Where Wilderness Meets the Farm: An Interview with Jungle Organics

Where Wilderness Meets the Farm: An Interview with Jungle Organics
Staff Writer
From foodtank.com, by Niyati Shah

Kaavya Varma is the founder of Jungle Organics, a soon-to-launch venture that brings environmentally sustainable products grown in the north Indian state of Uttarakhand while working to protect threatened and endangered wildlife in the region. Jungle Organics’ farms are located in some of the most remote and lightly trodden areas in the Himalayan valleys, where small subsistence farmers have been living and farming in tune with their natural surroundings for generations. These farms are also situated close to forests, allowing wild animals like tigers, leopards, and bears to roam freely through them.

The mountainous state of Uttarakhand has the largest amount of forest cover in all of India and is home to a vast array of biodiversity including endangered tigers and leopards. Jungle Organics is dedicated to helping conserve these wild species and their habitats and shed light on the critical roles that small organic farmers play in the conservation movement.

The company works with farmers who commit to practicing their traditional organic and wildlife-supportive agriculture to produce superior quality crops. Products currently include spices like turmeric, red chili pepper, and coriander. Jungle Organics is set to begin supplying within India and internationally in August of 2016.

Food Tank had the opportunity to speak with Kaavya on the new enterprise, what wildlife-friendly farming looks like, and the importance of small farmers for a healthy food system.

Food Tank (FT): What inspired Jungle Organics?

Kaavya Varma (KV): Jungle Organics is inspired by the desire to recognize farmers in India living near forests. Our endeavor is to provide livelihoods and secure incomes for small farmers that have consciously chosen to live in harmony with nature in terms of the farming practices they utilize, even if it’s at the cost of low yields. Their farms are essentially models of coexistence, as they are providing extension habitats for endangered species and threatened wildlife. Because these farms are near forests or national parks, there is constant and continued movement of leopards, tigers, bears, and various kinds of wild animals on them.

We only work with farmers that employ wildlife-friendly practices. They grow their crops in some of the most fertile soils. They have absolutely crystal clear river waters that they use for agriculture, or their farms are completely supplied by pure rain-fed waters. It is the most pristine environment from where you could be getting your food or herbal oils. We have focused on spices and herbs because they are crops that these farmers are already growing for their own daily use. And we have found that these spices and herbs have unique qualities that they absorb from the good environment that they’re being nourished by.

One of the key aspects of this venture is to make conservation easier for people to participate in. There is a lot of interest and desire in people living in urban areas in India to support conservation of tigers and leopards. But there isn’t much opportunity for people to actively participate unless they are donating to a cause or taking time out to go into the wilderness themselves. This venture brings the opportunity to them by making spices and herb oils grown on these wildlife-friendly farms easy to purchase. Our initial selection includes ground turmeric, ground red chili pepper, and ground coriander, which are spices that people consume on an everyday basis in households in India. They are bought regularly anyway, so these products would be a great way to mainstream participation in wildlife conservation.

FT: Jungle Organics products are grown on farms that harbor and protect wildlife in the Uttarakhand region of northern India. Why is the farm-jungle interdependence important to this project?

KV: Organic farming and markets are growing steadily in India because people are becoming more conscious about health. There is considerable demand for rice, lentils, and cereals that are organic. And a lot of farms come under pressure to convert to these kinds of crops, or to increase the productivity of these crops, because they get consistently sold in markets.

But when there are farms located near forests or which have wildlife, there is a possibility of increasing conflict with wild animals. For example, animals like deer, wild boar, and monkeys come onto some farms regularly to graze. As a consequence, the farmers develop adversarial attitudes towards the wildlife, creating situations where farmers may be trapping animals. This could also lead to hunting. Promoting more widespread cultivation of spices and herbs in these farms around forests is quite important. It’s about encouraging farmers to grow these crops as their primary source of livelihood, as opposed to growing them mainly for self-consumption. Deer and wild boars also tend to destroy these crops less because they generally avoid eating spices and herbs. As a consequence, there is less crop damage, and farmers have a more positive attitude towards wildlife.

Jungle Organics’ focus is on ensuring that farmers get proper values for the wildlife benefit they’re providing. It is also important to support them so that they don’t come under pressure or face insecurity, as they have to compete with other farms located away from forests. Our farmers are directly involved with documenting the wildlife that comes to the farms. They are noting down the numbers and the kinds of wildlife they regularly observe around them. This creates more awareness among local communities and makes them realize the importance of wildlife. And if they get better values for these kinds of crops, they would be enabled to continue to provide critical habitats for leopards, tigers, and all threatened species of Uttarakhand. Moreover, what is often not recognized is that the presence of tigers and leopards keeps herbivores away from farms, which is an amazing service that predators provide to the farmers.

FT: Jungle Organics only works with farmers that live in coexistence with the forest and its inhabitants. Tell us about these farmers, their way of life, and food production practices. What excites them about working on this venture?

KV: They are really small farmers, doing mostly subsistence farming. But they are certified organic. They have been maintaining the same traditional farming practices for generations. Everything on the farm is done by hand. Because they are located in very remote parts of the country, they have always been completely organic by default. Traditionally, their practices have been in harmony with their environment and have allowed wildlife to move freely and access fresh water in rivers near the farms. Due to the fact they are small farmers, they don’t have the capacity to fence their farms or build walls. When we select farms, we particularly look for farmers that don’t fence their farms since they are situated in critical corridors for wildlife. But we have found that none of these practices followed by the farmers are conscious decisions at present, even though they are extremely important and therefore need more attention if they are going to continue.

The seeds these farmers have for turmeric, coriander, and red chili pepper are from seed stock and varieties that they have preserved and maintained for at least 60 to 70 years, which means they have never purchased the seeds. Turmeric from here, for instance, has really high oil and curcumin levels, and it is locally renowned for its Ayurvedic medicinal properties. The ground products have stronger aromas, compared to the same crops coming from other organic farms located in the plains. They also have higher potency levels. Nutritional values are preserved because the seed quality has remained undiluted ensuring that flavors are enhanced.

Ninety percent of the farmers are women, who personally pick each and every crop during the harvesting process. They are the ones who patrol the farms at night in groups of five to six women making noises to drive wild animals away and reduce crop destruction. The women also form groups to do the cleaning and storing once the harvesting process is done. It’s always the farmer or the farmer’s family that is directly involved in every step.

What excites the farmers is getting more livelihood opportunities. They are interested in being part of the value addition process as well. Typically, crops are bought seasonally, and then all the packaging, cleaning, and grinding of the products takes place away from the farms and by companies who buy the products. But here, they want to be involved in the process of packaging the product, which means additional incomes for the women who do this.

There’s interest in talking about the wildlife they encounter and farmers have a sense of pride about the farming processes they follow, which have been passed down by their ancestors. They are keen to be involved as it is a new concept for them. The significance of their way of life and their world is not well understood right now and this would bring it more prominence.

FT: What are some challenges you have faced in building this business?

KV: Two key challenges have been to create local human and physical capacities in a manner that allows us to include farmers from different locations in the state. At the moment, spices are cultivated in one part and herbs in another, making the locations quite far apart.

In addition, there are a lot of areas, not just in Uttarakhand but also in other parts of the country, where there is significant overlap between small farmers and wildlife movement. Many of these farmers are cultivating really high-quality crops due to the pure environments they are living in. Eventually, we would like to look at these places as well. For example, there are farmers who are cultivating roses at high altitudes where there are snow leopards and bears in the region, and the rosewater they then provide has a unique benefit because it is supporting these species. We would like to expand and have the ability to bring these different farmers into our endeavor. There is a lot of eagerness from the side of the farmers to be a part of this, and from our side, it’s more about trying to put the appropriate processes and infrastructure into place.

FT: What is one thing you would like to see changed in the global food system? And what role can Jungle Organics play in this vision?

KV: It is important to recognize the extremely significant role that small farmers are playing and see that they can actually become our champions for wildlife conservation. It is vital to bring more support to these habitats and farms, which means that their products need to be given better values. This involves helping consumers understand that high-efficacy products are cultivated in remote wilderness regions.

We are talking about products that are going beyond organic. Widespread commitment to support by looking for such products is necessary. It’s also about creating a sense of awareness amongst people living in urban areas that they are still linked to forests and that they still have an ability to have an impact on what’s happening in these areas and what’s happening with wildlife. There is a need to bring more connectivity and more recognition of communities with farming practices that still represent the original way we used to live as a part of nature.

FT: What do you enjoy most about working on this project?

KV: I have grown up reading Jim Corbett who wrote about the special and rare relationship people living in the most remote parts of Uttarakhand had with wildlife. It’s extraordinary to discover these places still exist and that the stunning landscapes where the communities are have been preserved for generations with very little disturbance. The fact that you can have food and herbal oils that you eat or which go on your skin from farms where leopards and tigers are walking makes you feel good and realize what you are using is protecting some of the last remaining wilderness areas of India.

It’s really great to see, as well, the willingness of farmers in wanting to be a part of Jungle Organics and to commit to employing practices that are in harmony with wildlife. These are farmers who have always been in proximity to forests, making them uniquely knowledgeable about the wildlife of the region, which can make a huge difference. It is great to hear from them and get to know the level of in-depth information they have about the animals in the area, how their numbers have changed, and about the overall health of the ecosystem. 

For more information, please contact Kaavya at kaavyavarma@gmail.com.

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