This note describes some activities around SEWA’s Megha cooperative in Gujarat’s Tapi district that respond to several urgent objectives at different scales. At the greatest scale are familiar urgent objectives of preserving global biodiversity, arresting climate change and helping farmers to gain resilience to its impact.

At a smaller scale are urgent objectives related to Megha’s structure, culture and demographic. As surveyed in a recent IT for Change Baseline report, the average age of a Megha member is 44, and conversations reveal great difficulty in enlisting the younger generation in land work, citing its lack of “cool” factor – this generation is increasingly abandoning the district for the cities.

Through a historical miracle, India has not suffered the same patterns of commutation and enclosure through which small-scale land-holding was eradicated across the Western world and the New World colonies between the 13th and 19th centuries. ITfC’s report shows that the majority of Megha’s landowners hold plots smaller than 1 hectare. A recent report by Ranjitha Kumar of ItFC shows that this pattern of land-holding is itself under threat – a current push towards land records digitalization systematically disentitles small farmer landholdings in favour of large-scale agribusiness.

At the same time, the health and cultural practices of Megha members are under threat from these corporations, who incentivise intensive application of industrially manufactured fertilisers, toxic pesticides such as DNP (close to cyanide in its toxicity, with a high mortality rate) which feed directly into the global issues of biodiversity loss and destruction of soil carbon. India’s historical miracle offers a route to an urgent and exciting opportunity.

Two thirds of the Megha members cite “historical” or “ancestral” practice as their main inspiration for choice of crops they grow, with nearly three quarters citing “subsistence methods” of cultivation. The report notes “It is important to determine why farmers in Kheda and Tapi prefer to use subsistence techniques at several stages of the agricultural production process prior to designing an intervention” with an implicit framing towards the assumption that the women might be moved to commercial methods of production. A following question determines that most Megha members are against being moved to these commercial methods, and that a minority are interested in “organic” or “multicropping” practices.

Whilst there is an interesting cultural study to be done determine the boundary between these “multicropping” and “ancestral” techniques, and why the latter are considered distinct from the former, and good work to be done encouraging existing organic and multicropping practices, it should be borne in mind that more radical points exist in this space.

In his landmark book, “The Madawaska Forest Garden: Co-creating Integrated Polyculture”, Steven Elliott Martyn shows how a single farmer can operate a plot of a single acre, cultivating an extremely diverse polyculture of nearly 100 species, not only meeting their own subsistence needs but with enough excess produce to turn a reasonable profit. He notes that “In terms of balanced calorie expenditure, nothing is more efficient than a person with a hoe, eating off the land and recycling their waste” and advises to “Focus less on fertilizers of any kind, and more on cycling the land with legumes and green cover crops for “free”, organic regeneration of the soil”. Whilst his experience was localised to upstate Ontario in Canada, these polyculture practices were universal across all Indigenous cultures prior to the dawn of traditional agriculture ~10,000 years ago, and will certainly have their localised equivalents in NW India. Martyn and other commentators note that these practices still escape traditional accounts of agriculture since their practice and scale was not legible to those writing standard histories from an imperial, centralist informational standpoint.

Whilst such a rich polyculture will take generations to reestablish, Martyn notes that it can be successfully operated with as few as a dozen species, which is still many times more than the diversity seen in existing multicropping approaches in the district. As well as offering a route to a stable livelihood, protective of local biodiversity, culture and health, these practices also offer a route to revenue for farmers through connecting with global biodiversity credits, as described in a previous concept note.

Martyn and other writers have noted that an important waystation on the road to richer polycultures is the “Three Sisters” – a particularly attractive polyculture of maize, beans and squash that shows a route to a climate-resilient, largely input-free and nourishing subsistence and market crop. This combination, common across Indigenous American cultures, is not native to India, but the individual components are highly popular Indian staples, and it seems likely that a localised variant of it could be adapted to Tapi.

In her 1997 book, Biopiracy, Vandana Shiva notes two forms of polyculture indigenous to India:

Navdanya (nine seeds) or barnaja (twelve crops) are examples of highly productive systems of mixed farming or polycultures based on diversity, yielding more than any monoculture can. Unfortunately, they are disappearing – not because of their low productivity, but because they need no inputs, being based on symbiosis with legumes providing nitrogen to cereals. In addition, their outputs are diverse providing all of the nutritional inputs a family needs. This diversity, however, acts against commercial interests, which need to maximize the production of a single output to maximize profits. Polycultures, by their very nature, are ecologically prudent. Thus, recovering diversity in production provides a countervailing force to the globalized, centralized, and homogeneous systems of production that are destroying livelihoods, cultures, and ecosystems everywhere.

Navdanya is also the name of a 1991 foundation of Vandana Shiva’s in Uttarakhand which promotes seed banking. WION, the World Is One Network reports that barnaja

…involves growing of 12 different seeds, which includes that of grains, dhal, fibre, millet, oil, amaranth, buck wheat and a traditional variety of soya called bhaat. Such wide bio-diversity also means, only one or two will effectively fall to pests or diseases. In case of flood or drought, the resistant ones among these varieties survive and so people won’t go without a harvest. These twelve grains when grown in a synergistic combination with each other ensure soil fertility. 

It is significant that this number of 12 crops agrees with Steven Martyn’s estimate of the lowest level of diversity capable of supporting a rich sustainable polyculture.

Early informal conversations with Megha show that polyculture practices are already underway in outlying parts of Tapi. In the Songadh taluka,

leaders have been working at preservation of 16 varieties of rice. They realise that hybrid and indigenous varieties require more time, but it is much more environmentally friendly, and especially the villages that are at a distance, they prefer to grow indigenous seeds even if they require more time. They rely on buffalo to do planting – regardless of new technology, there are other means of ploughing the fields, they believe it is better and the yield is better. Spoke about traditional food/recipes, there is a leafy vegetable coming in, especially in the rainy season. These are not consumed in the major cities, people who live closer to the forest, they consume the leaves and barks. It is right outside their office”.

Our aim is to compile, enhance and amplify these irreplaceable cultural practices, which are at urgent risk of being wiped out by centralist agribusiness, along with their host communities. 

There is huge scope for “going forward by going back” – connecting a cutting edge of data and AI-driven practices to truly ancestral practices of subsistence agroforestry, building an economy on trading dozens of forest-derived species through modern digital systems. Currently, 37% of Tapi members can only discover a price for their products after visiting the market. Digitally enabled ecocultural and biodiversity-respecting practices could preserve the livelihoods and cultures of these communities, whilst making their activities exciting for a younger generation.


  • Extend ITfC’s baseline survey to recover as much as possible through the oral tradition of Megha’s historical practice and culture surrounding cultivation – as well as choice of crops and cultivation practices, including stories, songs, recipes and other cultural material.
  • Supplement this oral material with historical and archaeological research such as the “charred lump analysis” of which shows several crops familiar from “ancestral” practices in Megha (pigeon pea, foxtail millet, chickpea) as ancient on the scale of 1-2 millenia, but a far wider range of polyculture species will be in scope looking back before the dawn of traditional agriculture ~10 millenia ago.
  • Broaden the scope of Digital Green’s Loop platform beyond its initial remit of market making, to support cultural exchange around agricultural experiments of SEWA members, particularly supporting sharing of results on polyculture and seedbanking practice localised to the Tapi region. This function of agricultural exchange has been reported in a recent extension of the ITfC study as the #1 most attractive application by SEWA members, beyond that of market making
  • Work to localise standard multicropping patterns such as the “Three Sisters” to the Indian context and Gujarat in particular, making connections to indigenous ayurvedic agroforestry practices as in this ethnobotanical study of a forest grove in Gujarat, and the existing navdanya and barnaja practices already popular in Uttarakhand.
  • Evaluate these practices for the potential of promoting climate resilience through reducing the probability of devastating crop loss, promoting dietary health through greater variation of nutrition including a higher proportion of green leafy vegetables, personal and soil health through avoidance of toxic pesticides such as DNP, and soil carbon loss through soil erosion of intensively farmed monocultures.
  • Enhance SEWA’s existing SEWA Lilotri platform, currently largely operated via WhatsApp, as a cooperatively structured and owned alternative to the currently dominant APMCs (Agricultural Produce Market Committees) used by the majority of members for commerce, allowing entrepreneurship around small-scale and minority agroforestry and ayurvedic products to find markets, in a way that supports the culture surrounding these products
    • Engage other CIFAR partners, Precision Development (PxD) and Lark Systems, who already have experience of automating conversations held over WhatsApp, Telegram, SMS and other channels and connecting these to structured data platforms
    • The resulting data ownership issues around connection to these data platforms will build towards a cooperatively owned AI governance platform with data and algorithmic practices co-designed with SEWA members
    • Connect the cultural and biodiversity data practices of this platform with the ecocultural mapping platform being developed with the IDRC’s FLOE project, which promotes networks of cultural knowledge surrounding local biodiversity practices in a way respectful of both Indigenous and Western patterns of knowledge.
  • Through these activities, weaken the gendered pattern of access to technology and land ownership by promoting the agency of women as holders of vital cultural knowledge, practices and agents in entrepreneurship and market-making.


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