Christian Aid Scotland programme growing organically to help marginalised women of India – Val Brown

Val Brown reports on the inspiring work of EcoVeg, a farming collective that ignores caste, class and gender

Some of the women from Indias excluded communities who are being trained in organic farming to give them autonomy and help them to break free from a life of extreme poverty
Some of the women from Indias excluded communities who are being trained in organic farming to give them autonomy and help them to break free from a life of extreme poverty

In Scottish towns and cities, the season of harvest might feel like a bygone tradition. But in our rural communities, as in rural communities across the world, it’s a source of joy. It’s a time to give thanks together for the sunshine and the rain, to recognise our dependency on a functioning climate, and it’s a time to realise the almighty power of people pulling together.

With the right support, a gathered-in harvest can be a lifeline and a way to change lives for good. This year’s Christian Aid Harvest Appeal focuses on women farmers in India.

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Five women chat and laugh as they tend rows of organic tomato plants already growing heavy with fruit under the hot sun. Harvest time is coming.

Kasthuri is the youngest. Her life wasn’t always so joyful. Kasthuri and her friends were born into India’s Dalit community; she has faced prejudice all her life: no rights, no security, no voice. The caste ­system excludes millions of people from health, education and the chance of a better future.

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When she was ostracised by her family for marrying against their will, and later abandoned by her ­husband, she was excluded by her own ­community.

She survived because someone had faith in her. Selvi is from a different caste, but she broke society’s biggest barrier to give ­Kashthuri what she needed most – a home to raise her son, Mathi.

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Selvi said: “I want to break any form of slavery and exploitation of ­women, whether it is due to caste, class or ­gender.”

Selvi also bought the land for the women’s farming collective. The farm works because of EcoVeg, a project run by Christian Aid partner ADISIL (The Agrarian Development Institute for Sustenance and Improved ­Livelihood) which has trained more than 5,000 people from India’s excluded communities in organic farming.

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The organisation has provided expert marketing and logistics training so that small-scale farmers are able to grow their crops and get a fair price.

With India’s market for organic food set to treble by 2021, this is an opportunity for women like Kasthuri to build a sustainable ­livelihood for themselves and their children.

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Kasthuri and her friends are still learning, but with the support of the project they grow and sell ­vegetables like okra and aubergine, chilli, greens and onions, as well as flowers and herbs.

The women’s farming collective in which Kasthuri is now involved has changed her life.

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She said: ­“Everything here is grown organically. EcoVeg trains us to ­prepare our own natural nutrients. I couldn’t do this alone as a woman. But together we can be successful. If one of us is sick and cannot work, the others compensate. We work as a team, in solidarity. I have no words to explain how happy I am to be here.”

EcoVeg helps people to work with respect for the natural world and in solidarity with each other. Chemical farming comes with a heavy debt ­burden and risks to farmers’ health. Natural farming makes it easier to earn and manage household income, as well as to nurture the vitality of the land.

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We know projects like this can work. Christian Aid has been supporting excluded people in India for 50 years. In many communities, that help isn’t needed any more. As we have helped dismantle the structures which keep people poor, people across India have been able to break free from extreme poverty forever.

In this year’s Christian Aid ­Harvest Appeal, social and environmental justice go hand in hand. All over the world, people are working to achieve a sustainable future for themselves and inspiring us to respect and ­protect the environment – the ­environment that we all rely on to produce the world’s harvests.

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We can stand together with them and make this a season for change. A gift of £30 could train 10 women to start their farming business – breaking down barriers and building their self-respect.

For more information about Christian Aid’s Harvest Appeal, or to donate, please go to www.christianaid.org.uk/harvest-appeal

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Val Brown, church and community action manager for Christian Aid Scotland.