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No-till sugar cane cultivation with alternate row irrigation, Belgaum, Karnataka, India


Suresh Desai is a founding member of an Organic Farmers Club in Belgaum District of Karnataka, India. It has 400 members, some of whom are already growing crops organically, while others are in the process of shifting to organic farming.

Suresh was born in Bedkihal Village, Belgaum Dt. in a traditional extended South Indian family comprising 67 members. Since completing his matriculation, Suresh has been caring for the family property of 4.5 hectares, in an area where today sugar cane is primarily grown. For nearly a decade Suresh, as the manager of the farm, followed conventional practices relying on external inputs in the form of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Just like most of the other farmers near Belgaum, he grew sugar cane, a high water-demanding cash crop, and tobacco.

Conventionally, sugar cane is grown in three-year cycles. A sugar cane crop takes about 18 months to mature, it is then harvested and a ratoon crop is left to grow. After cutting the canes, a lot of trash remains in the fields. Some of this is used as a roofing material, while the rest is burnt, usually at night. Burning can damage the roots, but there is a good initial re-growth of the ratoon crop since the nutrients in the trash become soluble by burning. The burning also helps in pest control, ensuring that pest problems of the standing crop do not contaminate future cops. However, what most farmers do not realise is that most of the nutrients contained in the ashes are leached out with the first irrigation, and as the water demand of the sugar cane crop is high (recommendations are that it receives 100 percent water cover, effectively flooding the crop), this can be a serious problem. After the harvest of the ratoon crop, the field is left fallow until the next planting cycle which may be after six months or a year.

Suresh's yields for sugar cane were 75 to 90 tonnes a hectare, very much like that of his neighbours. However, Suresh started having second thoughts as he noticed a process of degradation unfolding in his fields. The crops became increasingly affected by pests and disease, the soil gradually lost its native fertility and structure, and water supplies were dwindling. In short, the family property was on the decline.

What most farmers do not realise is that most of the nutrients contained in the ashes are leached out with the first irrigation.

Initial experiments with organic practices

At that point it occurred to him that in fact there were plenty of residues available mainly from the sugar cane fields that were hitherto considered of no particular use. With the escalating prices for external inputs, Suresh began venturing into experiments that would ultimately bring a drastic change in the cultivation of his sugar cane fields. Suresh says that the driving factor for shifting away from chemical farming was economic. The understanding that organic materials were available and that the use of these could reverse the process of degradation of the family property pointed the way out.

At first he tried composting the residues and using this to fertilize his sugar cane crop. In this way he was able to reduce the inputs of chemical fertilizers to a certain extent, however, composting involved a lot of labour for collecting, mixing, watering, then turning and finally hauling the organic matter back to the fields to be ploughed in. Suresh reasoned that if the work of shifting organic matter to and from was avoided, it would mean a considerable saving in time and labour.

Suresh's system enables a reduction in water usage by 75 to 80 percent in comparison with the conventional usage.

This brought him to the next step wherein organic residues were incorporated in situ in the fields that produced them. With this method, Suresh was able to reduce the application of chemical fertilizers by 50 percent, while maintaining the same production levels. However, problems related to irrigation in heavy black cotton soils started to appear. Groundwater levels had declined drastically while the fields became slowly gorged with water and laden with salts. Suresh came to understand that irrigation itself was responsible for this slow but steady spoilage of the soils.

This brought him to the third change in his thinking and agricultural practice. He imagined that if the trash obtained after the cutting of the canes could be kept "on" the soil as mulch, evaporation losses would be significantly reduced, the need for irrigation would diminish and the salinization problem would eventually be overcome.

By keeping all the trash on the fields as mulch, Suresh found that irrigation became very difficult since the trash obstructs the flow of the irrigation water. The idea that the trash could be kept in one row and that the water could be provided in the next row became the solution to this problem. He calls this the "one-in-two" irrigation system. Moreover by connecting two parallel irrigation rows with a perpendicular trench at the ends, he made watering the fields much easier (see Figure below).

In one go Suresh Desai was able to reduce his irrigation requirement by 50 percent, and after harvesting the cane, the remaining trash was gathered in the row that was used previously as the irrigation channel.

Continuing in this way for three years, Suresh observed a remarkable improvement in the soil and an amazing increase in soil life. He also started using a soil conditioner and introducing green manure between the rows of cane and found that using chemical fertilizers became unnecessary. He also saw that his crops were healthy and that there was no more need for chemicals to combat pests and diseases. Furthermore, because of the intense soil life and the action it manifested on the soil, Suresh hazarded the idea that cultivation could perhaps be stopped altogether, so he did. His fields have not been ploughed or turned up for the last 5 years. The only soil work left is the periodic maintenance of the irrigation channels.

Zero tillage and reduced irrigation - the impacts achieved

Ever since ploughing was stopped, the water-retention capacity of the soil improved further. Consequently, irrigation frequency was reduced from once every 10 or 12 days to 20 or 25 days, thereby achieving a further saving of 50 percent in water requirement.

Suresh discovered that the cane crop thrived even when irrigation was further reduced to one in three rows. This meant yet another saving of 25 percent of water. Suresh is at present experimenting with pushing the lower limits of irrigation to one in four rows.

On the whole, Suresh's system enables a reduction in water usage by 75 to 80 percent in comparison with the conventional usage.

Soil fertility

Soil fertility in Suresh Desai's farm is maintained by the combined effect of four factors:

Reduced irrigation: by reducing irrigation, salt build-up is minimized. It also restricts nutrient losses due to leaching. Soil compaction as a result of excessive irrigation is also avoided.

Trash composting: when trash is kept on the fields as mulch, evaporation of moisture is greatly reduced. The soil is protected from the direct impact of the elements and hence soil life develops extremely well. Soil quality and structure improve. Finally as the trash decomposes, nutrients are taken up by the roots again to make new growth.

Green manuring: green manure is, according to Suresh, a source of nitrogen and other elements compensating for the high carbon content of the trash.

He uses a combination of many plants for his green manure mix. He also believes that with this combination the ill effects of the monocropping pattern without rotation, as is the case in his sugar cane fields, can be overcome. Furthermore, his green manure mix consists of plants and crops that were grown before when dry farming was practised, it re-establishes equilibrium in the soil, which these plants help to maintain.

The green manure mix is generally made up of cowpea, mustard, amaranth, coriander, horse gram sesame, sunnhemp and chickpea, amongst others. Initially Suresh used to prepare a green manure mix which was inter-sown between the lines of cane using a bullock drawn implement. Nowadays the green manure seeds are mixed with clay and manure and formed into balls (large pellets). These balls are then just dropped in the trash at regular intervals between the canes. The green manure plants are cut once or twice at 30 to 40 day intervals.

Soil conditioning: to enhance the decomposition of the sugar cane trash, Suresh applies a conditioner on the fields at the time of irrigation in the form of slurry. Consisting of 250 grams of wet yeast and 500 grams of jaggery, mixed with 10 kg of cow dung and a little water, this enhances the proliferation of fungi, hastening the breakdown of the fibres of the trash. In fact after application of this slurry an enormous development of fungi, sometimes forming a white cake, can clearly be seen. This has, according to Suresh, a great influence on the water-retention capacity of the soil and makes it possible for him to reduce irrigation to only once in 25 days.

With the application of trash, green manure and the conditioner, the soil has become very fertile, healthy and sweet. The proof of this is his canes which grow fast, are vigorous and sturdy and problem-free.

Other impacts

Financial impacts

Suresh Desai has been able to drastically reduce his cash investment per hectare. This is mainly due to a 30 percent reduction in labour and reduced water requirement. The comparative figures are as follows:

Suresh Desai

in Rs


in Rs

Cost of inputs per hectare

3 700

Cost of inputs per hectare

15 000

Yield 100 tonnes/hectare (at Rs 600/ton)

59 000

Yield 110 tonnes/hectare

66 000

Net profit

55 300

Net Profit

51 000

The use of traditional dry farming crops in his green manure mix functions as a gene pool for rapidly disappearing species.

These figures for Suresh Desai's investments, as well as other farmers, are averages. In some cases, in the conventional practice when farmers want to push their yields above 120 tons, the cost of inputs per acre can soar up to Rs 24 700 per hectare. Investments in the case of organic cultivation also increase if additional external inputs are used.

A continuous process of learning and design improvement

Suresh's farming experience so far has led him to develop an altogether new plan for his sugar cane cultivation. The plan is still under consideration and is only at the "design" stage. The new farming design features:

In the conventional practice, the space between the rows of cane is 0.75 to 1 m, and within rows the space between the seeds or settes is about 15 cm. This close planting system requires up to 7.5 tonnes of seed materials per hectare. With Suresh's new design, only 1 000 to 1 250 kg of seeds per hectare will be required. The improved plan comprises a paired row technique with a distance of 1 to 1.25 m between the paired rows, a 30 cm foot distance between the settes within a row and a 2.5 to 3 m distance between a set of paired rows (see Figure below).

Suresh is confident that with increased spacing as recommended in his new design, more tillers will appear. He also uses an effective technique to stimulate tillering. This involves snapping off the first shoot after a 45-day period of growth. Suresh already has some experience with this snapping-method, which was a traditional practice in his area.

Initially Suresh recommends the growing of green manure crops in the larger space between the paired rows. But the ultimate aim is to use this space to grow other "dryland" food crops, such as grains, oilseeds and pulses. These "dryland" crops will benefit from the moist soil environment created by irrigating the canes.

Suresh estimates he will be able to maintain the same cane yield with this new system. In any case he will have reached a very high level of efficiency in the utilization of irrigation water. Suresh sees this as his main achievement and it is a great source of contentment and meaning in his life as a farmer. Notwithstanding all his innovations and savings of water, Suresh has been able to maintain his yields at 75 to 100 tonnes of cane per hectare.

Constraints of the System

Although Suresh recycles all organic residues as trash compost, he uses the same cane variety as other farmers (Nr.7/40) which is apparently a low-trash variety. He does not use any other extra manures such as farmyard manure, compost, bagasse or pressmud or any foliar sprays such as cow urine or vermiwash which could improve his yields considerably.

Labourers are not easily willing to work in his fields because of the fear of snakes and scorpions that are believed to live under the mulch. This is in spite of the fact that no untoward incident of that nature has ever occurred during the eight years that Suresh has been farming this way. However, now that more and more farmers are following his method this constraint is gradually disappearing.

Suresh Desai U-shaped channels for alternate irrigation

Paired row design

Diffusion of Suresh's methods

At present 250 neighbouring farmers are following Suresh Desai's method, or variations thereof. A total of 300 hectares are under this system of farming.

How did he reach out to other farmers? His extension approach is in fact very simple.

Suresh organizes farmer days, inviting farmers to come and see his fields. His whole concept is explained and discussed right there in the sugar cane field and if some farmers are convinced about changing, the steps to be taken are clearly spelt out. For most farmers, Suresh advises the use of some compost and oil-cake initially. This is to give the organisms needed for the processing of the trash a good start or boost. The oil-cake serves as a trap for the fungi.

Not all farmers stop using chemical inputs completely. Some have not gone beyond the `one-in-two' irrigation method. On the other hand, some of the farmers who have adopted his method have obtained much better results then Suresh himself! Many variations of the method can now be seen in and around Bedkihal. Some farmers use trash composting with drip or sprinkle irrigation, some use extra organic inputs such as pressmud or bagasse, while some still use a small quantity of chemical inputs. The number of farmers taking up the method is growing slowly but steadily.

Why has no-till, alternate row irrigation not spread beyond Belgaum-Bedkihal?

First it may be that only farmers in the immediate surroundings have access to his fields and his concrete example. Second, only recently have a few mentions been made in the local newspapers and in some local radio programmes about Suresh Desai's innovations. Audio-visual materials, such as slides and video are now being prepared about his methods so that a much larger public can be reached. Suresh Desai is also an active founding member of his "Organic Farmers Club" and has participated in numerous workshops and farmers days throughout the country.

Last, it may be that farmers who visit Suresh's fields might be disappointed, as no "bumper" crops will be seen to satisfy their bewildered imagination. They will see crops that look sturdy and remarkably healthy, but for the rest the yields will seem nearly the same as theirs. There is a tendency to evaluate the `success' of organic practices in terms of the "yields" alone. This is misleading because what is important is not only the "net profit", but also the "quality". As Suresh uses few external inputs, his investments remain low while his yields are average, but his net profit is higher than a conventional farmer.

Higher yields can be obtained and this is well illustrated by the case of Satish Kulkarni. He applies a good dose of bagasse or pressmud on top of the trash and can in this way obtain yields up to 175 tonnes per hectare.

But Suresh is happy and satisfied with his results. He does not risk anything, nor does he need a heavy cash investment. All in all, Suresh has stable and assured returns.

As Suresh uses few external inputs, his investments remain low while his yields are average, but his net profit is higher than a conventional farmer.

What lessons can be learnt from Suresh's experience?

Throughout Suresh's process of experimentation he learnt a variety of lessons, all of which are fundamental to organic agriculture and the sustainable use of the natural resources:

From Suresh's experience, it can be seen that a diverse soil biodiversity is a powerful tool for organic agriculture and can substitute external inputs almost entirely. As Suresh demonstrates, individual farmers are clearly an important source of innovation and should be supported in their experimentation and in the diffusion of their successes. Furthermore, farmers should be encouraged not to stop experimenting once they have achieved one result, but should continue striving to improve their farming systems in the face of an ever-changing agro-ecosystem.

As the soil began working for Suresh, this cut down on labour demands by an estimated 30 percent.


Farming with weeds, Mohanpur, Uttar Pradesh, India


Shoor Vir Singh, a farmer from Chanda Nagli, a village near Mohanpur in Uttar Pradesh, North India, carefully conserves the seeds of the 95 different weeds that grow in his farm! One is sure to remark that these must be seeds of medicinal pants and that the mainstay of his farm would be to grow medicinal herbs for use in Ayurvedic preparations. Certainly some of the weeds are used by the local health physicians but that is not his main reason for preserving them.

On his 3.6 hectare farm, Shoor Vir grows rice, wheat, pulses and oilseeds, vegetables and sugar cane, just like many of his neighbours, but he grows his crops in a very different way. The presence of weeds has helped him to heal his soil and make it increasingly fertile. His weeds have further spared his crops from pests and diseases.

Since 1983, Shoor Vir Singh had been observing the very negative impact modern farming and the chemicals it uses had on his fields and on his own life. Therefore he set aside a 0.1 ha plot where he started practising farming without using synthetic chemicals. The results were not always good but encouraging enough and Shoor Vir knew that, as a beginner, he would have to learn and improve his methods. But in 1985 he came to hear about the Natural Farming method of the Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukuoka, through his brother, a lecturer at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi.

Shoor Vir Singh carefully conserves the seeds of the 95 different weeds that grow in his farm!

He learnt that Natural Farming is based on the following four principles:

Shoor Vir decided to try out this method on his experimental plot, where he had grown crops organically for the last 2.5 years.

The first trials with natural farming

After the harvest of the summer crop of 1985, Shoor Vir lightly ploughed his organic plot. He refrained from all further cultivation and broadcast peas and mustard seeds. He covered them with straw and the residues from the previous summer crop. When in April 1986 the crops were harvested, Shoor Vir was pleasantly surprised to reap a very good yield of peas, while the mustard had fared badly. This suggested to him that in natural farming, crop combinations have to be carefully examined so that there is no interference of one crop with the other.

Yields of peas and mustard in natural and conventional farming, Mohanpur, 1986


Natural Farming

Conventional Farming


1125 kg/hectare

625-750 kg/hectare


200 kg/hectare

(figures not available)

This result encouraged Shoor Vir and in the summer and winter season of 1986-1987 he tried out many combinations of crops with this no-tillage system. The results were mixed, some crops did very poorly but others like lentils and mustard did much better than in conventional farming.

From these initial trials Shoor Vir gathered several interesting observations:

Since the soil was not ploughed or in any other way disturbed, the root system of several plants was able to survive the dry season.

Further experiments

After this initial period of random trials, Shoor Vir, with the assistance of his brother and other friends, expanded his experimental plot to 1.2 hectare under this natural farming system. This time, a well-conceived and detailed plan for experimentation was designed. Rice, blackgram, pearl millet, little millet, sunnhemp were chosen as the main crops while pigeon pea, sorghum and greengram were selected as side crops.

Because of the various crop combinations used, the results of these elaborate experiments are difficult to evaluate. For instance the yield of rice was 1 500 kg per hectare whereas other farmers obtained 3 750 kg. The difference is that in Shoor Vir's fields many other crops were grown together with the rice. The harvest of these other crops was often also below the yields of "pure stands" in the neighbouring fields, but all together the results were positive and financially sound.

However after four years of no-tillage some noxious grass (seru) was noticed to be choking the fields. The underground rhizomes proved to be a particularly insurmountable obstacle impeding the further growth of crops and Shoor Vir had to resort to ploughing again.

Poorak Kheti

Based on his years of experience, Shoor Vir developed his own farming system, which he calls "Poorak Kheti" or "complementary agriculture". In nature, says Shoor Vir, all plants and trees and living organisms are complementary to each other resulting in environmental balance. It is our limited understanding of the qualities of living organisms that makes us see them as harmful.

In practising Poorak Kheti, Shoor Vir depends on minimum tillage and optimal recycling of crop residues. He harnesses the termites to turn over the organic matter in a very short time. Further soil fertility is developed with the help of weeds specially selected for that purpose. The identification of such weeds is based on years of detailed observations (which weeds are to be protected and which ones must be controlled). For instance, he found that weeds and grasses like baru (Sorghum halepense), doob (Cynodon dactylon), tipatiya and motha (Cyperus rotundus) grow very well together with sugar cane.

Through the course of his research he arrived at certain guiding principles in identifying good crop combinations - mutual support, spacing and shading, irrigation water requirement.

Further soil fertility is developed with the help of weeds specially selected for that purpose.

He uses combinations of sorghum, pearl millet, little millet, black gram, green gram and cotton to maintain a balance in his fields. These plants maintain the equilibrium in the soil and, through the recycling of all residues as mulch, on the soil as well. He grows certain deep-burrowing plants as their roots exude certain juices which help other crops and equally contribute some trace elements to the soil.

He uses irrigation water sparingly and does not grow crops in the hot summer but keeps the fields under constant weed cover. Plants growing among the weeds are usually very hardy but when pests need to be controlled, Shoor Vir Singh calls on birds for assistance (see below). Some pests are also controlled by spraying a diluted solution of jaggery which attracts the ants who feast on eggs and larvae.

Support and protective seeds

Shoor Vir has determined two important aids in his farming approach that are worth a special mention. These, he calls the "support seeds" and "protective seeds" and it was the result of careful study of different crop combinations that brought him to develop these concepts.

Support seeds

Some of the criteria of a support seed are:

As an example, if little millet is grown as the main or principle crop, small quantities of sorghum, pearl millet, and pigeon pea are sown along with it. Little millet, so he says, has only shallow roots, sorghum and pearl millet go somewhat deeper, while pigeon pea is very deep-rooted.

Improved or hybrid seeds seem not to be suited to this way of farming: much better results are obtained with local varieties but there is a big problem in still finding such indigenous seeds.

But besides shape and height of the plant or the depth of root penetration, there can be other criteria as well. For instance, if pigeon pea is the main crop, then little millet should be sown alongside. Little millet is ready for harvesting when pigeon pea is well into flowering. Shoor Vir claims that while harvesting the little millet the farmer actually helps in the pollination of the pigeon pea and better fruit setting is obtained.

Protective seeds

Shoor Vir Singh uses birds in his pest control programme. To attract the birds he plants some sorghum or pearl millet seeds in the midst of other crops and these he calls protective seeds. The birds are strongly attracted to the earheads of these plants and find ideal landing places on their stalks. But while feeding on these grains, they also chance upon the insects in the pulse, oilseed or vegetable crops. In the case of fruit or pod borers Shoor Vir throws an assortment of different seeds in the midst of the affected crop. This attracts birds that come down to relish the grains, but while doing so notice the insects and finish them off as well (as an extra non-vegetarian side dish!). Even peacocks come to his fields looking for an extra bite.

Some important observations and lessons learnt

Termites are dreaded by the farmers but Shoor Vir says that if you give them food in the form of mulch and a little cow dung, they will leave the yielding plants alone and moreover do the work of soil building for you.

Constraints and possibilities in Shoor Vir's farming system

When Shoor Vir first started with organic farming, his yields declined, but he has come a long way since his initial experiments. He says that he made many mistakes initially as any learner is bound to do, having no access to any information on the subject. But now he is confident that in the span of a single year he can take on any piece of land and "turn it organic" without any loss of productivity. His system has a great potential for diffusion to other financially poor, but natural resource-rich farmers. By observing his fields intensely and reflecting on the natural cycles and processes, Shoor Vir has turned into a philosopher. He entertains the visitors to his farm with deep insights into the sources of being, the inter-connectedness of all living things and the aim and purpose of life.

He is confident that in the span of a single year he can take on any piece of land and "turn it organic" without any loss of productivity.


Land development and revival of traditional agriculture with tribal communities in the Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu, India



The project is located in South India, in the north-western part of Tamil Nadu, not far from the city of Ooty, the Nilgiris District's capital, on the border of the States of Kerala and Karnataka. The villages covered under the project are part of the Kotagiri and Coonoor Talukas1. Land holdings are very close to the forested areas at middle elevations of 800-1 000 meters. The entire Nilgiris range rises up to a maximum of 2 600 m. The area is in the humid/semi humid tropics.


The Nilgiris is one of the most ecologically fragile areas in India. The hills are steep. Traditional forests have been depleted and are under further threat, because of the increase in large tea plantations and substantial destruction of natural vegetation, through introduction of exotic commercial tree plantations. Consequently, soil erosion is rampant. Tea and coffee plantations have replaced large parts of the original vegetation and marshes have been converted into agricultural fields. Fifty percent (30 000 ha) of the cultivated area consists of tea plantations. Conventional tea plantations make heavy use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides and reduce the water retention capacity of the soil. The remaining forests are crucial for conservation of the flora and fauna and the sustenance of water bodies, consisting of the two major rivers Bhavani and Moyar and their numerous tributaries. They irrigate large areas and generate hydropower.

The area is part of the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve, as declared under the Man and Biosphere Programme of UNESCO. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, deforestation was carried out though the illegal and select cutting of valuable species. Vast areas of grassland belonging to the indigenous pastoral communities were taken over by the Forest Department and replaced with plantations of wattle, eucalyptus and cinchona. The negative effects of slash-and-burn practices, overgrazing, fire and the development of large plantations in the lower areas have been considerable.

However there are still good tracts of the original Nilgiris forest vegetation. Here, people live in harmony with the forest and collect non-timber forest produce (NTFP) like wild nutmeg, cinnamon, sugar cane, pepper, honey and herbal plants. These deciduous forests and thorny thickets are found at elevations between 800 and 1 200 m. Rosewood is the dominant species in the wet areas, teak and sandalwood in the drier zones. But, the biodiversity of the forests is much greater: Erythrina, Dendrocalamus, Cedrella toona, Terminalia, Anogiessus latifolia, Pterocarpus marsupium grow in the wet zones and Zizyphus and Vitis and many grass varieties and herbs in the drier areas. The area is rich in fauna, too. Elephants, bison, spotted and barking deer, bears, leopards and numerous smaller animals have their habitat in the area.

Land clearing in Nilgiris

The history of change from traditional cropping to the newer commercial cash crops of tea, coffee and vegetables is interesting. In 1818, when the British entered the District, they found a "primitive population" practising slash-and-burn agriculture. In the 1820s, the British first introduced vegetables. The Badagas, in the plateau area of the Nilgiris took to the cultivation of beans, cauliflower, cabbage and carrots on a large scale. In 1897, 1 600 ha of tea was planted which by 1949 has increased to 8 900 ha. Today, tea occupies 50 percent of Nilgiris' total cropped area, significantly changing land use, destroying grasslands and marshes and replacing a mixed cultivation with the monocrop cash crop.

Coffee was also introduced to the slopes of the hills in 1838 and the zone where the hunters/gatherers lived. The Kurumbas, Irulas and Jenu Kurumbas were soon introduced to this crop, which spread within the forested lower zones. The main coffee plantations were in the Gudalur-Wynaad region but also on the slopes of Coonoor and Kotagiri Talukas. Coffee soon became an integral part of the homesteads of tribals and a popular beverage amongst them. Today, however, coffee is facing a threat from the more lucrative and hardy crop, tea.

The people

The Nilgiris District is one of the 26 districts in Tamil Nadu and is the least densely populated, with a population size of less than 1 million out of a total population of Tamil Nadu of over 60 million.

In 1991, the tribal population occupying the hills amounted to 25 000 (census of India, 1991), but may have gone up slightly since. The main hunting and gathering communities consist of: Alu Kurumbas (5 000); Irulas (6 000), Jenu Kurumbas (1 000), Betta Kurumbas (3 000) and Kasavas (1 000). They are Dravidian speaking and belong to the autochthonous Indian population. They are predominantly forest dwellers but have been gradually involved in agriculture as small cultivators. They use shifting cultivation and slash-and-burn techniques. Primarily it is a subsistence economy with some daily wage labour on the plantations. A study done by Keystone2 in 1997 among the tribal hamlets revealed that 39 percent are landless, 14 percent have less than 0.4 ha, 35 percent between 0.4 and 0.8 ha and 12 percent between 0.8 and 1.2 ha.

With the increase of tea plantations, all communities lost their usufruct rights. Life for tribal people is on the edge, many depend for survival on daily wages earned from the plantations. Interestingly, the number of women as regular workers is much higher than the number of men. The maximum weekly income, including non-timber forest products, is Rs. 200-250 per week (US$4-5). However the type of work depends on the remuneration available and the season of the year. NTFP collection starts in January/February and ends with the honey harvest in May-June. Between July and November, people in the upper plateau have no option but to seek wage labour. In other zones, where it is difficult to get work, people supplement their meagre meals with forest roots. Still, survival is difficult, with little or no reserves. In times of illness, at festivals or funerals, they depend on moneylenders who provide loans at exorbitant rates of interest, up to 120 percent per year.

In conclusion, there are two main problems: a highly fragile environment and a marginalized community of tribals.

With the increase of tea plantations, all communities lost their usufruct rights.

Village nursery

It has been Keystone's conviction that environment and people are interrelated and improvement of the environment is impossible without strong involvement of the communities. Keystone mentions as its mission: "A conscious goal to enhance the quality of life and the environment. It means: breaking new paths that are innovative, yet relevant and dealing with diverse problems and issues in an integrated manner".

The agro-ecosystem

The pre-project

In 1995, Keystone started to work with the Irulas and Kurumbas tribal communities on apiculture. The main objective was to improve their techniques of honey-gathering and processing. It was at this time that the idea to develop alternatives for growing tea-plantations emerged. The reasons were the following:

Traditional crops and coffee were introduced to increase biodiversity and to decrease the dependence of the tribals on wages.

Traditional crops and coffee were introduced to increase biodiversity and to decrease the dependence of the tribals on wages. In 1996, 7 kg of millet seeds were bought from various villages and, together with pumpkin, chilies and mustard seeds, distributed in one village as an experiment. This yielded sufficient produce to start a seed bank in the same year. In 1997, these traditional seeds were sown on 0.6 ha of land, owned by the Kurumbas in the village of Semmanarai. Many tribal families became interested as they realised the importance of food crops and vegetables, especially for babies and children. In 1998, the experiment was boosted when three other villages expressed interest in clearing their land for planting millet and vegetables. Thus 44 villagers from four villages became involved.

In Vagapanai village, after an initial failure of Keystone to increase beekeeping, new meetings were held in which earlier problems were analysed and new approaches agreed upon. In 1998, 18 families agreed to begin vegetable production and started to clear the land. This increased to the present 27, which virtually means the whole settlement. They took care of the land, built small huts on the cultivated land and moved in with their children, goats, dogs and chicken, only to go back once in a while to check their houses and buy provisions. They could therefore more easily weed and protect their fields against monkeys, wild boars, buffaloes and elephants. The first crop harvested was maize and as a festivity served to all guests. Other grains and vegetables soon followed.

Another interesting initiative by an individual Kurumba to set up a coffee nursery was taken in 1997. Approximately 4 800 saplings were grown; 350 were distributed throughout his village free of charge while the remaining 4 050 were sold. Keystone monitored the achievements and decided in 1998 to set up two more coffee nurseries in other villages and the saplings were used for planting in tribal lands. In total 9 500 saplings were raised, according to organic agricultural standards. Ecologically, coffee is a much better crop than tea, as coffee grows together with many other crops. Gradually, the idea emerged to change the livelihood of the tribals by growing food crops as well as cash crops (coffee) organically and to improve the agro-ecological environment.

Traditional agriculture was already in place. Before the advent of the British, the indigenous people of the Nilgiris, especially the Irulas, used to grow mixed crops on the hill slopes, practising slash-and-burn techniques. Even the Badagas, who were tillers of land, used to grow the same crop varieties in the plateau area. The most popular crops are listed in the table below.

Local Name

Common Name

Botanical Name


Finger millet

Eleusine corocana


Little millet

Panicum sumatrense


Italian millet

Setaria italica



Amaranthus caudatus



Brassica juncea



Capsicum frutescens

Macca Cholam


Zea mays



Curcurbita pepo



Dolichos lablab





Lycopersicum esculentium



Curcuma longa

Objectives of the project

Initially Keystone used their own internal financial resources to start the project, until outside financial assistance was available. In June 1999, with financial assistance from Inter-Cooperation, (an organization created for the purpose of dealing with Natural Resource Management by the Swiss Development Cooperation), the three-year project started.

Keystone's programme looks at land use as a whole and aims to achieve the following objectives:

The overall objective of the project is to promote a form of land use which preserves biodiversity, enhances a mix of cash and food crops and is ecologically sustainable.

Specific objectives of the project

The specific objectives of the project are:

In March 2000, at the beginning of the project, ten villages were selected covering a total of
55.25 ha and 174 families. In April 2001, the area was extended to a further six villages. In all the villages, discussions were held, the most pressing problems analysed, an implementation strategy worked out and the financial, personnel and labour-related contributions by the farmers and by Keystone decided upon. The selection of villages was made on the basis of interest shown by a viable group of farmers, the status of their land and the village linkages with other Keystone activities.

The project has three distinct features. The first is the development of traditional/organic agriculture, which involves millet and vegetable cultivation to supplement the diet. The second is the development of cash crops, including coffee and vegetables.

Harvesting Amaranthus

The third is the integration of off-farm activities as floriculture and beekeeping. Thus, the activities were:

Keystone elaborated on the advantage of using many elements of their traditional knowledge system, favouring an organic approach.


Efficient and effective management is required to obtain sustainable results in such a complicated project, using participatory approaches in combination with substantial farmer contribution. As well as the project personnel, trained tribal youth are present at the project sites to assist wherever and whenever they can and to report to the project staff about achievements, problems and wage payments. With regard to farm tools, seed storage and nursery development equipment, the project developed linkages with the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University for post-harvest techniques and with an NGO, Kudumbam, working in the same field. An example of this cooperation is the development of a small millet pearler. Although initially there was interest in growing millet, farmers were reluctant to continue because of the drudgery involved for women in de-husking it. Through constant interaction and discussion with the university and a private manufacturer, a machine to de-husk millet was developed. It has since been installed in a village and is used on the payment of a small fee, reviving interest and enthusiasm for growing millet.

Keystone also works with the Coffee Board on improved seeds and on-farm coffee trials, following organic practices. Furthermore a good working relation was developed with the Tamil Nadu Forest Department in order to seek a solution to the problem of tribal land, often insufficiently demarcated and without a clear status.

With the onset of the project the management staff proved to be sufficient, but as the project has expanded, the present capacity will not be enough and budgets are becoming constraining. Moreover, a project of three years is too short to achieve and consolidate its objectives in the areas of biodiversity conservation and food security. It is therefore hoped that after an evaluation, the donor will take appropriate steps to safeguard this project.


Traditional knowledge, mapping and biodiversity transects

After five of its six semesters, documentation of traditional knowledge, mapping of areas and biodiversity transects of the villages have been completed. A readable document still remains to be worked out.

Participation of farmers

Meetings with, and participation by farmers, have gone up considerably as interest in working on the land has increased, to the detriment of waged labouring on plantations. In 1999, the community contributed 20 percent to the costs of establishing nurseries. This percentage increased to 60 percent in 2000. In the same year the contribution to the costs of land clearing amounted to 25 percent but increased to 50 percent by 2001.

Seed banks and nurseries

Seed banks have been installed in three villages and 25 kg of seeds were distributed in 1999, rising to the present 150 kg per season. Nurseries were installed in four villages and produced over 75 000 saplings in 1999-2000. In 2000-2001, when fewer saplings were needed, three nurseries in three villages produced over 40 000 saplings.

Soil and water conservation

Training in soil and water conservation has been successful. In 1999, minor irrigation was established in four villages; live fencing and earthen check dams in one village; 644 trenches were dug and 583 m of stone fencing constructed. This drastically increased to 2 800 m of stone bunding, 178 m3 of gully plugs, 9 144 m trenches and 4 267 m of staggered trenches.

Buy-back mechanism and marketing

The buy-back mechanism has proved to be an important incentive for the farmers to remain "organic". Buy-back is guaranteed for any quantities of honey and bees wax collected. The present quantity is about 4-5 tonnes per year. The purchase price is about 50 percent higher than the local rates. The price is set at the beginning of the season, as per the custom. Honey is marketed at rates slightly lower than the market rates of companies like Dabur, (one of the largest honey companies in India). This indicates the large margin for traders. Buy-back quantities for coffee (1 ton) and pepper (700-800 kg) are more limited so far, as Keystone has not fully explored the markets in order to absorb full production. For these products a 10 percent premium is paid over the prevailing wholesale rates in the nearest market. As it is farm-gate price, no transportation costs are incurred by the farmers and thus the actual premium is higher. These products are sold in local markets at slightly higher prices than conventional products and more than 60 percent of all cash products are sold in the Nilgiris.

The buy-back mechanism has proved to be an important incentive for the farmers to remain "organic".


It is never easy to transfer new technologies, especially in a situation where old traditions and beliefs are so deeply rooted. What helped immensely was that Keystone took these traditions seriously and used them as a starting point for the improvement of their practices. However, convincing tribals to abandon their slash-and-burn technique was no simple task. It is much easier to convince them of bunding and trenching and working the soil, especially on the steeper slopes. Moreover these tribals basically belong to hunting and gathering communities and interest in agriculture was initially very low. However, the project has been successful in quite a number of villages.

Another difficulty, which is experienced in most rural projects in India, is dependence on the Government. It was not easy to convince the tribals that taking fate into their own hands would yield much better results than waiting for assistance that may not come. Once this was accomplished, farmers would make their own contributions.

During the second and third semesters, the rains were poor, leading to much lower yields than expected and limiting interest. Minor irrigation was installed in a number of villages; however it is still insufficient and must increase. Another problem was the raiding of crops by wild animals and only where the tribals guarded their crops, was this problem overcome.

The training of tribal youth for day-to-day assistance proved invaluable. As the project expands, this training has to increase. There is also a need for training of trainers in the effective application of traditional knowledge and organic agriculture. However, there are few, if any training institutions on organic agriculture systems in hill areas with tribal communities and the fact that training for tribal youths has to be in the local language is another difficulty.

Although buy-back mechanisms were not included in the project, they also proved to be indispensable to enthuse the farmers and to keep them from falling into their old habits. To be able to buy back, however, Keystone has to market the products at least without loss, in order to maintain some reserves for the inevitable risks in such ventures.

Internal control on organic production is in place, but to obtain higher retail prices in the local market or even for export, proper certification in the near future will be necessary.

Internal control on organic production is in place, but to obtain higher retail prices in the local market or even for export, proper certification in the near future will be necessary.

Village meeting

Lessons learnt


From the onset it was realised that a project with tribals, primarily interested in hunting/gathering and hardly any interest in agriculture would be a difficult task. Despite Keystone's ample experience in the area, it took more than six months to set up the project and make an actual start. It is therefore an illusion to think that such an ecosystem project with a substantial participatory element can be accomplished within three years.


No doubt, a more directive, supply-driven approach, with free physical inputs would have yielded faster and more measurable results. But experience has shown over and over again that these results are usually short-lived and disappear even before assistance stops. The chosen approach, to analyse the problems with the tribals, finding long-term solutions with them and coming to an agreement on their own contribution, obviously took a long time. But once done, it gives a stronger realization of ownership and thus sustainability gets a better chance. This does not mean that Keystone's task is finished in the villages that have been successful so far, especially if a return to the old system is to be avoided as soon as the first problems, such as poor rains, occur. Moreover, the activities and farming cycles have to be planned well in advance to keep the people's interest and to prevent the land from going fallow again.

Seed banks and nurseries

It was an excellent move to start simultaneously with the set up of village seed banks for food production and own consumption and nurseries for cash crops. Thus seeds could be sown and saplings planted as soon as clearance of fallow lands, trenching and bunding were completed. Moreover, the villagers could already observe that Keystone meant business. They could get used to the idea at an early stage that a larger variety of pulses and vegetables not only enriches the environment, but contribute to sufficient yields, especially when rains are below expectation.

Traditional knowledge

Documentation and the use of traditional knowledge has been an important strategy for further improvement. But it needs to be better analysed and put to wider use in the organic farming context. However slash-and-burn is also part of traditional knowledge, but in order to protect this fragile environment, it needed to be abandoned. The tribals had to be convinced that this technique threatens the forest and damages the soil, endangering the ecosystem in which they live and consequently their own existence.

Training and management

Training of local youth and engaging them in day-to-day monitoring and supervision worked very well. These youngsters learn to adopt useful traditional knowledge and upgrade them with organic agriculture practices. The training has to be intensified further, for which manpower and finances are needed.

Youngsters learn to adopt useful traditional knowledge and upgrade them with organic griculture practices.

Marketing and buy-back

Keystone's ability to market cash crops and off-farm products may well prove to be the litmus test of the project. Economic considerations are the most powerful in any project of change. Farmers receive a better price from Keystone, but to compensate for this, Keystone has to make sure that its handling costs are lower than other traders and/or its selling price is higher. Quite some effort has been made in this regard, but given the quantities involved, more is probably needed. This, however, requires capital and professional marketing skills, and in addition, proper organic certification will be needed in the future.


Keystone has engaged with some institutions, notably the Tamil Nadu Agriculture University and the Coffee Board for assistance in finding the best and most cost-effective solutions for pressing problems. Moreover Keystone makes use of organizations from their network, notably the NGO Kudumbam, which works in the same field. Keystone is still open for new practical ideas and advice in this regard is more than welcome.

Partnership with the community

The results so far were largely due to Keystone's partnership with the community. The communities increased their financial contribution from 25 percent to a staggering 50-60 percent. Most of the recording/documentation and all planning were carried out at village level, the community being involved from the onset.

This led to a revival of traditional crops and emphasis on organic agriculture and food security for at least six to eight months was provided. Any cash income becomes a surplus which is mostly used for children's education, medicines, house repair or construction.

The dignity of tribal people has therefore increased, they now work their own land rather than on somebody else's land and because of this partnership, the fragile ecosystem has improved and is improving further. Environment and self-interest can be inter-linked.

1Talukas are administrative subdivisions of a district.

2Keystone Foundation is an NGO in Tamil Nadu, India.

3Information on plant varieties has been obtained in discussion with community elders in Naw as well as other communities in the Valley.

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