Non-literate farmer filmmakers help save biodiversity

Non-literate Indian farmers turned filmmakers to take part in research whose innovative ethical approach is described in a book and films to be launched at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity conference in Bonn.

News, 14 May 2008

The IIED, Deccan Development Society and village-based women's groups called sanghams teamed up to study ways to sustain local food systems, the biodiversity they depend on and the livelihoods they support.

The project sparked a revival of local food culture that is helping to preserve agricultural biodiversity and traditional farming practices in several hundred villages in Medak district, Andhra Pradesh.

While these outcomes are important, the project’s methodology is itself also newsworthy.

"Too often outsiders arrive in a rural setting, impose their research on the poor and then depart without sharing the results or benefits of their studies," says Dr Michel Pimbert, director of IIED’s sustainable agriculture, biodiversity and livelihoods programme.

"In this project, the women felt both respected and empowered as they were equal partners in the design, implementation and communication of the research."

The project identified ways to sustain local crop and livestock diversity to increase people’s livelihoods options and ability to adapt to climate change. It also created stable local markets for marginalised producers to sell their surplus produce and improved local control over what is grown, in the face of pressure to conform to the needs of outsiders.

The women involved in the project decided that they wanted to use video to document the research and share its findings. The Deccan Development Society had previously trained villagers to use video and had proven that illiteracy was no barrier.

"The farmers' traditional narrative and pictorial understanding of their environment found wonderful expression in the films they made," says P.V. Satheesh of the Deccan Development Society.

"People felt both respected and empowered in the knowledge that they would be working with and communicating about this research in their own ways, at their own pace, and with significant control over the entire process."

Sangham member Humnapur Laxmamma says: "I am a seed-keeper. I store a variety of valuable seeds in the baskets in my house and with them my own knowledge of farming, environment and life. Since I learnt to use the camera, I am doing the same. I am storing knowledge of my communities with my camera and interpreting them for the outside world which does not know about this."

The project shows that local food systems, crop and livestock diversity, and livelihoods can be sustained in the face of modern pressures. As such, it offers both policy and practical guidance for the programme of work on agricultural biodiversity that the Conference of Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity approved in 1996.

"In many parts of India and the rest of the world, contract farming, inappropriate supply chains and unfair prices for farm produce are eroding local control of food systems and the rich biodiversity and knowledge they depend on," says Pimbert.

"Sustaining biodiversity-rich food systems depends on local processes of reflection and action to secure rights, resilience and human well being. Farmers, indigenous peoples and other citizens have to be centre stage in this process of transformation and cultural affirmation for food sovereignty, with researchers, policymakers and development agencies engaged in respectful conversations and providing support when needed."