A perspective gained from a trip to India last summer to meet with Tibetan farmers about sustainable farming practices has helped an Antioch University Seattle (AUS) professor shape his approach to teaching. “The practical application of sustainable techniques crosses all cultures and is important knowledge for Antioch students as well as Tibetan farmers,” said Jonathan Scherch, Ph.D., core faculty in the Antioch’s MA Programs in Leadership and Change.
“What is happening in India is what is happening here,” said Scherch about the process of changing to a more sustainable way of life. “It’s important to offer opportunities for students to link conditions in a culture far away and connect those to local realities,” he added. For more than 20 years, Scherch has been active in international social work, and has taught permaculture and sustainable systems design courses in the AUS MA Programs in Leadership and Change since 1998.
The plans for the trip began last year when the prime minister of the Tibet Government-in-Exile, looking for world-class expertise in sustainable agriculture, again reached out to Scherch. He traveled to India in July at his invitation to analyze the state of organic farming in the refugee settlements. The journey was the third invitation for Scherch who previously had offered permaculture and sustainable community development workshops in the settlements. Tibetans arrived in India in 1959 following Chinese occupation of Tibet and a failed uprising. There are some 135,000 Tibetans living in exile in India today. The majority of those who live in southern India survive by farming.
With a jeep, driver and videographer Scherch launched a 15-day tour to meet and listen to local farmers. At one point during his trip, Scherch found himself standing in a barren field in southern India talking about farming practices with ten Tibetan farmers and their agricultural extension agent. “So, there we were in this dehydrated field with soil eroded of nutrition and no natural canopy, looking at the fully-exposed result of mono-cropping,” he said.
Scherch invited the farmers to imagine a different reality — one of abundances. Rather than mono-crop pursuits, he encouraged them to design for 20 crops on one acre of field instead of one or two crops. “They smiled and said, ‘no way’,” recalled Scherch. Then they came up with three or four things they could grow and then five or six. As the farmers named the different foodstuffs and valuable resources they could grow Scherch said the energy level kept rising. “They were having fun. They were imagining how their ideas would work. At the end we developed a chart that showed the production of papaya, honey, mushrooms, compost, tomatoes, beans and more,” said Scherch. “Then they figured out how many more rupees they could earn growing multiple edible and non-edible crops collaboratively rather than growing two crops alone,” he added.
In contacting Scherch the prime minister was seeking ways to improve quality-of-life and to bring stability for Tibetans living in the settlements. While Tibetans have adapted to a new climate and to life in the temporary settlements, modern mono-crop agriculture has not brought economic stability to farmers and their families.
“The standard recipe for success was for a single farmer to rent a tractor, plow the field, plant seed, spray pesticides, wait for rains, harvest and then take the crop to market. Every single one of these steps has become increasingly precarious if not unreliable. Here, mono-crop agriculture—the growing of one or two crops by at-risk farmers—is not working,” said Scherch. The effects of global warming, drought, hotter summers and the use of bore wells that tap deep aquifers and bring concentrations of salt to soils have made farming a perilous enterprise that is unappealing to young people.
To prepare his report, Scherch listened to the farmers’ insights and drew on their experiences. He recommended that villages form collaborative organizations and work a one-acre band of land surrounding the village community. Scherch predicted that if the villages can organize themselves carefully and equitably they can work together to farm and harvest an expanding range of productive land around the village that everyone can access quickly and easily.
Pursuing this innovation would require challenging shifts in communal thinking, however. The settlements are in an environment where land and water resources are being degraded and unexpected events, such as an overnight visit from feeding elephants, can disrupt village life profoundly. Still, Scherch has hope that budding organic farming practices can gain a foothold.
“Tibetans living in exile offer us many opportunities to learn about life in tenuous living circumstances. In this case, the fragile situation is associated with unsustainable agriculture that doesn’t perform as reliably as it did 50 years ago. We can learn a lot from the Tibetan settlements about food insecurity and the transition to sustainable agriculture and community,” said Scherch. As taught within courses of the MA Programs in Leadership and Change, collaborative practices for social change and sustainability are critical for all us — whether in South India or Seattle.