The tragic phenomenon of farmer suicides in India is symptomatic of the damage that unchecked agricultural development has wrought, according to Delhi-based environmentalist Dr. Vandana Shiva. As explained in Shiva’s The Violence of the Green Revolution, technologies of modern agriculture, such as synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and mechanized tillage, have destroyed the biodiverse ecosystems that, in the past, guaranteed the security of a farmer’s livelihood.
Marilyn McHugh and Chris Kennedy, agricultural advocates and Shiva’s social-work collaborators, share her view: the husband-and-wife team considers the growing incidence of farmer suicides in India as the complex outcome of the unsustainable methods of modern agriculture. McHugh and Kennedy argue that there are strong connections between the soil’s compromised ability to function in modern farming systems and the larger issues plaguing Indian farmers. Accordingly, the health of the soil is a major factor in addressing the issues that lead farmers to commit suicide.
After seeing the devastated soils—and communities—in rural India’s “suicide belt” in 2010, McHugh and Kennedy created a nonprofit soil-restoration organization, The Hummingbird Project, and soon after founded the Living Soils Save Lives project. “We call the program ‘Living Soils Save Lives’ because living soils provide an alternative to the unsustainable cycle of debt and loans to purchase fertilizers, seeds and pesticides that has led to such dire outcomes for so many farmers,” explained Kennedy.
Living Soils Save Lives got its start in 2011, when The Hummingbird Project collaborated with Dr. Vandana Shiva to set up a soil biology lab and conduct farmer trainings at seed bank network Navdanya's Bija Vidyapeeth ("Earth University"), an organic farm and learning center in Dehradun, India. Over the years, The Hummingbird Project established relationships with nonprofit organizations and farmer cooperatives throughout India. Each year, McHugh and Kennedy spend several months in India facilitating multi-organizational efforts and conducting agriculture education programs, which encourage farmers to bring their own soil samples and examine them under a microscope.
The microscope is a crucial element; it allows farmers to see the life in the soil and to better understand the importance of the soil food web. “We have seen that a simple visual assessment between chemically treated soils and organic soils is a powerful educational tool,” said McHugh. Most of the farmers with whom The Hummingbird Project works have never seen soil microorganisms, and meet the opportunity with excitement: Kennedy describes “farmers [that] have collectively clapped and cheered at the site of a nematode or micro-arthropod being projected from underneath our microscope slide.”
In addition to farmer trainings, The Hummingbird Project works with local agriculturalists to design and install low-tech infrastructure for organic farms, including worm composting, rainwater harvesting, and drip irrigation systems. These systems function as models, which can be inexpensively replicated by other farmers in the village.
“We believe strongly in the ‘train the trainers’ model, and have seen that it only takes one motivated farmer to become the leader that changes how the whole village farms,” said Kennedy.
McHugh and Kennedy plan to continue these educational exercises, but also to look toward the next step in securing better livelihoods for Indian smallholder farmers. “We now have villages and farmers who have transitioned to organic farming, but they are still only able to sell this product to buyers who pay the same price regardless of how the crop was grown,” said McHugh. “So the next phase of our project focuses on developing an equitable supply chain to markets where a premium can be paid to our farmers for their organic produce.”
McHugh and Kennedy are hopeful that an equitable supply chain will provide further incentive for farmers to shift into organic practices that safeguard the productive capacities of the soil and the life within it.