Working with community, and making unpredicted benefits visible
Picture above: The team from Earth4Ever walk with tribal farmers in the Mandakini Forest.
“When we started with the project, we were working toward doing 10 micro-Permaculture projects in the same area. But what happened when we got on the ground, we were surprised that not every farmer was jumping out of their seats saying, ‘Yes, make us a food forest!’. So we had to spread out geographically.”
Komal Thakur is telling us about how Earth4Ever’s project has changed over time. We’re speaking at a Regenerosity Peer Learning Circle, hosted online in partnership with Re-Alliance. Regenerosity is a collaboration between the Buckminster Fuller Institute and the Lush Spring Prize, aiming to increase the flow of capital in aid of regeneration. Their Peer Learning Circles were co-designed by Re-Alliance, and are spaces where regenerative practitioners working on Regenerosity funded projects can come together and learn from one another’s experiences.
Komal continues, “Each space has such different context and factors. It’s taking us a lot more time to design each space. They’re so different. Going from a rice field, to someone who works on a slope, to a third with a stream that floods three or four feet deep in monsoon season.”
Often when organisations design their projects, no matter the amount of careful planning and community consultation that goes into it, things change once you get on the ground. It’s not just problems or challenges that can catalyse changes. Permaculture and other regenerative designs seek to create wide, ripple effects of positive outcomes, often having many unprecedented benefits. Instead of setting rigid project milestones and metrics in the project planning stage, how can we stay open to emergent possibilities, and make visible the unseen benefits of working with complexity?
While we were talking, Preeti Virkar, an ecologist and participant in the Peer Learning Circles from Navdanya, had been sketching in her notebook. She had heard Komal’s talk of flooding and sloped land, and offered a solution.
Sketch above: Preeti recommended a terraced approach to working with sloped land where lots of water falls. Using swales to slow water, and trees and shrubs on the edges of curves to slow, sink and store water.
Preeti told us, “We have a lot of rainfall where I’m from. We plant bananas and other trees to help slow the water. You can also check the slope of the land and open up channels to direct the flow of water.”
When you make changes to the land, it affects the environment around you, for better or worse. Aparna Bangia from Earth4Ever told us that when the land is mismanaged, it can create challenges for the whole community.
Aparna tells us, “If one farmer channels flooding off their own land, it could simply divert flooding elsewhere and to more farms. Or if one farmer sprays harsh chemicals on their crops, it can create soil degradation and biodiversity loss in surrounding farms too.”
Contrarily, when farmers start growing organically and stop using chemicals on their land, it can create tension in other farmers who believe it could bring pests or disease to the area.
Working at community level, rather than simply engaging with one or two farmers in the community, can create huge benefits and help to avoid wider land mismanagement. Arnima from Tarun Bharat Sangh explained their method. Tarun Bharat Sangh are known for creating large water harvesting structures in dry Rajasthan, transforming whole landscapes to luscious green. “We hold water design meetings. The whole community are invited and involved. We show them how this rainwater harvesting structure will affect their farms, and how each farmer can interact with it.”
Regeneration is not just a set of techniques. It invites us to learn from nature’s patterns and traditional wisdom. For many, this can mean challenging and unlearning some of the ways we engage with other people and the land, reshaping ways of thinking. Changes like that seem easier when you bring your community along with you. Regenerative farmers are no longer outliers if the whole community is involved.
So how can we create space for transformations needed at community level? Preeti offered an example of how demonstration can create real change.
“On one side of the road, there was one farmer growing traditional varieties of cotton, grown organically and in a biodiverse system. On the other side of the road was a farmer growing BT Cotton, with pesticides, and in a monocrop. And when there were adverse and changing weather conditions, the BT Cotton was infested with pests and many of the farmer’s crops failed, but the farmer growing in a biodiverse way had a healthy, abundant harvest.”
After seeing these impacts, the farmer who used pesticides was eager to learn more and change practises. It’s a story we hear repeated in many contexts: seeing the tangible effects of regenerative approaches can be transformational. And it’s often not the metrics on a piece of paper that will change minds, but hearing stories from fellow farmers or seeing the abundance of positive effects oneself.
What would it look like to create space for this emergence in the way we design our projects, and the way that we report?
Re-Alliance hosts online learning spaces about Regeneration. We can also work with foundations and organisations to design monitoring and evaluation solutions that integrate regenerative principles. If this is something you are interested in, please email us for a consultation and quote at firstname.lastname@example.org.