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Biovillage approach represents the greening of development

Selvi Alagappan rises early each day to tend to her small patch of crossandra and jasmine flowers in the rural Indian village of Mangalam, in the Union of Pondicherry. These and the mushrooms she cultivates in a nearby shack bring in a monthly income that, while still below the poverty line, keeps her large family from going hungry.

Two years ago, however, starvation was very much a reality for Selvi and her family. But like many other participants of the Biovillage Project, a collaborative development programme described by its authors as "pro-nature, pro-women, pro-poor", Selvi was given the tools and technical assistance to increase her household income and get her back on her feet again.

The project is run by the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, a local non-governmental organization in Chennai, with funding and technical assistance from the Government of India and international agencies including FAO, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). The project began in 1992 with 42 participants in three villages. It now operates in 19 villages with a team of 24 project specialists.

"Biovillager" Rani Nagappa feeds her chickens: over 80 percent of the project participants are women

Although still poor, in a new FAO-funded video by Indian journalist Vaiju Naravane, Selvi explains how her life, and that of her family, has changed for the better. "You cannot imagine the state we were in two years ago," said Selvi. "For me it was a question of starting something here or just dying. We have now begun to look with hope to our children's future."

What makes the Biovillage Project different from contemporary development pathways, said Dr M.S. Swaminathan, the foundation's chairman, is its embrace of job-led economic growth rooted in the principles of ecology, equity, energy efficiency and employment generation.

"Contemporary development pathways are associated with four distressing features: a widening rich-poor divide in per caput income, damage to the basic life support systems of land, water, the atmosphere, forests and bio-diversity, jobless economic growth and a growing feminization of poverty," he said.

"The Biovillage model for rural development provides an alternative as it pays concurrent attention to natural resource conservation, productivity improvement and poverty eradication."

Selvi's practice of using the straw that has served as the growth medium for her mushrooms as a natural fertilizer for her jasmine plot is one such example of the ecologically efficient techniques that are being passed down through the Biovillage Project.

Because of its long tradition of working with small-scale enterprises and expertise in food processing and marketing, FAO was approached by the Foundation to participate in the project. According to FAO's Representative for India and Bhutan Peter Rosenegger, the project has made considerable progress in technology transfer and the reduction of poverty and is one that follows the example of the Special Programme for Food Security (SPFS). "The project follows the FAO strategy of promoting sustainable agricultural development, improved nutrition and food security, and it also ensures women's participation," said Rosenegger.

Among the many forms of technical assistance that FAO provides to the Biovillage Project are:

  • introduction of simple technologies for land preparation, crop care, crop harvesting, storage and handling;
  • demonstration of enhanced horticultural gardening practices - including trickle irrigation and raised bed cultivation - and low-cost and small-scale energy technologies, like wind and solar-power equipment.
  • development of craft industries that may find a market within the tourist trade;
  • provision of technical 'how to' guides, mainly composed of illustrations with text in local languages and English.

While those like Selvi Alagappan have taken considerable strides toward improving their livelihood, there remains much work to be done to ensure their continued development, warned Swaminathan. "Development history is littered with the ruins of well-intentioned projects that proved unsustainable once outside funding was removed. Ultimately, the market must take over as the engine of development with a steady demand for the product," he said.

Technical assistance from organizations such as FAO will help to turn agricultural production in the project villages into a profitmaking enterprise once it starts expanding. "We want FAO involved in the future, to make mushroom production economically sustainable once it starts expanding, for example," said Swaminathan. "It is one thing to market 10 kilograms of mushrooms, quite another thing to market a tonne of such a perishable commodity." An FAO technical expert is scheduled to visit the project to help with new marketing ideas.

Swaminathan continued: "We have a vision of exporting to Malaysia, which mostly produces plantation crops, and to Singapore. FAO, and especially its Commodities and Trade Division has all the expertise to help us do that."

"Biovillagers" tell their stories

18 September 1998

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