In the mountainous region of the Western Ghats in Karnataka, India, a group of women farmers is working to promote the traditional foodways and protect the vast biological diversity of the region.
Vanastree is a women-run seed saving cooperative in the Malnad region of the Western Ghats. It began in 2001 in response to the challenges posed by the expansion of chemical-based agriculture and continuous threats of climate change (Vanastree, 2018). Over the past century, population growth, continued development, and the intensification of agriculture has threatened the biodiversity and the traditional foodways of the forested region (Hance, 2011). Additionally, the mountainous region of the Western Ghats is extremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, particularly to increased instances of unpredictable monsoons (Boyle, 2016). Customarily, women are the primary caretakers of the household, stewards of the home gardens, and have exclusive control over seed management, making women particularly susceptible to these challenges (Dhakal, 2011). The project aims to build individual and community seed and food sovereignty through local level empowerment of women and the exchange of intergenerational traditional knowledge. These goals are achieved through trainings, meetings, and projects focused on home-scale food production, the preservation of native food crops and traditional foodways, and microfinance management, leadership, and self-empowerment skills.
The Western Ghats region of Karnataka state is one of the 35 recognized biological hotspots in the world (ENVIS, 2016). Historically, the mountain range was densely covered by biologically diverse forests that were home to thousands of species of flora and fauna and integral to the survival of the native people of the region (Hance, 2011). Increases in population growth, globalization, and climate change, the region has become largely fragmented, with only an estimated 10% of the forest cover remaining (Vanastree, 2018). Traditionally, home gardens have played an integral role in the prevention of deforestation, the preservation of biodiversity, and food security. Vanastree aims to preserve and spread knowledge regarding home gardens, focusing on the conservation of native food crops and saving seeds.
Vanastree translates to “Women of the Forest” in Kannada, and the organization’s philosophy is rooted in the importance of women in conservation. The founders of Vanstree state, “we believe that any biodiversity conservation plan aimed at arresting erosion must recognize the role of women as gardeners, seed savers, and sources of knowledge” (Vanastree, 2018). Through various trainings, Vanastree aims to strengthen the leadership skills of women and further the rights of women farmers. As an example, Vanastree has helped to build financial independence for many women through trainings in microfinance and the establishment of small conservation-related businesses.
Vanastree’s work is chiefly focused on seed sharing, documentation, and their extension services, which include formal trainings, networking across villages, and establishing conservation-oriented enterprises for women farmers. They have documented over 120 vegetable and 60 flower varieties across the Malnad region, have distributed over 3,000 packets of organic, open-pollinated seeds to farmers, have established twenty-two seed exchange groups, and both a decentralized and central seed bank (Vanastree, 2018).
Vanastree is one of many examples demonstrating the power of small-scale models in local ecosystems contributing to both environmental and social change.
Boyle, Grace. 2016. India’s monsoons: A change in the rain. Aljazerra. Web. Retrieved from https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2016/01/india-monsoons-change-rain-160124090758074.html
Dhakal, et al. 2010. Women’s Role in Biodiversity Management in the Himalayas. Biodiversity Management. http://lib.icimod.org/record/26868/files/c_attachment_704_5935.pdf
ENVIS Centre on Floral Diversity. 2016. Global Biodiversity Hotspots with Special Emphasis on Indian Hotspots. Hosted by the Botanical Survey of India. Web. Retrieved from http://www.bsienvis.nic.in/Database/Biodiversity-Hotspots-in-India_20500.aspx#
Hance, Jeremy. 2011. Balancing agriculture and rainforest biodiversity in India’s Western Ghats. Mongabay. Web. Retrieved from https://news.mongabay.com/2011/08/balancing-agriculture-and-rainforest-biodiversity-in-indias-western-ghats/
Vanastree. 2018. Retrieved from http://vanastree.org/
Women’s Earth Alliance. Planting Seeds of Resilience in Southern India. Retrieved from http://womensearthalliance.org/projects/seeds-of-resilience/