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The Source Project: really sustainable farming

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Interview with Jason Taylor
by Niels Bos

Jason Taylor, filmmaker and photographer for the The Source Project, discusses the ways in which progressive farmers in India demonstrate the sustainable agricultural techniques that can help save our planet.

Jason Taylor is the filmmaker and photographer of the Source Project, a self-funded multimedia venture that documents the methods, stories, and work of progressive farmers in India. He works primarily on agriculture-related issues and is based in Asia. 
In his work he focuses on the everyday lives of Indian farmers and captures their environments, as well as their ideas and visions on agriculture by means of vivid photographs and video footage. Niels Bos interviewed Jason Taylor for Share International.

After ten years of working as a photographer and a filmmaker in the international development sector Jason Taylor came to the realization that much of what he was involved in was little more than what he describes as "managed poverty". For him, the voice of the people he was being sent to document seemed to have far more clarity than the voice of the international development community and the terms of reference he was to work with seemed to have little in common with the reality of the field. So he decided to start a self-funded project called the Source Project and began a journey to meet some of the most progressive and enlightened farmers of India, documenting their stories about agriculture and food production in a series of films and photography.

Share International: A few years ago, you set up the Source Project. What motivated you to do so? 

Jason Taylor: I once did a project with UNDP [The United Nations Development Programme] in Sri Lanka. All of a sudden they took a shine to me and asked me to do a film on food and the future of food. In the film I wanted to pose the question: is food a human right? But when I proposed it they said they would have to come back to me on that. I was just shocked that the notion of food being an absolute human right in the world that we live in today had to be questioned, or that it had to be cleared by higher levels of the organisation. Enormous amounts of money were spent by people in air-conditioned offices making and promoting these films but they ended up doing nothing for the people living in the rural areas of Orissa, India. I've also interviewed and had discussions with many academics and economists working in development but I feel they do not understand what is truly going on. Fundamentally, I am an activist. So almost three years ago, I decided to remove myself from the international development sector and start communicating some of the many stories in a way that represented the voice of the people most affected by these development policies.

Indian farmers
The farmers, the real farmers of the world, are the source of all knowledge – knowledge of seeds, knowledge of soil, knowledge of the seasons, knowledge of our interdependence and reverence for other species, knowledge of the cyclical loop in which all comes from and returns to the earth.

SI: Could you describe the aims of the Source Project? 

JT: Most of the activism that I am interested in is environmental and to an extent social as well. Food seems to encompass everything. It is about the corporate control of our food system, the wastage of food, the erosion of soil and natural resources, as well as the control of natural resources. And it's also about farmers' right to exist and provide safe and nutritious food. It is really a huge umbrella, and food is at the centre of it.

Jason Taylor believes that the farmers, the real farmers of the world, are the source of all knowledge - knowledge of seeds, knowledge of soil, knowledge of the seasons, knowledge of our interdependence and reverence for other species, knowledge of the cyclical loop in which all comes from and returns to the earth. "It is their knowledge that I want to show to the majority of people who have become absolutely disconnected from the source of our food."     

He refers to the knowledge of people like Bhaskar Save, who he calls possibly India's most famous Gandhian organic farmer. "Bhaskar Save once made a simple experiment. He took a pot, weighed some soil, put the soil in the pot and added a seed. A month or so later he removed a gourd weighing a few kilos. He then removed the plant and reweighed the soil. It was the same as when he had planted the seed. With absolutely no inputs, nature and her elements were able to provide food from nothing - healthy, nourishing, and free food."    

Seeing this experiment Taylor raised the question: How is it possible that we have moved from a free system that enhances our environment to a costly system that destroys our environment? Natabar Sarangi, the main subject in one of the Source Project films called Natabar the Seed Farmer, believes that the answer is in the vast profits and uncontrolled markets. Before the Green Revolution, Sarangi pointed out, "a farmer was able to make around 50,000 Rupees (Rs) per hectare on an average; now even the commercial farmer can make, at best, Rs.15,000 a hectare". This 70 per cent loss to the farmer, he argued, is now being diverted as profit to the large foreign corporations that, over the years, have been able successfully to enter and control the agricultural markets. From farmers like Natabar Sarangi, Taylor learned that India was once "the mother of rice", with over 110,000 varieties of rice.

SI: What were the differences between all these varieties of rice?

JT: There were varieties of rice that were perfectly adapted to different soil and weather conditions, from drought-tolerant, saline-tolerant, and even flood-tolerant, and rice that grew in over 10 feet of water, to varieties that could be used to counter our changing climate. Since the advent of the Green Revolution, India has lost over 90 per cent of these varieties, leaving the majority of the farmers solely dependent on the government-supplied company seed. It is as Henry Kissinger has said: "Control oil and you control nations, control food and you control the people." Now, after 50 years of so-called agricultural development, we have lost seed diversity and bio-diversity, the farmers becoming poorer, soils being destroyed and nutritional value of the food decreasing. The only thing that has gone up is the profit for the transnational corporations. What a wonderful model of development we have created!

SI: The Indian Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s is generally described as an all-out attempt for India to become self-sufficient in basic food crops and for most of the farmers you've interviewed it seemed to have had a great impact on their lives and livelihoods. In your view, what exactly was the Indian Green Revolution and how exactly are its effects still felt today?

JT: It was all to do with the relationship between America and India. America was basically supporting India through huge food donations - millions of tons of corn and rice were being sent over. Indira Gandhi wanted to become independent and self-sufficient at any cost, so with the help of Swaminathan, who is known as the Father of the Green Revolution, and backed by American corporations like Monsanto, they found a system which does provide more food, but it is absolutely non-sustainable.     

When India decided to adapt to a chemical-based system of agriculture, the results were beyond anyone's expectations. I was told that in many areas, farmer's crops doubled, making Punjabi farmers some of the richest in Asia. For years, farmers made huge profits, but as they did so they became removed from their environment, they employed farm managers and turned their agriculture practices into little more than a business, inputs and outputs, remote farming. With little regulation on the sale and use of these products, Punjab became the wild west of an agrochemical and environmental war, which slowly eroded the state's natural resources and biodiversity. Amarjeet Sharma, a farmer I met in Punjab, told me that the use of chemicals brought in by the Green Revolution was like taking drugs. He said: "At first it feels good, you feel strong and in control, then slowly the drug starts to control you, then you become weak and dependent."

SI: Have you also gained insight into how the farmers' predicaments affect the daily lives of their families and communities?

JT: Everything is really becoming more and more consumer-driven and monetary. I found poor people, farmers in Maharasthra, who were spending all of their money on a pair of Nike-trainers for their sons because of how society would perceive their sons. And that was the most important thing to them, these material values. There is a film that I made called Shifting Cultures and it documents how the local Kashmiri community has changed. The children are now being educated, which is great, but they are being taught a system of monetary values, of how much you can earn. Now none of the knowledge about agriculture is being passed on to the kids because for them there's no value to farming, they don't want to farm. Farmers are seen as the lowest levels of society, they are embarrassed about it.

SI: An adequate response to purely profit-driven agriculture seems to be provided by local farmers featured in your film like Amarjeet Sharma, an organic farmer from Punjab and Natubar Sarangi, a farmer who saves and shares his indigenous seeds with local farmers. Does their approach relate to the 'agricultural philosophy' you have mentioned in your work?

JT: Yes. For a start, we have got to look after this planet. Because it is the only planet we have and it is the very thing that sustains us. Without the planet we have absolutely nothing. Contemporary agricultural practices heavily erode and destroy biodiversity, nutrition, soil and water. You have big corporations illegally dumping their chemicals; already the rivers in India are like open sewers. Punjab has five rivers, the name Punjab actually means five rivers. I've interviewed a doctor in Punjab and he said that 50 or 60 years ago you could drink from the water and the rivers were filled with fish and wildlife. Now, he said, if you took one mouthful of the water, you would be seriously ill or even die from it.

SI: But despite the dire situation, you believe all is not lost?

JT: What keeps me going on my journey are incredible farmers such as Bhaskar, Natabar, Amarjeet and many others that I have met along the way. Farmers like them around the world are beginning to reclaim their fundamental rights to a sustainable and equitable food system. They have realised that the future is not chemical and is certainly not just profit-driven. The unsurprising answer, it seems, is in the practice of natural farming, a system that is thousands of years old, which is based on the principles of working with nature rather than against it. It is a system that incorporates saving and sharing of seed, use of natural methods like worm composting and mixed cropping, organic fertilizers and pesticides and, above all, complete respect for the well-being of all that is part of our natural environment. We now know that with permaculture you can produce far more healthy food than through mono-cropping. But, this is the main problem: we currently produce twice the amount of food that we need. The problem is the lack of distribution of food, it's the wastage of food.

Nevertheless, Taylor feels that now is the time people all over the world are beginning to realize the true value of our food. He explains: "A failed industrial model may have the money behind it and even the government in many cases, but the people - the producers and consumers - are now beginning to realise that this future does not taste so good. The landscape is slowly changing but do we have the political and consumer will to support our farmers and restore all that we have lost so far?"

SI: Finally, could you share some of your hopes and plans for the future? 

JT: I believe in the Sikh philosophy of Seva: I believe strongly in serving others, and then others will serve you. My whole concept and what I am trying to do with the Source Project is to create a level of consciousness. I just want people to see things that hopefully will resonate with them and create consciousness. A lot of documentaries on food are very sensationalist, and they put people off. I am trying to stimulate a new generation of photographers and filmmakers that have a conscience. In the future, I hope to go to America to document the indigenous American Indians. I want to document their words and their philosophies and their understanding of their relationship with our environment. I want to contrast that with where we are. They talk about the trees being the bones and the soil being the flesh and the rivers being the blood of the planet. And we are destroying that, we are destroying ourselves. I want to show that, people need to see that.

For more information about the Source Project, the films and photographs please visit: www.thesourcefilm.org

source: © Share International

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