which have small collections of hotels strung along the otherwise fairly untouched path. So, you can take only a light backpack and walk for literally weeks in the mountains, staying in lodges the entire way. No need to carry heavy tents or food!

I first decided to walk around the Langtang range but that didn’t really work out. There was lots of rain, and part of the trail was collapsed. Lots of rain also means no views of the mountains! I turned around and made my way to the Annapurna Range, which is a more popular tourist destination. It’s a little more developed and the weather was a little better. I met up with a Korean guy by accident and we decided to go together into the center of the national park. We decided to walk right up to the feet of the biggest mountain, into what is called “The Sanctuary”. It is so named because it is a basin surrounded by peaks, with only one entrance.

In total I took ten days inside the park, usually walking about 6 hours a day with my backpack. Without further delay, here are some photos :-).

Me looking ridiculous in front of a suspension bridge. There are many of these, and often ice cold glacial water is raging underneath. On a warm day it's not bad but when the weather is cold and cloudy you can imagine falling through the rickety boards and not making it out...

Sheep! Although this is a national park, there are quite a few people living inside making a living.

A picturesque little Nepali town in the morning. Most of the town's money probably comes from the tourist industry. In the morning it was amazing to see the sun come up over the mountains, then ten minutes later the entire place flooded with fog as the dew evaporates.

View of Annapurna South at night, with a full moon. I stayed two days at Annapurna Base camp; the foot of the tenth tallest mountain in the world, 8091m. The base came is about halfway up at 4031m.

After my hike I went back to HACERA neighborhood, did a quick course about Permaculture then headed up to Namo Buddha Resort, just a little broken hearted. I'm hanging out at NBR these days, ostensibly as the farm manager, or so I'm told. Sometimes I feel like the general in War and Peace who knows the best thing he can do is show approval when his lieutenants suggest something. But it's a great chance here to practice the cycle of permaculture redesign. So I'll be staying here at least 4 or 5 months, with a break to travel around with my Dad during the Christmas season. It should be interesting!

Hanging out with the Himalayan Magpies and wondering about the names of the common weeds of Nepal,
This has been a note from Yours Truly,

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Bullshit, Cow Shit and Building Houses

Indian people in rural areas just love shit :-). It’s used in ceremonies, fermented to make biogas for cooking, put it in the garden. It’s dried out and used in the fireplace for cooking and to make the fireplace itself. They plaster their walls with it, and cover the floor with it too, both inside and outside. It’s even mixed with urine and used in some medicines! Yep, people love shit. A few Indians I met were pleased to proclaim that Indian cows make the best shit and urine in the world.

When Vandana Shiva was given the Bullshit Award she was happy to receive it. Actually it’s a great, funny example of the difference between the organic mindset and the mindset of the World Bank guy who gave it to her. He didn’t mean it in a nice way, but unknowingly she took it as a complement! It depends on how much you value shit from cows and bulls :-).

People only do these things with animal dung of course. I’ll be polite and not talk about the human waste disposal issues. Cow dung, as far as I can tell isn’t used for anything irreplaceable but it sure is an omnipresent material in rural India. It turns out it’s the same in rural Nepal.

Today we spent part of our day flinging shit at the walls and smearing it around :-). We plastered the outside of a building with a mix of cow dung, rice husks and silt/clay. This is the normal plastering material for houses in rural Nepal, as in India. In India the material is being replaced by cement and some sort of low quality paint that has to be frequently re-applied. The cow dung looks much better, and the well maintained houses in this area of Nepal look quite smart with their smooth beige walls and thick strip of red paint around the bottom.

The inside of the walls in this area are often made of mud and stone, two age-old and time tested materials for building houses out of. In my travels I’ve seen a mixture of composition ranging from almost entirely stacked stone in Almora to pure mud in Bengal.

Rural Canadians are not such lovers of cow dung and I haven’t ever seen it used in this way there. I have seen a couple of people using a mud and chopped straw mix though. People call this cob, and if made and used correctly it can be quite a useful building material.

I think my favorite houses are made entirely of bamboo, thatch and coconut husk. It is possible to make the entire house (in a warm climate) out of these two materials! This is done in parts of Laos. The walls are woven bamboo strips, the floor split bamboo, and the roof is thatch although I suppose it could be bamboo shingles. Bamboo can be used to make the gutters, and used as piping and electrical conduit also. Rope made from coconut husk is used to bind it all together. This rope is soaked in water then tied. It shrinks when dry, making a solid joint. These houses are so simple they can be made by children, as shown in the photo below :-).

Good Night and Good Luck my friends!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Welcome to Nepal!

Hello all! Unlike most of my other blog posts I haven’t been inspired to write this one about something specific. I just have some spare time :-). Internet access is good in Kathmandu and I’ve decided to spend a few days in the city just hanging out, meeting some people, trading books, getting a haircut etc. before going to the farm I’ve chosen.

I will be going to HASERA farm 40 km to the east of Kathmandu. It’s a permaculture farm run by someone who seems to really know what he’s doing. I went to the Nepal Permaculture Group office and he was there so I met him and we talked about the farm. Unlike a typical WWOOF situation where you trade labour for room and board at HASERA you pay for room and board and there is more focused learning which may or may not include the usual farm work. I like situations like this because I feel more free, even though they are quite a bit more expensive than WWOOFing. HASERA is charging 450 Rs per day which is about $6.50.

Two days ago I learned about something which may disrupt my pleasant farm stays and romps through the Nepali Himalayas. A Latvian woman is being held incommunicado and without due process as a prisoner in a Nepali jail. She has been held there about 5 months after what seems to essentially have been what Amnesty International would call an “enforced disappearance”. Nepal is known to have a problem with enforced disappearances, as reported in the AI 2008 Annual Report. We only learned about her existence through informal channels. She was apparently arrested for being in a national park without a permit. Because she doesn’t speak English she cannot speak to her jailers and it seems they have decided to simply keep her in jail because of it. Obviously I want to learn more about what’s going on and see what I can do, including contacting Amnesty International. The Russian Embassy has known about her for two weeks or so, and has not freed her. There is no Latvian embassy in Nepal so this is another problem for her. Her family has sent the Russian Embassy money to buy her a ticket home and help with getting her out, but the Embassy apparently has just kept the money. Yesterday I was supposed to have had a meeting with a Russian/English speaking tourist who has spoken to her but it didn’t happen. I hope I don’t have to stay in Kathmandu any longer than I already have because I am getting anxious to go to a farm after almost 20 days in cities and travelling. But I can’t just leave her to the mercy of the nation states who would apparently just as soon let her rot in jail than go home. If I don’t hear from the person who has spoken to her by tomorrow I will go to the farm and be in touch as much as possible from there. When I remember what the Canadian state does, torturing people in specially built torture prisons in Syria apparently for kicks or electrocuting Polish people at the airport because they don’t speak English I am concerned about this person who has wandered into the grip of an irrational, powerful, brutal and uncaring organization.

On the bright side Kathmandu is much nicer than Delhi. The streets are more thoroughly paved which cuts down the choking, eye itching dust. There is a level less honking although it’s still annoying. The streets tend to be smaller and more pedestrian friendly, at least in the Thamel neighborhood where I’m staying. The food is less greasy and less spicy (spicy food makes me sick, I've discovered). Accommodation is a bit cheaper. It’s just generally smaller, quieter and more functional. Although taxi transportation is a lot more expensive you can generally walk where you want to go. This is the relatively nice area.

When I’m in some of the bad areas of the city I begin to compose poems in my head about the bad things and the insanity of city life, the rotting rats on the street, the masks people wear to escape the pollution and the con artists who will take advantage of your vulnerable and confused state to steal whatever they can.

Like most asian cities I’ve been to, locals in the tourist areas love to play Harass The Tourist. The goal of the game is twofold: make tourists dislike being in the tourist area, and get money from the tourists. Players are stationed every 10 to 5 meters and their goal is to thoroughly badger any foreigner to buy a tibetan violin type instrument, umbrellas, hash, hire a rickshaw or any number of other things which they probably have no interest in. I’ve realized that communication with such players or “touts” is not on a conscious level. If you look at them in the face and say “I’m not interested in buying what you’re selling” then this will actually encourage them, even though they understand English perfectly well. Paying attention to them at all is taken as a signal to become more persistent. This is really unfortunate because it shuts down rational language-based communication. I can dream up a number of humorous counter-games to play with the touts because their behavior is so predictable but I try not to be a jerk like that :-).

If you score well in the Harass The Tourist Game then you can play the Rip Off The Foreigner Game. Fewer players get to this level but it is also a popular national past-time. Rickshaws take you to (closer) places you didn’t pay them to take you to, and people are constantly trying to charge inflated prices or lying about various things, coming up with various schemes. The goal is to try to get as much money as possible for as little effort, of course. I come across this sort of thing at least twice a day. No wonder I don’t like cities. I think these negative social behaviors which appear in the city are symptoms of something really wrong with this way of organizing a society. Of course people who follow Buddhism don't do these things and I've met some great people in Kathmandu. Approximately 11% of the population identifies as Buddhist.

Note: When I speak about “India” or any other country name in the following writing, I mean the government of the state, which I don’t assume even represents the interest of the majority of citizens.

Through the Couch Surfing network I’ve been able to meet some interesting people, including some Nepalis who know a bit about the political situation here and a French person working on political documentaries about the country. The recent political situation in the country is very unstable. It seems that India wants to control Nepal so they have killed the royal family in an attempt to set up a puppet government, (in concert with the US; India and the US seem to work together). It is in India’s interest to keep Nepal politically unstable with a crippled economy and therefore a dependent trade partner. China and Russia are concerned about the threat of a strong US (Indian) presence right next to them so they have started meddling in Nepali politics as well.

India is a controlling power in Bhutan as well. I had an image of Bhutan as rather picturesque, with a benevolent King interested in “Gross National Happiness” rather than GNP. But I’m told that Bhutan’s Finance and Defense departments are almost completely controlled by India. The Royal Family has a deal where they can have their family, wealth and image of control as long as India can control these two key departments. In the early 1990s many people were ejected from Bhutan because they did not support the King; India was a major force behind this ejection because India to a large extent controls the King.

Someone I met yesterday shed some light on the Tibetan situation. He said that the main reason China invaded Tibet was to prevent it from being controlled by the US. So the idea of a Free Tibet, is more complicated than simply ejecting the Chinese. Any sovereign Tibet would have to defend itself constantly from incursions both by the two giants US and China.

On the relatively bright side if people in Tibet can manage to escape into Nepal - although many of them get injured very badly crossing the mountains - then they are generally given sanctuary here. Also they can freely enter India, going to Dharamsala or a different place. Recently the Chinese has put pressure on Nepal to send Tibetan people back for imprisonment/torture etc. but the Nepali people have protested and so far have sent nobody back.

I’m getting to try some Tibetan food which has been interesting. Momos are like a thin walled perogie. Thukpa (pronounced more like tukpa) is a noodle soup with lots of garlic, and Thenthuka (pronounced more like tentukpa) is another kind of soup with flat, square noodles, sliced potato, greens, onions and grated carrots. Momos are generally steamed and often not very spicy.

The number one thing to do in Kathmandu as far as I’m concern is to go to the Garden of Dreams. It’s a fairly small walled-in garden which you have to pay to enter and it is beautiful. There are so many little beautifully designed areas, with waterfalls, stepping stones leading through ponds, huge trees, and beautiful flowers. It reminds me of the scene in Lost in Translation when Scarlett Johansson walks through a beautiful park in Tokyo. The whole garden is has Wi-Fi access.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


So I got kicked out of India. And so did my German friend Jens. For him his visa was up and extension refused. For me it was a bureaucratic error.

To make a long story short, people with visas over 6 months are supposed to register with the government within 14 days of entering India. Registration is supposed to be done with a major office specializing in registration, or with local police in the area you're staying in. The police in Chhatarpur, M.P. are incompetent and didn't know how to register me. They refused to do so when I asked them to, actually. The Indian government has decided I am responsible for their incompetence and is deporting me for not registering. I did everything I was asked to do and could do but apparently that's not enough. It took them 9 days and 4 office visits in Delhi to decide this.

I'm sad that I won't be able to visit my friends in India as planned. But, as Vinod Bhave said, It is good to flow like water and not get stuck in one place.

Last night I took a 15 hour train to Gorakhpur and will take the bus to the Nepal border tomorrow. I hope to become involved with WWOOF Nepal and do some trekking to experience some of the "wisdom of the mountains" (as John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, would say). I will likely have to take some down time in Kathmandu which is fine. It will take me time to decide which trek to go on or to obtain a WWOOF host. Maybe I can try my hand at couchsurfing.

It's a big decision for me in the next few months which direction to go in after Nepal; to New Zealand and Australia for a taste of home and some serious farm studying from people who know their stuff or to Isreal/Palestine area to get involved in a different kind of non-violent activism?

Any suggestions dear readers?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


The lock on my door
Faith in the people around me
My peace of mind
Broken, Stolen

How does honesty bless one mind and not another?
Why, fair honesty, do you leave a brother
Abandoned in the darkness
Of the soul.

When I came back from the University my lock was broken open and people had gone through my things. They stole only money. The lock was broken open with a rock, delicate little thing that it was. At least they didn't take my passport or bank card.

My first reaction was just to leave early. I just didn't want to be here any more. I can my things right quickly enough and be gone on the bus in the morning.

But I stayed to finish my work. Today is my last day, and I'll take the bus tomorrow morning down to Dehradun, stay there for a night and head off to horrible, big, dishonest, polluted Delhi. As you can tell I'm not looking forward to it. I hope I can stay in the Buddhist quarter but the two hotels I would stay at I can't phone properly because the phones don't work well enough.

I long for the apparent honestly of the Malay people, or the Thai. And their competence in organizing systems too, like phone, bus, etc. And their general cleanliness. But I'll stay here for three more months, perhaps my next destination will refresh me.

I am going next to Kota to visit my friend Ram which I hope will be very nice.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Fruit and Thieves

These have been the dominant themes of my life, as of late.

I found some great books at D.B. Pantnagar University. I confess I had kind of low hopes because I have come across some pretty shitty writing in this country from people who supposedly have higher degrees. But I found a book that has extensive details about apple trees and apple growing (pomology) in general. Oddly enough the ideological influence is heavy from the World Bank and cronies. Obviously the book is a relic of their push to have apple production in this area.

The book has lots of great information about orcharding. One of the more remarkable things was the descriptions on how to perform surgery on a tree to repair damage to the bark.

But it is also quite humorous in some ways. On the section on what to do with your orchard after it gets old, and they recommend using trees that last about 30 years, they basically throw up their hands. The text admits quite readily that using the chemical methods recommended the soil will be destroyed and will likely have microorganisms in it that prevent the re-planting of any apple trees. They give the suggestion of importing new soil (!) or fumigating the soil by injecting an extremely toxic chemical not available in India (chloropictin) or methyl bromide, (which is available but not as effective) covering the soil with a big tarp and leaving it. This destroys most microorganisms in the soil, including those that prevent new apple trees from establishing. Of course it does nothing for the pH, compaction, arsenic/mercury content, or organic content. So much for sustainability. They just don’t seem to acknowledge the idea that in in all likelyhood the Himalaya will still be here in 30 years, and people will still need to make a living. It’s a very short term book, just like capitalism and the entire ideology surrounding the World Bank.

When I got back to the orchard yesterday there were people stealing the fruit! The guy who owns the orchard, and I dare say has first dibs on the fruit, asked me to pick the fruit on Friday. Here we were Thursday, the people keeping a lookout had left in the morning and in the afternoon there were already people stealing all the fruit! The frustrating part was when I asked them to leave and got a Hindi speaking person on the phone, so the message was obviously clear, they still wouldn’t go. They just kept on picking. It was a real showdown to get them to clear off, and they took the fruit (asian pears mostly) with them. Then more came a few minutes later! The things people say are absurd. This new group had a person who spoke a bit of English. So he came up to me and insisted “We are not thieves, he is a teacher” pointing to the guy taking the fruit. What’s that supposed to mean, they’re not professional thieves? If you’re stealing fruit then that means you’re a thief, as I understand it. By the end of the day there was no more fruit and there was nothing I could do about it. Friday morning I hunted the grounds and harvested a grand total of 36 small apples. They are just tapping into the peaches now as they become ripe, we’ll see... I was hoping to be alone here for 3 weeks but it seems that’s not on.

In fact what really is sad is that they were stealing the grass as well. The area is overgrazed and infertile because it does not have a chance to get back on it’s feet by growing some plants and having them decompose. The idea that people will steal the very grass at your feet, meant for the worms, is so tragic to me. I’ve noticed people’s persistence is remarkable too. They just don’t seem to throw in the towel when they’re busted.

Previously my experiences with people stealing stuff in India have primarily been children. My harmonica, flashlight, camera, cellphone. But this time it was the whole family coming out for a gathering!

The economics section of the apples book shows predictable labour costs. 30% goes to hiring a guard to prevent people from stealing the apples. I think I’ve already mentioned that people need to hire guards to watch their wheat and irrigation pipes. There are people constantly guarding the mango orchards as well of course. This whole situation is pretty expensive for farmers to have to deal with.

Some kids, skipping school came and wanted some drinking water, which I was ok with giving them but they didn’t want to drink my boiled, warm, water. So I made them some mint tea instead. Then they started asking me to give them food. What? I should clarify that to all outward appearances these were not poor children, sporting as much clean clothes, leather shoes, jewelry and cellphones as the next person.

Some other kids came and stood outside my window demanding some potatoes. Obviously I didn’t have any. I told them to go to the market. In the city I get treated like a walking cashbox, and in the country it seems people treat you like a free marketplace. I suppose that’s better. Mind you, people ask me for money here too.

So now they’re after me potatoes, me water, me grass and me peaches :-). I don’t know if I can hold out much hope for my carrots, radishes, peas, corn and biomass crops that I’ve planted. I just hope I can keep an eye on my passport, and wallet. No wonder all the windows in India have bars on them.

For laughs, here’s the photo of the mother of the child who stole my camera. She swore she didn’t know anything about a camera... This person continues to show up every once in a while and ask for a job at the soap factory, which she was fired from for stealing.


I have recently discovered that one needs to be an Indian Citizen to obtain a cylinder of propane gas for domestic use.

That is absurd. The only way for me to treat water in my house is to boil it. So I either have to lean heavily on the surrounding ecosystem to collect firewood, or use the only other fuel available; propane. The ecosystem is suffering enough from other human activities and firewood is very scarce. The only sensible thing to do is to act as those near national parks are legislated to do; don’t use firewood, but use a different fuel. No kerosene is available nor is any other fuel besides propane.

I understand there are lots of things that only Indian Citizens have the right to do. Many of these are sensible measures the purpose of which is to prevent re-colonization. I applaud these measures. For example, foreigners are not allowed to purchase land in Uttarkhand.

However, telling me that I cannot purchase propane and so must spend hours more every day heating drinking water and cooking food is a humiliation. Not only is it tremendously rude to treat guests of your country in this way, it is completely undignified that I should be forced to degrade the ecosystem in an unnecessary fashion just to drink clean water.

I hereby publicly declare that I have engaged in an act of civil disobedience; I have obtained on the black market a 14 kg tank of propane for the sum of Rs 2800. I am using it to cook rice, chappati, oatmeal and to boil water for drinking.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Deserts at my feet and clouds in my head

Hello all!

My time in Almora helped to solidify my interest in human made deserts. Looking at the history of the human race and our current situation it is obviously a major, if not the single biggest, source of real impoverishment. People destroy their land, and then what do they have? Nothing. No water, no food, no good air. Pakistan, Iraq, Greece, Cyprus, Crete, Sicily, Tunisia, Lebanon, Isreal. All great examples of beautiful lands destroyed by improper use. The same thing is currently happening in many parts of the world.

But there are areas and practices that have stood the test of time. Perhaps the big question for me is what these practices are and how to spread them, how to bring life back to the deserts.

I guess I’m studying this in the context of global warming and oil crisis also. I spent some time in activism, lobbying the government etc. But I suppose I got tired of asking other people to do things. It seem to me that we may have missed the boat on trying to prevent global warming, although not for lack of effort from groups like Greenpeace and Sierra Youth Coalition. International negotiation after negotiation has basically failed. So, in preparation for all the weird things that are predicted from a warming earth part of me has decided that studying ecological systems is the most useful thing I can do right now.

I wonder if central India will be evacuated as it warms. The temperatures in Delhi this summer reached 47 degrees C. Without abundant power how will people stay cool enough to even stay alive? Plants generally shut down at 42 degrees C and at some point begin to sustain heat damage. If this area of the earth experiences a rise of 4 degrees, will life as it is there now even be able to exist?

I’m beginning to question whether I’m really learning a whole lot about solutions in India.

I came to India with the hope of seeing a Satygraha campaign in action. To join one, work on one, and take those methods elsewhere. But from what I’ve seen, in India Gandhi is mostly history. His campaign methods are now a page in history books and are no longer alive and fully in use.

Where are the Satygrahi’s fighting corruption in India? Where are the campaigners standing with the Adivasis? Why did the Maoists even find it necessary to come to India, why do the Adivasis not use nonviolent methods? They don’t believe in them, of course. When organized crime was shooting up Chhatarpur, why did everyone in our ashram stay inside? Even with in “activist circles” I have seen nothing of what I was hoping to see. I have found a tragic absence of action based on the self sacrificing, well organized, disciplined model of Satygraha.

If you want to start a village industry, you have to pay bribe after bribe. Half the time the government offices aren’t even functioning at a basic level. Open at ten, take a two hour lunch and close early. Half the food in the public food distribution goes missing. Stolen by the very people who are supposed to be distributing it. That which remains doesn’t fit into the system properly because the is no recognition that half of it was stolen; how can as shopkeeper sell at the government regulated price when he has only half the food he paid for? Corruption in India is rife and for all the time I spent at Gandhi Ashram, Navdanya supposedly inspired by Gandhian ideals, Kausani Gandhi Ashram and other places I never heard of an effective non-violent compaign organized against it.

It’s not that I mean to really criticize what people are doing here in terms of activism. I just don’t see the reaching for the top, the struggling with the biggest issues around. I don’t see the big stuff being tackled. The things that Satygraha is meant to tackle. The issues that are so big you can hardly see them, the dangerous areas, the really deep-rooted, wide spread social problems. How can I criticize the organizations I’ve visited for their good work? Yet at the same time I’m just not finding a living version of the revolutionary philosophy I came to experience. The quiet work continues, like producing khadi, but it gets crushed under the larger issues that aren’t being addressed. Where’s the campaign, man?

Maybe Cesar Chavez is a better hope. Perhaps I should go to the US and try to become involved in the United Food Worker’s struggle.

Anyways, I’ve left Almora and spent a lovely two days at Kausani Ashram. I read Discourses on the Gita, which Gandhi wrote in 1929 at that same ashram. Then I went to Navdanya for a week to teach some children about testing irrigation water for salinity content. I had a good time hanging out with other foreigners, made some soap and distilled some essential oils. It was nice to look at the whole place again almost two months later. But it’s too expensive and dysfunctional for me to stay there very long.

I am now by myself in a little cabin near Chamba. I’m at an organic orchard overlooking the town, at 1000 m elevation. So far it has been very lovely although I had to set some things up with the cabin. The cabin is not quite fully functional. It’s mostly there but there are some issues. The water tank is filthy and leaks, I re-jigged the plumbing on the kitchen sink, jumped through hoops to get some propane to cook with and boil water with, bought a knife for the kitchen and so on.

I am at cloud level which is really beautiful when the clouds roll in. I have a great view of the town and lots of organic apples to eat. I pay for my own food. It’s nice and cool.

My job for the next three weeks is basically to think about how to bring the orchard back to production level. Right now it has been abandoned for a while. I don’t know much about orchards but the guy who owns the place knows even less it seems :-). So I’ll take a look, and hopefully get some help from the local university. It’s a great chance to learn about orchards on my own. Being an independent consultant is an idea I’ve been playing with, but I didn’t expect to end up in the situation so soon, albeit without pay!

I also plan to read The Pickwick Papers by Dickens and Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad :-).

Here’s a view downhill of my cabin. 

Saturday, June 5, 2010

SOS Continued!

Hello all!

First let me start with a shoutout to my friend Peter! I hope everything is going really well for you buddy! Here he is rolling seedballs at SOS Organics. He's gone from India now, touring through Europe visiting apricot orchards, drinking belgium beer and so on and so forth :-).

Peter is rolling seedballs by hand. Although it is common to include compost in the mix here we are just rolling some clay with larger soil particles (micacious rock in this case) mixed in, kneaded together with the seeds we want and rolled by hand into balls. This gives the seed protection against insects and animals while providing a habitat for it to germinate in. Just throw the seedball on the ground and it will wait until the rains come. We are just starting experiments really. How much compost to put in? What seeds to use? How to roll them? Some of them crack upon drying. The beans swell and can crack the balls. Our hand rolling method is slow. We're working on it.

Here's a baby goat playing by the spring where we collect our drinking water! So cute! But it's partly because of these guys that this area is on it's way to becoming a desert. There are many factors of course, including historical clearcutting, humans cutting down the existing trees, extensive forest fires and cows that eat anything small. The lack of vegetation eventually makes the rains stop coming. The seedball project is meant to battle this problem by sowing seeds on a wide scale. What will grow beneath these acidic pines, ravaged by fire, humans and grazing animals? This is our challenge.

Here's our goal! A bean and some grass growing out of a seedball. The seedballs obviously work but how to bring our knowledge to the level of being able to produce a lot, with the correct seeds in them and the right coating composition?

We decided that one of our first steps is to raise our ability to produce. Rolling by hand is just too slow for the areas we're looking at sowing. This is a photo of the metal worker and a fellow WWOOFer Jack building a seedball rolling machine. It's a very simple machine, just a rolling drum. With a bit of practice you could probably build one in an afternoon with a visit to the hardware store in Canada or the US. But in India it is a challenge to find the right parts and put it together. Or rather I should say it's a challenge for us in our situation with the language barrier and lack of local knowledge.

We're still working on it, carrying out our designs. It has been quite a balance between deliberate design and winging it with whatever equipment is available. I hope that in the next few days we will be able to get it working. Right now it spins too fast because we haven't been able to find pulleys to reduce the speed of the rolling drum. But we have a lead on some in a store in Almora... wish us luck :-).


Sunday, May 30, 2010

So here I am at SOS Organics, in Almora. Elevation 1600m. It was a bit of an adventure to get here. I braved the 13 hour sit down bus along with my travelling buddies Remi and Peter, both from Guelph! The distance is only a few hundred kilometers but the speed that the bus goes is quite slow. We were lucky: for most of the trip we had lots of room to put our bags and stretch out. There are no bathrooms on the bus, they just stop periodically.
During one stop we pulled up to a curtain of towels and I found Winnie the Pooh staring back at me :-).

We arrived at Almora at around 5 or 6 in the morning. Remi took his own direction while Peter and I went on to SOS Organics, taking a taxi to Chitai. From there we asked around for SOS Organics and were pointed down the hill. It was a magical little walk down, through the terraced fields in the cool morning. Peter and I were both happy to be in such an interesting area, and one that seemed like it wouldn’t be so hot as Dehra Dun!

Here’s Peter, arriving at 6am to SOS Organics. At the time we didn’t know this but the house behind Peter is owned by Santosh. At the moment it is where Peter is living.

We were given a warm welcome by Santosh, the owner of the property and Sophie, a WWOOFer from England. Santosh is a very talkative guy, full of energy and he did his level best to give us an idea of the philosophy behind the farm and what is going on here. Some other places I’ve been could really take a cue from Santosh. His proper introduction to the farm made us feel at home fairly quickly. Moreover, for the first few days he paid close attention to what we were interested in and we quickly settled on some interesting and useful projects for each of us to work on. This is something that was severely missing at Navdanya; coordination of volunteers. Peter has mostly been building a greywater system to handle the waste from the sinks around the property. I’ve mostly been working as a chemist in the soap making factory. Fortunately we have have lots of other things to do to break up our day too, planting the garden, turning the compost, making a tree nursery, planting natural fencing (spikey plants that the goats don’t eat).

We’ve also done a fair bit of thinking about and making seed balls; seeds encased in clay. The idea is that once encased in clay the seeds are protected from being eaten by animals or attacked by fungi. Also, the seed appears to be buried so it is not necessary to form a furrow and plant the seeds in the normal fashion. Instead, the pellets can be distributed freely onto the ground. This lends itself to no-till agriculture as well as potentially the ability to re-vegetate large areas of land through large scale seed broadcasting. Santosh is applying for a $20 000 grant to start up a longer term project to work with seed balls. Seedballs themselves cost next to nothing but the money would be useful to set up a library and little research center that visitors could use while the work on the project. At the moment we’re hopping on and off the factory computer, with many people sharing a slow connection and able to use it only outside the hours of 9-5 (only when the factory is closed). So it’s hard to do any substantial research on the net and although there is an interesting book shelf there aren’t many books relevant to the specific projects we’re doing.

SOS Organics is a very interesting project. To have a factory here in a rural area in the mountains is very strange. Most factories are of course in large cities where all the facilities are provided. Here, the factory runs entirely off of rainwater. It has a backup generator and battery bank for when the power goes out, which it frequently does sometimes for days at a time. They arrange the work schedule to fit around power outages. Using gas stoves, written records and scales with batteries helps I’m sure. All the materials are transported down this little concrete path, barely big enough for one small car. And of course when finished all the products are carried up again! So in some ways the factory is situated in rather a difficult and contorted situation. But this is exactly what India could use right now; decentralized production, outside of the cities and in the rural areas. Having low input, low polluting, fairly low capital and necessary basic industries like soapmaking in rural areas is totally key. The people who work in this factory live in the nearby village, and have only a short walk to work in the morning. Having employment in the country helps fight the mass migration to the cities and curbs the whole disgusting trend of people leaving the country because they are miserable only to go to the cities and swell the slums. E.F. Schumacher would have thoroughly approved of this project I think.

When I stop to think about my life here it is quite strange indeed. Half the day I spend being an industrial chemist in a soap making factory. The other half I spend building a permanent agriculture project based on the ideas of natural farming and sylviculture. It’s good though, I basically am getting to do what I want with my life; to learn about natural farming and do some good work.

The past few days I’ve spent making a seed ball rolling machine. My experience making fireworks makes the whole process fairly familiar. It’s a great big rolling drum, the clay, seeds and compost mix is put inside and sprayed with water which rolls the mix into balls, just like making round stars for fireworks. These seedballs can then be distributed over land and provide the seed with protection and some nutrients. Seedballs lend themselves well to planting seeds on large tracts of land that is becoming desertified, and also in agriculture to plant without tilling or using any of the fancy no-till machinery.

Right now I’m thinking about staying here until June 20, then returning to Navdanya for a week before heading off to a different farm for a month. Once August rolls around I’ll start heading South again to visit friends in Nashik, Udaipur, one other place and then get to Sevagram to stay for a while there.

Until next time,
Good Night and Good Luck.

P.S. Here’s a photo of George the smiling seedball :-)

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Just for Kicks at Navdanya Conservation Farm

Hello all!

I’ve spent the last month or so at Navdanya Conservation Farm / Bija Vidapeeth (Seed University). Navdanya is a non-profit trust with the goal of maintaining seed sovereignty for Indian farmers. They are involved in a lot of legal stuff around intellectual property rights, trying to prevent companies from patenting already existing plants and genetics that have been developed by Indian farmers over generations. The phenomenon is known as “biopiracy” when a company marches in, starts patenting existing genetic technology then uses the laws of the State to prevent people from growing their traditional plants.

Navdanya also has a network of seed banks set up throughout the country where they collect local seed varieties and have an active process of distributing them to farmers to re-grow them. The whole project is very much participatory, unlike many seed bank projects where their attitude is to take the seed and refrigerate it for many years, keeping it safe but unused. Actively re-growing the varieties each year is also very good because it allows the variety to adapt to the changing environs. A seed that has been kept safe for 20 years in careful storage may not grow well once it is planted because there may be new pests or climactic conditions that come as a shock to it.

The facility I stayed at was called Bija Vidapeeth or Seed University. Started in conjunction with Schumacher College (for those of you who have read Small is Beautiful, yes it’s the same Schumacher.) Compared to other places I’ve been the physical facilities were great. There’s a lecture hall, dining room, kitchen, office, library, residence buildings, the seed bank and a laboratory. It was a nice relief to be in a sort of small college campus, after the odd situations I’ve been in this was like a piece of something I’m used to :-).

This is the first thing you see when you walk in through the gate, after approaching the campus through the mango orchard. It’s the office/bookstore with the dining room and kitchen behind. If you want to see an overhead view, check out google earth, N31deg 55' 36'', E 76deg 05' 33.5'.

There are volunteers coming and going often; while I was there in ranged from about 4 people to 18 or so. The campus also hosts events of various sorts. Mostly these are targeted at middle-upper class people and the point is to teach them about the value of traditional knowledge systems. There is staff on campus who look after most things and volunteers or interns pay around 400 to 600 rupees per day to stay, depending on their length of stay and if they are OK with staying in the dorm rooms or want a private room. I stayed for over a month so it was 400 Rs per day (about $10 CAD). A lot of people who come are university students from different countries. There are lots of people who live in India and want to learn about organic farming, and also people from abroad. The only requirement really is to pay the fee and have a serious interest in organic farming.
Unlike most places I’ve stayed, since we are paying a substantial amount to stay here (400 Rs is a mid-range hotel rate) there is no substantial expectations to join in the farm work. But most people do to some extent, while others spend their time on other things.
While I was there the main work that came up was harvesting the wheat. Navdanya preserves a number of wheat varieties, does some experiments, as well as growing food for people who stay here and to sell. I was used to harvesting things by hand from my experience at Gandhi Ashram otherwise it would have been rather a shock to someone from an industrialized country! The wheat is cut using a small serrated hand sickle. I joined in usually in the morning while it was still reasonably cool for an hour or two. Some quick calculations show a person can harvest about 17 kg of wheat per hour which as far as subsistence is concerned is plenty. That’s not including the threshing, which is done by machine and takes relatively little time. Cutting wheat is a dusty job and they way they do it the job involves bending over a lot but once I got used to it I had a good time. It’s kind of like chopping wood; not really drugery, at least not if it’s only for a little bit each day.

Here is a photo of some of the staff harvesting wheat. The farm laborers for the most part are paid 3000Rs per month (about $75) and are given free food and housing if they want as well as an informal (but apparently generous judging from the operations Navdanya paid for for its cook Satya) medical plan but I understand no pension. This isn’t a high wage, even by Indian standards and in fact there is a bit of discontent about it.

Here’s a volunteer Aditya in the seed bank. There are roughly 500 varieties of rice kept here, and re-grown each year on the farm. Fortunately rice is self-pollinated for the most part so this large number of varieties can be grown in a fairly small space. Plants that pollinate each other can cross-pollinate between varieties so each variety must have a buffer zone around it in order to keep the breed.

I spent most of my time at the laboratory learning about soil science and soil testing. It was nice to spend some time on science after wading around in the Pranyam, expanded claims about Yoga and other slightly sketchy stuff. By the end of my time at Navdanya I was able to conduct tests on soil for potassium, phosphorous, organic carbon, pH and electrical conductivity. I also did testing on irrigation water to check for salinity hazard, determining the calcium and magnesium content as well as sodium. The lab was basically my hangout :-).
Sometimes working in the soil lab was frustrating, maybe partly because I am used to the nice labs at Chernoff Hall at Queen’s. Other things were just plain neglect though. The lab obviously hadn’t been used in a while and some of the pipetting equipment was very difficult to use; the latex bulbs crack over time, many of the pipette tips broken. A latex pipette bulb is hard enough to use compared to a normal syringe arrangement or an Eppendorf. Electricity would often be off, or even worse turn off in the middle of my using a machine while I was calibrating it or something. For this reason we weren’t really able to use the oven. We had to insist on some gloves and goggles before starting serious work, which took a long time. To me it’s blindingly obvious that a lab stocked with concentrated sulfuric, perchloric, nitric, hydrochloric acid, sodium hydroxide, blood poisons and carcinogens needs to have gloves and goggles too. In the end we got lab coats, googles, (very slippery thick latex) gloves and a fire extinguisher but no new equipment other than this safety gear.
In other ways the lab was well stocked, having most of the chemicals I wanted, a colorimeter, spectrophotometer, automatic stirring machine, water distiller, electrical conductivity machine (with a broken keyboard...) and pH meter. Their scale was shitty and caused a lot of extra work and hence frustration.
In the end I decided to be cheerful about taking twice as long and having half as good results as I could do with a decently stocked lab. What does it matter to me anyways? I was just doing soil testing for kicks :-). Actually the work I was doing is going to be used in a master’s degree project, I was basically the soil technician for some french students. The irrigation water testing is going to be used in a summer camp to teach kids about farming stuff. But the master’s project was kind of a makework thing that was half abandoned because the student’s hadn’t had anyone to help them for the first two months of their three month project and had since changed their focus. And the summer camp thing isn’t really a big deal either. No academic rigor or especially accurate results required :-).
On May 8 my new friends Peter, Remi and I took the 12 hour overnight bus to Almora. Remi went off to visit some other friends, while Peter and I went over to SOS Organics. More about this later!

Wait, just one more photo for cuteness factor, :-)


Wednesday, April 7, 2010

West Bengal, the land of sweets and large rice containers!

Hello all!

It has been a while since I posted... but I’m ok with that :-).

I’m in sugar cane territory now: outside Delhi on my way to Navdanya near Dehra Dun.

Gandhi Ashram, people saying goodbye after a meeting.

Gandhi Ashram, me carrying peas on my head :-).

Goodbye Gandhi Ashram! No longer shall I carry your fine peas on my head, or mustard in my arms. I will miss your fire cooked chappati and crooked daikon radishes. Your fragrant guava and yummy berries. Your interesting books, cool mornings and pleasant company.

The boy who is getting the Sacred Thread bestowed on him.

I left the ashram with the caretakers, Sanjoy and Damyanti. They took me as their friend to visit Sanjoy’s family in the Calcutta region. First we spent a few days in the Durgarpur area in a town called Bankura. There was a celebration going on to bestow the sacred thread on one of Sanjoy’s nephews. Sanjoy was the person who they requested to do the honors and hang the thread. I don’t know the full significance of the ceremony but it is a coming of age type of thing. The person who accepts the thread is dedicated to worshipping the sun every day as it rises and sets, for the rest of their life.
Here is the man himself, with the sacred thread around his left shoulder. He also has a carrying bag around his shoulder. Part of the ceremony is that people put rice into the bag, to prepare him for his journey of life. Damyanti is to our right.

The entire family was very nice to me. In return I showered them with slides shows from Gandhi Ashram and other places :-). Many of Sanjoy’s relatives are also involved in constructive efforts, weaving khadi, working with an NGO or being involved in a social campaign.

Women making thread ("spinning"), which will later be used to produce khadi cloth.

During the few days we were by not so busy with ceremonial things. It was very relaxed, and Sanjoy took me to many places to visit. We visited a trade show selling co-operatively made textiles, and a Gandhian NGO which makes textiles. We also visited an ashram growing date palms and rice. It was a lovely little place, where they take care of the pigeons by giving them nests :-). It was my first time seeing a mud house and the most remarkable rice storage containers, which are built entirely out of rice straw.

Rice container, made out of rice straw.

This rice container can hold approximately ten tons of rice. The walls are made from a rope twisted out of rice straw, and lined with more straw. Behind are mud houses with clay roofs. The mud houses are unusually cool buildings, and can last for a very long time (a hundred years or more) if properly taken care of. The walls must be re-coated every year to prevent the building from “melting”. They are constructed layer by layer, pouring a foot or so of mud/straw mix and letting it dry before adding the next.

Basudhra rice farm!


The Sal forest

On a different day we went to see what I was really looking forward to. We took a beautiful drive through the cool, clean air morning, stopping at the mahua tree to eat some flowers, admiring the Flame of the Forest trees and passing through a brilliant green Sal forest. Then the three of us (Sanjoy, his brother and myself) piled off the motorcycle at a farm run by Dr. Debal Deb. It is a seed preservation project primarily, although they are also running some very sensible and simple other agricultural experiments concerning mulching and companion planting. Their focus is on preserving over 540 “folk varieties” of rice from West Bengal. Imagine that, 540 varieties of rice in only one section of NE India! The good doctor has done a meticulous and thorough job of characterizing and documenting the varieties. He has published a book about it. The farmhouse is made of adobe which is sun dried mud bricks. The straw roof has a water catchment system. It’s a lovely, clean and comfortable building. The pillars on the outside have slate carvings in them made by a nearby artist’s enclave which we visited on the way home.

Eventually we moved out of the town of Bankura into the village where Sanjoy grew up in; to his mother’s house. This was a really interesting experience to stay at what is basically a normal village house. There was the “house” or sleeping building, then there were sort of outbuildings; the kitchen, cow shed, and washroom. The outbuildings were made of mud or cement. The sleeping building was one floor, with easy access to the flat roof. The entire place was surrounded by a very high brick wall, maybe 4 meters high. Inside on the floor in the corner was piled loose rice, and rice in bags. This rice still had the husk still on it, although when people eat rice they eat mostly white rice. I thought the stoves were fascinating. They are dug into the ground,

Imagine this being your stove! This is not an improvised stove; the house I was at was not a camp. This was the kitchen stove, used every day for years. So simple, so elegant. Such efficiency with so little input. Ah, simpler life!

I departed Calcutta and made my way to Delhi to visit Amanda, one of my friends from Queen’s! The bus ride was a disaster, with as I like to say “breathing room only” for part of it: so packed you couldn’t even stand properly. People getting sick and vomiting their breakfast rice onto the floor (instead of out the window. Why? I suggested it. They didn’t like the idea).

Then I made it to the good old dirty ass train. It was labelled “express” but in fact was more of a local train, stopping at every station from Calcutta to Delhi. With a distance of about 1300 km you can imagine this is a whole lot of stops. In total the journey took about 36 hours on the train, which is about 5 hours overtime. Partly this is because people pull the emergency brake when the train is near their house! The Indian trains are often late but I have to say it’s not necessarily the company’s fault. I heard stories about people sitting on the track to stop the train then hop on it! In the story I was told this was happening every few km. The driver got upset and stopped the train, refusing to move until he got a village organizer to tell people not to do that! In general passengers are kind of badly behaved in many ways. Many people get on the train without tickets as the ticket collector is overwhelmed. Or perhaps the company oversells tickets, I don’t know. There is no doubt that the system is overwhelmed: with some trains you must book months in advance to get a seat.

Eventually I rolled into Delhi and met a chemical engineer who helped me to get an auto (three wheeled taxi) to United Service International where Amanda was staying. It’s a weird place, inside a military compound. Very quiet, nice gardens, very rich. In the diplomatic section of town, among all the embassies and such. Lovely except for the whole killing people bit. They have conference services we used: the meeting itself had nothing to do with supporting the military I promise!

The next day I attended the meeting that Amanda came to Delhi for. It was an annual get together and update for a project entitled Municipal Services Project. It is a roughly 12 year, one million dollar academic research project, involving a team from parts of Africa, South America, Asia and Canada. It is run by a professor at Queen’s. The goal of the project is to do rigorous research into alternatives to privatization of heathcare, water and electricity services. Ultimately in “alternatives” is included the traditional public system but there is a lot of analysis as to why it isn’t working, what can make it work better etc. It was great to learn about such a project and listen to what people had to say. They meet every year in some major city, which could be anywhere in the world it seems.

After the meeting was over I stayed at USI for a bit, and a few of us toured around Delhi for the day. We did tourist stuff. We went to the Red Fort, to an enormous mosque that wouldn’t let us in, and to Dilli Haut which is a kind of outside shopping center. It’s obvious to me now why shopping centers are catching on. Unless we can clean up normal markets so they don’t have garbage strewn everywhere, terrible sanitation, disorganization, sexual harassment and aggressive touts shopping centers will continue to grab market share by simply providing a peaceful place to look for goods.

From the left, Amanda, Susan (Prof. from U of Ottawa), and Julie (Prof. from Rhodes, South Africa). They are standing inside the Red Fort at one of the many gates. Susan went on to travel around Rajasthan for a while before returning to Canada.

After Amanda went home I lingered around USI for a bit before moving in with my friend Rajat for two days. I just took it easy at his house, playing with his kids and reading interesting articles he showed me. One of them was quite fascinating, about the Naxalites in Chhatisgarh. It shed some light on why the tracks were blown up on my way to Durgarpur. On the way to Calcutta area (Durgarpur station) our train was 10 hours late because a group of Maoists blew up the train tracks. Actually they didn’t blow up our tracks per se just ones nearby. Maybe we had to wait for other trains to be rerouted along our tracks or something, I don’t know. Sanjoy saw the damage out the window on our way by, but I missed it. Nobody was hurt. After reading the article written by Arundhati Roy for Outlook Magazine, March 29, 2010, it was not surprising that they had no apparent intention to hurt average citizens. The Maoists at least in Chhatisgarh are there to lend (violent) support to the public in their fight against exploitation from the state and corporate parties. Usually the exploitation involves mining and forestry. The state and certain corporations want to exploit the land and eject the people living there by raping, plundering and burning the villages (literally). The communist (in this case Maoist) party has established itself as allies of the people. The state is weak enough that they are able to wage a substantial geurilla war against them. If you can find the article I highly recommend reading it. Who knew there was a civil war going on in India? Now you know.

After spending some nice time in Delhi I came to Dehra Dun, arriving today at Navdanya, which is Vandana Shiva’s operation. There is seed saving and some great activism going on here. Arriving today I can say the facilities are excellent. The library is very nice, the gardens are beautiful, the experimental plots are well kept, they have a soil testing laboratory and a fantastic lecture hall. It’s quiet here now because apparently a lot of people are in Delhi running some sort of event. Its a bit of an oasis so far :-). I have high hopes for my time at Navdanya! It’s a bit expensive here compared to other places, 400 Rs per day but that includes everything. Compared to living in Canada it is quite reasonable and I think I will be getting a lot :-).

Good Night and Good Luck!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Updates from Gandhi Ashram

Hey all,

I’m still in Chhatarpur M.P., at the Gandhi Ashram. Life is decent here, threshing mustard and peas etc. for a few hours a day, eating and learning about Ghandi the rest of the time. Actually I’m fasting today because I find we indulge in good tasting food a bit much for my liking. I’m meeting lots of interesting people and having some good success finding what I’m looking for here. I’ll share with you some inspiring examples of success from non-violence.

On the right is a fellow who spent about 24 years in jail he was a violent criminal who robbed people (on the left is Anousha, another WWOOFer here at the ashram). His whole life he had been in and out of jail for violent crimes. While in jail he came across Gandhi’s book and philosophy. He was converted to a life of non-violence and now sells copies of Gandhi’s books for a living. I tried to ask what he thought would have happened to him if he had never gone to jail, but gotten away with his crimes but the language barrier was too much. It’s an interesting question to me, would he have stayed violent if it had not been for the violence of the state putting him in jail? Was being in jail and having that time an integral part in his philosophy conversion?

I have read about the Ahmedabad Labour Union, which was mentioned in Hind Swaraj. Gandhi uses it as an example of a labour union that has had gone from success to success using nonviolent means. I’d really like to know more about them.

The ashram that I’m at has a fascinating story behind it. The premise was originally owned by a king in the area, who in fact built the well in the 1400s (shown in the photo).

At some point it was forfeit to the British and used as a residence for a tax collector. The building we live in now was the home for the tax collector. It’s made of cement so must be relatively new. When India became independent the government gave it to the organization which was dedicated to carrying out Gandhi’s work after his assasination, Gandhi Smarak Nidhi.

What follows is what I suppose I should consider a failing of non-violent methods because somehow the ashram was lost. I’m not sure how, but Gandhi Smarak Nidhi seems to have had persistent financial problems. The ashram property, although still legally belonging to Gandhi Smarak Nidhi fell into the hands of the local mafia. For many years they used it as a gambling and drinking location although there are many parts of the ashram that were left untouched. Some people tried to reclaim the ashram for organic farming but were beaten by the mafia and apparently gave up.
Three years ago Gandhi Smarak Nidhi decided to reclaim the property and re-establish a real ashram. They recruited Sanjoy and his wife Damyanti, who at the time were living in Sevagram Ashram which Gandhi founded himself before his death. They reclaimed the property after substantial battle with the mafia during which the mafia used violent and coercion while Sanjoy and his team used non-violent methods. I would consider it a good victory except I don’t know whether the mafia still holds a grudge.

I met a man here who was some sort of official when India became independent and he was involved with the movement with Gandhi for independence. He is one of the few people still alive who worked with Gandhi. He told me about his involvement with the ‘decoirs’ who were essentially a band of violent bandits. They used to largely rule the are in Chhatarpur, making it practically impossible to live a normal industrious life in the area. He, along with others, brought a non-violent campaign against them and convinced them to surrender. In fact they laid down their arms right here in front of the ashram, at the library.
The nonviolent fighters received co-operation from both the police and the bandits, acting as effective go-between with a message that neither of them previously understood. They assured the bandits that if they laid down their arms they would be treated with respect by the police upon their surrender. Conversely of course they negotiated this treatment from the police. One of the nonviolent fighters offered to sacrifice his son if the police failed in treating them decently. This seems a bit weird to offer your son but understand that to such a fighter it is a higher stake than even his own life. Presumably the son was in agreement with the situation (???). The leader of the bandits would not have surrendered without this assurance as he had previously been abused by the police.
This sounds like an amazing campaign and I hope to learn more about it.

I was given a book called “Experiments in Moral Sovereignty; an American In Exile.” It’s about a man who after having much success with many entrepreneurial endeavors in the US decides that he simply cannot live with himself while paying taxes to the US government so that the government can kill people with his money. He sells all his businesses purposefully at a loss. This loss he is carrying over for the rest of his life. He is therefore no longer required to pay taxes but for some reason he has decided that he will also no longer file tax returns. In the US the IRS will harass you if you do not file your taxes, so he has moved to India to escape their harassment.

While I’m at it I might as well introduce you to one other fellow who won in a non-violent struggle. He is one of the few freedom fighters still alive, one of the people who spent many years in jail in protest of India’s enslavement by the British. He is wearing yellow as spiritual people often do, to indicate their inclination. Freedom fighters like him now receive a special pension from the government.

Despite these lovely examples, Chhatarpur still suffers from a lot of violence. This is why Sanjoy decided to set up camp here. The first thing successful farmers do if they have a good crop is to buy a gun. Guns are very much a social status symbol here. Two days ago we went out to buy some khadi from a nearby store and Sanjoy stopped to talk to the head of the leading local political party. He casually took out his pistol and was waving it about, who knows why. Last night there was a shooting at the market about 500 meters from the ashram and one person was killed. The past three days have each had a shooting in this city which really isn’t very large. The hits have all been performed by a motorcycle team targeting businessmen in the city. Sanjoy told me that last night the police station was overrun and the police fled. They have returned and established a kind of martial law ‘code 144’. All businesses are closed and people have been asked to stay in their homes.

At the moment my plan is to stay here until the 22nd at which point I’ll take the train with Sanjoy, Damyanti and their daughter Sri-Ja to Kolkata. There is a rice farm near there that I hope to see, growing about 540 different varieties of rice!

I read this today, and it seems so applicable to the concept of the tourist versus the traveller. Go out of the house to see the moon and you are like a tourist. Let it shine on your necessary journey and you become a traveller.

“Go out of the house to see the moon, and 't is mere tinsel; it will not please as when its light shines upon your necessary journey.” - Emerson

Friday, February 26, 2010

Gandhi Ashram

Hey all,

I don't want to stay in this little internet place for too long, and I have to try to tackle doing my taxes (for the past three years :-) ). But I felt like posting some quick photos from Gandhi Ashram which is where I am staying now. It's a lot like a WWOOFer situation; do about four hours of manual labour per day, and get the rest of the day off. The difference is that it's more political; I'm here to learn about the organizing that's going on now and the philosophies behind it.

I just finished reading Hind Swaraj which is one of Gandhi's defining works. I'm starting to read Unto This Last by John Ruskin, which was a defining influence in Gandhi's life and his view of economics. And I'm learning a little Hindi and about organic farming too.

It's lentil season apparently. Here's the crew threshing the lentils. It looks like a terribly boring task thumping away at lentils all day. But this entire pile was processed in one day so it's not so bad. I tried it for a while, long enough to get some blisters and realize these people must have quite the calluses on their hands to keep at it for so long. After threshing there is a big electric fan used for winnowing. I think we'll be doing the same with mustard soon.

This is a cotton flower! It was a fun moment when I was standing in front of this plant wondering what it was and saw a boll of cotton staring up at me. So that's what a cotton plant looks like :-). The seeds are pretty tasty too. But I read now that they're toxic so it's a good thing I didn't eat too many!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Organic Agriculture Conference, Indore!

I busted my ass to get to Indore for the North Indian Organic Farming Conference on Feb. 7-10 and succeeded! First I had problems with my visa, because there is a new rule by which people with multiple entry visas must be outside of India for two months each time they leave. I didn’t know this and it doesn’t say that on my visa. The rule was created in December last year. So I showed up at the Bangkok airport and they wouldn’t let me on the plane. Fortunately (after much running around and stress) I was able to catch the plane the next day after getting an exception from the Indian embassy in Thailand.

Indore is a famous place which many organic farmers know about because of the experiments of Albert Howard. He was one of the first agricultural researchers to seriously challenge chemical farming. His experiments were conducted in India after he rejected the British research systems.

I’m actually not going to go into the technical issues of organic farming that I learned at the conference but if anyone reading is interested I did write a kind of briefing afterwards which I can send.

When I got to Delhi there were no trains to Indore. It turns out bookings fill about two months in advance. So I had to pay about $200 for a flight. It seemed like a lot at the time considering how cheap the train is, but it worked and really $200 is a fairly small amount to spend to go to a conference.

Once in Indore, had some tense moments trying to find a guest house but ended up staying in the Hotel Chananya which insisted on charging me a mysterious tax that no other guest house charges. They wanted to append some other ridiculous amounts but I protested. I find that protest goes a lot further in India than in Canada, although in Canada presumably they don’t try to pull this crap. In the morning I made my way to the Indore Agricultural College borrowed a student’s cellphone to contact the conference organizers. Once Dr. Prakash and friends got ahold of me it was smooth sailing :-).

They set me up as a special guest in the DAVV University guest house which was a surprise. I thought I would just be a conference attendee like everyone else but they treated me as if I were special, presumably because I was the only person at the conference from far away. I stayed with some very knowledgeable scientists, farmers, professors and organizers. The university guest house was an oddly chilled out place. Many people don’t lock their doors. We didn’t even receive a lock. And when I wanted to stay a few days after the conference they weren’t going to charge me any money (eventually I prompted them enough and they took Rs.125 for two days! That’s about three dollars.)

At the very start of the conference they set up a red ribbon to cut and symbolize the opening of the National Center of Organic Farming. I didn’t learn too much more about the center but it sounds pretty awesome :-). I suppose they timed the opening to coincide with the conference.

They opened the conference with some sort of ceremony, I’m not sure what. The conference had sprinkled throughout some singing and ceremonial burning things going on. The guy in the black vest in front is Dr. Prakash, one of the organizers. He is wearing khadi clothing, produced by villages in rural India.

The many important speakers assembled at what looks like pretty much any other speaking panel. There was only one lecture hall for the conference which makes it different from every other conference I’ve been too. The whole conference was super simple: go to the trade show area, meet people, and listen to lectures in the one lecture room. There were a few question but not many, they seemed to be rather discouraged actually. Every speaker gave his mobile phone number after speaking which impressed me. It’s nice to see people breaking through that “personal barrier” that sometimes exists and really getting into organizing.

The food was all vegetarian which was awesome. See details on my future post about Indian food :-).

I met lots of different characters at the conference. There was the ICICI bank manager who walked out of his job to start organic farming and wants to produce herbs for pharmaceutical companies. There were quite a few people wearing all khadi. I met a number of professors as well a few activists who reject the academic system. There was the farmer researching which kind of sweet potatoes make the best sweet potato chips. The new age fellow who was convinced in the healing powers of crystals and gave me some amethyst and turquoise. A couple agricultural students who attend the college, one of whom took me out to tea. (They do that a lot here, “take tea”. I guess some British things are good enough to keep.)

A lot of my time I spent sitting around the trade show reading really interesting books, organic farming newspapers and talking to people because the lectures were all in Hindi. I sat through some but didn’t catch a word really. Some had english powerpoint slides.

On the last day of the conference the provincial (I think, or was it federal?) government announced a moratorium on genetically engineered brinjal. Yay, what a great way to end an organic farming conference :-) !. Mahyco, partially owned by Monsanto, was trying to sell their GM product BT Brinjal. Brinjal is like a small eggplant. The weird thing about their BT Brinjal is that brinjal doesn’t seem to really suffer from low yields from insect attack. That is, their product doesn’t have much to offer. So maybe it would have gone the way of the antifreeze tomato and nobody would have bought it anyways. Politically, it is an important and encouraging victory nonetheless.

The day after the conference the board of the Organic Farming Association of India (OFAI, sponsors of the conference) had a meeting. I got to stick around and go for dinner with some of them which was awesome. Then the next day I hung around the college while their meeting was on, read books and checked out the rose growing operation that the college has going on.

A gorgeous rose, brought to you by Indore Agriculture College. The only pretty picture in the whole post :-).

I went for tea with a new random friend and bummed some lunch from the OFAI. In the afternoon when the meeting was over I went with some of the OFAI members on a tour of an factory that creates mostly biological pest control agents. The company is called Indore Biotech Inputs and Research. As one of the OFAI folks said after the tour “He’s a good chap because he encourages people to do it themselves.” That is, the company encourages people to breed and reproduce the biological control agents on their own rather than continually pay the company for a product.

Indore Biotech Inputs and Research has a small lab which reminded me of a glorified personal laboratory. They have quite a collection of products, including pheremone traps, parasitic wasp populations, worms for vermicompost, various bacterial control agents like BT, funguses including mycorrhiza, “Effective Microorganisms”, neem extract (pesticide from the neem tree), and growth stimulants. You can apparently also send them a sample of your soil and they will culture the stuff in it and send you back a culture. I guess it’s kind of like compost tea only they do it without pumping air through the mix. I’m not sure quite what the point is but they have a whole collection of “cultures” from different soil samples people have sent them and they keep them in a bank. It seems to me that the culture must change over time because the bank is just room temperature. But what do I know.

Agricultural Conference.
The lab has a bunch of posters inside it, here is one of them. The title is “The Guardian of the World Crying Out for Protection!” It shows the farmer getting roasted by politicians and bureaucrats on one side and agro-chem companies on the other. The text underneath reads “During the Period between 1993 to 2003, 11 indian farmers committed suicide every week.” Then it shows how between 1951 and 1996 the non-farming sector: farming sector income ratio has gone from 1.4 to 10; farmers, compared to everyone else are making far less than they used to. The woman is saying “The Guardian of the World has become prey to chemical farming”.

I mentioned neem extract as a pesticide above. Incidentally the neem tree is a fascinating and highly useful tree. Gandhi had a bit of a preoccupation with it, and conducted many experiments with it. People who have access to a tree and are so inclined often brush their teeth with the twig of a neem tree. I got a chance to try this after the conference.

After the conference I chilled out and dealt with the police for a couple days then for four days I attended a meeting for families who homeschool their children. It was set in a lovely farmhouse outside the city. I was a bit of an odd one out but I was invited during the conference so I pretended to fit in :-). They talked about organic farming as well, and visited two farms. It was an interesting and relaxing few days but I don’t plan to make a post about it yet. Maybe later.

I’m in Chhatarpur now. I’m here earlier than planned because I got run out of town by the Indore police. According to my visa I am supposed to register with the police within 14 days of arriving in India. The police in Indore hassled me about registering. It was a weird situation. I think the officer was just really paranoid, didn’t know what to do with me and wanted to cover his ass. He said that I could either come back to Indore every time I change towns (totally ridiculous, considering the distances involved) and accept other draconian conditions on my stay, or register in Chhatarpur. The police in Chhatarpur are much more chilled out. They told me that if I wasn’t staying here for more than three months don’t even worry bother to register. If I decide to stay longer than three months I’ll contact them. This is in contrast to what it says on my passport but I can’t make them register me if they don’t want to. Something tells me if I had just ignored the requirement like a clueless tourist it never would have been an issue.

Until next time, goodnight and good luck.