Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Organic Activism

Last Sunday I attended a meeting in the basement of a building at Gujarat Vidyapith. Fitting for two reasons. One, because the meeting was held in the university founded by Gandhiji, the O.G. activist of India. And second, because it was meeting at the grassroots.

About thirty people associated with the organic farming movement had gathered to discuss a recent decision by the Gujarat Government. The GoG had cleared double-hybrid corn and BT rice in the state. The controversy is that GM crops are an unproven technology and have not been approved for food crops in some countries in the world. The seeds were also banned by several states in India. Only Gujarat and AP have approved them. Why? Many in that room are sure it is weak and ineffective biosafety legislation and institutions, and a usual suspect lurking in the GMO camp: Monsanto.

It is taken as a given in this circle that more than a few Gujarati high-powered politicians have their hands in Monsanto's pocket. Monsanto also has a negative international reputation for coercion, aggressive legal maneuvers, and illegal entrance into foreign markets. For example Monsanto's BT cotton seeds were discovered in 2000, two years before they were officially permitted by the central government. The government approved after university trials proved their safety. Those trials were funded by Monsanto.

When it comes to the organic movement in Gujarat, there are two towering names: Bhaskar Save and Kapil Shah. Kapilbhai had called this meeting and had personally urged me to attend as this issue, to him, was the "final stand". He sees this as the last and most important battleground for the movement to curb the infiltration of GMOs into the state, which most including recognized international institutions agrees does not fall within the definition of "organic". Kapilbhai is going to devote the full force of his time, energy, and resources to this cause for the foreseeable future, this is his journey to Mordor to destroy the ring once and for all. Kapilbhai listed out twelve means they had at their disposal to protest, including organizing tribal farmers, appealing to the supreme court, and pressuring the media to shine a light on the issue.

I have been supporting the organic movement in Gujarat in whatever ways I can through the years. My first project in India was developing an organic certification system for farmers, by farmers in Gujarat, which represented a holistic and regionally appropriate definition of organic. Later we set up the only organic farming information service through Awaaz.De and Jatan, Kapilbhai's organization. At this meeting, Kapilbhai had me come up in front of the whole group and explained to everyone how I had moved to Gujarat and have now committed myself as a full-fledged member of the organic farming movement. He also initiated Jay as another soldier for the cause before he even touched Gujarati soil. So it was official.

I said a few words of thanks, then made three points. First, that the cause of this group is the future, meaning it is the thinking that the rest of the world is catching up to realize is the right stance. And there are other groups just like this one around the world fighting, in solidarity, for the same values. So don't feel we are alone. Second, winning this battle will require international attention to the cause to pressure the government into overturning their decision. We have to shine an international spotlight on the protest, a la the Arab Spring. Note that the dudes in Tahrir Square always held up signs written in English, that was for a reason. And third, this movement needs to be inclusive and broad-based. It needs to be about the 100%. That means involving consumers, at least making them aware. And importantly, looking upon the government not as an enemy, but rather as a dim-witted and parochial little brother. We have to help it see the light, with our arm around its shoulder. Of course I said this all in very broken and simple Gujarati, so it came out relatively uninspiring. I ended with some description of Awaaz.De's plan to support the organic movement however it can; for this year we are going to focus on creating robust local middle-man busting markets for organic grains, fruits, and vegetables in Ahemdabad.

I felt proud and excited to be a part of the meeting which was one of the most authentic tastes of real grassroots activist organizing I've had. The organic movement in Gujarat is a cause I deeply believe in and find myself naturally gravitating towards through a resonance with the issue and people involved. As Panchito says, now is the time for the spiritual people to get active, and the activists to get spiritual. A few days earlier I was with Kapilbhai at Jatan and told him that now that I'm here, he should look upon the future with renewed enthusiasm. Now is not the time to be tired and jaded, but to wake up to a new beginning. Put the movement on mine and Jay's back, we are ready to help. He sat me at his desk and joked that the keys to the throne have now been passed. Some new blood has arrived.

1 comment:

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