The Future Local Series: How Timbaktu’s farmers got earth to meet sky

What was once a district with barren land and debt-ridden farmers has now, over 20 years, blossomed into rich, fertile productive ground, housing a community whose lives have been revolutionized by organic farming. The story of Timbaktu Collective is one where farmers have fought to take back their land and the fruits of it.

[Editor’s Note]: This month, The Alternative goes to the heart of entrepreneurship in India – the Future Local series profiles grassroot entrepreneurs who are working to provide essential products, services and solutions that can improve local economies, empower communities and bring life improvement.

This year’s drought is not a new visitor to this arid land. Ananthpur, the largest district in Andhra Pradesh, hemmed by Kurnool in the north, Kadapa in the east and Karnataka in the west, has been betrayed by rains many times. Receiving the second lowest rainfall in India after Jaisalmer, this ‘drought district’ also has the grim reputation of being home to many farmer suicides. In the last decade, close to 800 farmers have taken their own lives.

In a place replete with grim, haunting tales, there is a story of hope that has flourished over the years – that of Timbaktu Collective (TC). Started in 1990, TC has worked in 140 villages of Chennekothapalli, Roddam and Ramagiri Mandals of Anantapur District over the last 12 years to replenish the land and promote organic farming. And the farmers own all that they produce – Timabktu Collective has been working directly with farmers on research, promotion of organic farming and in setting up a producer owned co-operative (Dharani FaM Co-operative Ltd) that brings organic produce to market.

When CK Bablu Ganguly of Timabktu first started farming here in the late 70s, Ananthpur was fast becoming a mono crop-district where only one kind of crop was grown; in this case, groundnut. Driven by fertiliser subsidies, seed inventory and market pressure, farmers in the region had abandoned growing local grains and millets that were not only drought resistant but also required less water and fertiliser inputs. By the year 2000, 70% of the area under cultivation was filled with groundnuts.

Small farmers found themselves trapped in a cycle of supplied high-breed seeds, chemical fertilisers and pesticides at subsidy rates which they required repeatedly as the soil’s nutrition diminished. The import of cheap palm oil meant bad prices for their crop, adding to their misery. The farmer had also become dependent on his trader and groundnut mill owner. With the entire local system – marketing, credit, insurance, inputs, production know-how and social support built around one crop, he was forced to grow only that.

Ganguly points out that the real estate boom of recent years in Ananthpur has meant more farmers selling off their land and migrating to urban areas, mostly as manual labour. And that’s what Bablu Ganguly and Mary Vattamattam at Timbaktu – literally meaning ‘where the earth meets the sky’ – have been successful in doing, turning this barren land into rich, fertile and productive habitat.

Back to Basics

K Murugesan, CEO, Dharani Cooperative, (Timbaktu’s farmers’ cooperative) says that in helping promote organic, chemical and pesticide free farming, they are helping farmers not be dependent on too many external factors. Besides reviving the farming of millet grains, most small holder farmers retain a portion of their produce, and what they grow has direct effect on the health of their families.

Farmers may not be market savy, but when it comes to their trade, they are an unending reservoir of knowlege, says Murugesan. The Timbaktu collective helps them inculcate confidence in themselves and continue many of these practices that are far more effective and sustainable. “The use of cow urine mixed with neem leaves is organic manure that farmers use. The sowing of millets requires gaps between seeds sown to ensure a good yield and protection for the plant. Traditionally, farmers also practised Navadanya, where 9 varieties of grams and pulses were sown and this kept the soil fertile,” says Murugesan, giving examples of their inherent know-how.

Ganguly emphasises the importance of cattle for farmers and says that owning cows is a primary necessity in sustainable non-chemical farming. With the help of the EED/EU (started in 1998), the collective helped in purchasing 450 pairs of cows. Some bulls were also purchased for further breeding to make this undertaking self-sustainable.

Owning cows also provides for milk and buttermilk, better nutrition for the families and their children.

Big problems of the small holder farmer

Working capital is a small farmer’s primary concern, says Ganguly, who has helped raise 20 lakhs through friends and well-wishers of Timbaktu. Credit facilities largely favour bigger farmers and government subsidies have been for paddy and wheat farmers. Many farmers are hence caught in a vicious cycle of debt where they acquire money at high rates from private financiers and moneylenders. The Dharani cooperative helps its farmers financially with credit upto Rs. 3,000 per acre provided at the time of sowing and at the time of harvest as cultivation loan.

An important attribute of organic farming is its low investment. A farmer would require Rs. 3500 to 4500 and will be able to acquire most of his raw materials within Rs 500- 700, says Ganguly. The cooperative also helps maintain a seed bank. Murugesan compares this to chemical groundnut farming, which requires an investment of Rs10,000. Every year, while the cost of the fertiliser goes up, the yield and capacity of the land comes down. The farmer is working hard, but his net savings grow lesser.

Power to the people

Farmers have traditionally always related to the market as individual sellers and it’s impossible for them to be competitive in such a situation today as individuals. Therefore the only way small holder farmers can remotely make a dent in the marketplace is as a collective, explains Ganguly. With Dharni Co-operative, Timbaktu has created a model that is completely producer owned, with farmers as shareholders. Apart from creating a sense of ownership, it also gives them the ability to negotiate with the market and extract a larger share from it. It can ensure its members get a fair and better price for their produce. The members are also assured of the market for their produce through its marketing activities. The members who are all farmers are also entitled to share the profit of the co-operative once it crosses the break-even point.

Today the cooperative has 1043 farmers as members and 500 are on the wait-list. “Even if the farmer has 4-5 sacks of produce, we try and buy it from him,” says Murugesan, who says that there’s adequate demand for organic produce in cities. Timbaktu’s produce is currently sold in 120 shops around South India.

Including the community

Apart from organic farming, the Timbaktu collective has been able to impact the region by involving the community in sustainable projects while creating employment. It has helped form 4 women’s cooperatives that have grown from 15 to 16000 members. Village women from farming, labouring and artisan families have been able to create a thrift banking co-operative worth 7.5 crores.

Apart from this, the collective is also responsible for 12 watersheds covering 500 hectares in the region, meaning more green employment. The collective has also been able to restore and protect 7000 acres of bio-diversity around the region. 384 species of flora have been protected, says Ganguly.

The number of organic farmers who have attempted or committed suicide in the last ten years here is zero. On the other hand, youngsters are coming back to work on their farms and people are queuing up to be part of the cooperatives. For money, seeds and knowledge, farmers are learning to depend on themselves, once again.

“They must find some meaning in it, otherwise why would they do it”, asks Ganguly.

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