Friday, December 27, 2019

Bhutan, a leading example for our planet's fight for life

1st March 2017
Bhutan is well on its way to becoming the greenest nation on the planet. In his Special Report for the Ecologist, photojournalist MICHAEL BUCKLEY explores the reasons why the country's ecosystems and dazzling biodiversity remain intact - and highlights the one thing that threatens this admirable integrity...
Radical times - climate-changing times - require radical solutions. In his book, Half-Earth: Our Planet's Fight for Life, biologist Edward Wilson set forth his radical plan and argued: "The only solution to the "Sixth Extinction" is to increase the area of inviolable natural reserves to half the surface of the Earth or greater."
Wilson's solution sounds like an impossible order, but the nation of Bhutan has already achieved that goal. Bhutan claims to have just over 50 percent of its land area assigned as national parks and wildlife sanctuaries - all connected by biological corridors. And Bhutan keeps adding protected areas, with several new wetland reserves declared recently at Phobjikha and Khotokha. This vast green coverage is possible due to a combination of factors: minimal exploitation of natural resources, Royal Family patronage of parks, and a very small population in Bhutan-officially totalling 768,577 people in 2016.
Unlike the neighbouring Chinese-controlled Tibet, where nomads have been kicked out of so-called ‘national parks,' the sanctuaries in Bhutan keep ethnic groups in place. To the Far East, the Brokpa, (semi-nomadic people of Tibetan descent) live inside Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary. In Jigme Dorji National Park to the Northwest of Bhutan, Layap yak-herders live in their traditional villages.
Across the border in the North, the Tibet Autonomous Region claims to have a third of its land area devoted to national parks and sanctuaries, but these appear to be on paper only and designed to pave the way for Chinese dam-building and mining exploitation. By contrast, Bhutan's national parks and sanctuaries are monitored, patrolled and policed by rangers and there are heavy penalties imposed for hunting or for felling trees. Killing a Takin, the national animal of Bhutan, for example, could result in five to 10 years in jail, plus a hefty fine.
Arriving in Bhutan (flying into Paro) the first thing that strikes the eye is the majestic alpine forest. Travelling on main east-west highway, I rarely lost sight of forest. We're not talking small forest cover here, we're talking about massive forest cover. The scenery reminds me a lot of alpine forest in Canada - fir, spruce, and pine (without the pine beetles). Over 70 percent of Bhutan is cloaked in forest, tropical, temperate and alpine, depending on the altitude. A minimum 60 percent forest cover is enshrined in Bhutan's constitution.
Bhutan is a remarkable repository for fauna and flora of the Himalayas. The national flower, the rare blue poppy, grows at over 4,000 metres. The 5,000 known species of plants include 47 rhododendrons and 600 orchids. Over 675 species of birds inhabit Bhutan. This rich biodiversity is possible due to extreme altitude range, encompassing 7,500 metres. From a low of 97 metres at the Drangme River to a high of 7,565 metres - the summit of Gangkar Punsum, the highest unclimbed peak in the world.
Spiritual Beliefs that enhance Protection
The reason Gangkar Punsum remains unclimbed is that Bhutan has banned climbing of all of its peaks above 6,000 metres, a number of which are regarded as sacred summits and believed to host guardian deities. Having witnessed the circus that prevails at the summit of Everest in nearby Nepal, along with huge amounts of trash involved, Bhutan decided that its sacred peaks are better left untrammelled by the boots of mountaineers.
Education in Bhutan promotes enormous respect for the environment. Indeed, glowing pride in the environment is the basis for trekking and nature tourism - the country's greatest tourist draws. Spiritual beliefs that sustain environmental protection are heavily imbued in Bhutanese culture, which is a mix of traditional Bon animist belief and Tibetan Buddhism. Bon adherents, being animist, believe that guardian spirits reside in the mountains, the trees, the rivers and lakes. And that these spirits should not be disturbed by either pollution or misconduct. Offerings must be made to these spirits and deities to ensure the success of crops.
Fully Organic Nation
Due to terrain that runs great extremes of elevation, there's no place for farming or herding on an industrial scale. This is a nation of small farmers, determined to keep the likes of Monsanto, Syngenta, and GM crops out. Bhutan has become the first fully organic nation in the world. In fact, there is no multinational presence in the food line at all in Bhutan - no McDonalds, no Starbucks, no KFC. 
In the quest for food security in a changing climate, a 300-page UN report titled Wake Up Before it is Too Late (published in 2013) identifies small-scale farming using an organic system as being the sustainable way forward and not monoculture-based crops and corporate-controlled GMOs that are reliant on toxic pesticides. By this reckoning, Bhutan is a true leader for Asia. The country has also banned the import of chemical fertilisers.
Genetically-modified crops are making in-roads into Asia. Monsanto has returned to Vietnam (previously engaged in spraying the deadly defoliant Agent Orange), and is involved in the cultivation of GM corn as animal feed, operating under the name Dekalb Vietnam. In 2012, the International Rice Research Institute and Monsanto spent US$2 billion to develop a GM rice that is iron-fortified to deal with the problem of anaemia in India and Bangladesh. The resulting GM rice was found to pale in comparison with scores of traditional seeds, which naturally have a good amount of iron in them. 
In Bangladesh, a GM crop known as Golden Rice is under trial. Funded by the Gates Foundation, Golden Rice has been developed by Swiss agribusiness giant Syngenta, which has a controversial track record. Golden Rice claims to contain Vitamin A - said to cure that vitamin deficiency. Golden Rice is named after its bright saffron colour. But the Bhutanese are sticking to their staple of red rice. Those savvy about seeds and crops will tell you that local Bhutanese varieties are both hardy and resilient to climate-change factors and have good nutritional value. The owner of River Lodge in Bumthang told me he grows a special variety of potato that is not affected by potato blight. He cultivates his own strawberries, plums and apples, and makes his own jams and apple cider. Bumthang has a small factory that makes Swiss-style cheeses with milk from local cows. Nearby is a micro-brewery that makes Red Panda Beer.
Rice is ridiculously water-intensive: indeed, the most water-intensive crop on the planet. So here lies a great problem: how to get enough water to irrigate that rice. Fortunately for Bhutan, its rivers rise on its own side of the Himalayas and so farmers are not dependent on trans-boundary rivers from Tibet (as India is). Bhutan is water-blessed, not water-stressed.
Climate change has brought unwelcome water problems to Bhutan. The threat of GLOFs (Glacial Lake Outburst Floods) looms large in the northern Himalayan parts of Bhutan. In the monsoon season, flashflooding causes landslides and erosion. I saw more than my fair share of landslide activity travelling on Bhutan's main east-west road, which is undergoing widening from one lane to two lanes. Driving along this route in a 4WD vehicle, dodging landslide-prone zones (undergoing blasting by road-crews) was a real cliffhanger.
Green Dams'
There are some glaring obstacles in the path of Bhutan's clean and green vision for keeping its ecosystems intact - mainly, megadam building on Bhutan's powerful pristine rivers. These new dams are being built by Indian engineers: about 75 percent of the hydropower is slated for export to power-hungry India. Hydropower has become Bhutan's number one export.
Bhutan's government describes these as ‘green dams.' In fact, a major Bhutanese hydropower player is Druk Green Power Corporation. Putting a positive spin on things, Bhutan claims that its up-and-coming megadams are harmless river-of-the-river dams (no vast reservoirs). But when you build a pair of 1-GW-capacity dams on the same river, you cannot expect the riverine ecosystem to operate the same way ever again. This is precisely what is happening in the Punakha-Wangdi Valley, where two destructive dams are underway: 1200-MW Punasangchu I and 1020-MW Punasangchu II. Both megadams are on track for completion in 2018. Construction is advancing and a roadtrip into this valley reveals the vast scale of digging diversion tunnels, with loads of muck dumped onto the riverbanks, along with great piles of gravel and sand. Run-of-the-river dams let water through but block silt - and that means crops further downstream will not get the valuable nutrients they need. Although the Bhutanese rarely fish, the megadams will also block fish migration, which in turn, will affect communities downstream in India, in the states of Assam and West Bengal.
Ironically, hydropower output drops in the winter months, and Bhutan does not have an electrical network that is reliable enough to carry its citizens through the winter. In the freezing cold of the remote northern mountainous region, locals depend on the bucari, a wood-fired stove. The wood is culled from stands of trees set aside as ‘community forests.' Although Bhutan's population is very low, the nation has one of the highest per-capita rates of fuel-wood consumption in the world. These wood-burning stoves are adding CO2 to the atmosphere. More to the point, they are sending up black soot particles that will rain down on Bhutan's Himalayan glaciers, hastening glacial meltdown. But at least Bhutan has decided not to engage in large-scale logging to sell on to India as a source of income.
At the December 2015 climate-change conference in Paris, Bhutan pledged to be carbon-neutral. However, part of Bhutan's calculation on carbon-neutral is that it is exporting renewable energy, which can only be a reference to megadams on the rivers of Bhutan. That makes this a dubious claim. Bhutan plans to exponentially increase its export of hydropower to India by the construction of more megadam projects, targeting 10 GW of power output by 2020. And it is this which is a huge spanner in the works if Bhutan wants to keep its ecosystems intact.
Overlooking the last few paragraphs, you have to give Bhutan full credit for prioritizing ecology over economy. The Government is making a determined effort to steer away from unchecked exploitation of its natural resources. And you can only admire Bhutan for setting aside half of its land area for environmental preservation, fulfilling the vision of Edward Wilson. This is the only nation on the planet that can claim to have done so and this alone sets a shining example for other nations to follow. The survival of the planet depends on the visionary incentives that are being implemented in Bhutan.
This Author
Michael Buckley is a photojournalist and the author of Meltdown in Tibet (Macmillan, NY, 2015) and a companion digital photobook Tibet, Disrupted (Apple iBooks, 2016). He is also author of Tibet: the Bradt Guide. He is a regular contributor to the Ecologist and has travelled widely in the Himalayan region, visiting Bhutan a number of times.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Medicinal plants production adopting biodynamic agriculture practices in India

I was amazed to see an article in Biolaya webpage about my advisory work way back early 2000 in Himachal Pradesh. It was fun to involve the villagers to grow some of the most exotic medicinal herbs adopting biodynamic agricultural practices. These herbs were procured by Pukka Herbs, UK for their formulations. Thanks to Ben Heron's leadership for motivating the villagers in a remote village  Deushar near Kullu in Himachal Pradesh.

Biolaya Organic Garden

Biolaya Organic Garden

By Ben Heron
When I first arrived in Kullu in 1999 I naively assumed that the Himalayan foothills would be an organic paradise. Sadly, this was far from the truth. In fact, quite the opposite: lurking under the surface is a rather shocking cocktail of chemicals.
The extent of the problem was highlighted by the difficulty we had in finding suitable farms to grow certified organic herbs. The Kullu Valley itself is dominated by apple orchards that are heavily sprayed with chemicals (mostly fungicides and some insecticides). In our search for organic land we ended up working with farmers in some very remote areas, including the Mayar Valley in Lahaul (about as remote as it gets). But even there, at over 3000m altitude, an organic inspector still managed to find an empty herbicide tin in the irrigation channel half a kilometre above the farm. There seemed to be no escape from chemicals.
The situation wasn’t much better back at Biolaya HQ. The path from the village was often littered with a few empty fungicide packs and at certain times of year the air would be thick with the smell of chemicals from the orchards.
In many ways, being in the heart of apple-growing country, Deushar was a perfect place to create an organic research and demonstration garden. The garden was on a busy path used by every family in the village for collecting firewood and taking their cows for grazing in the forest. Nobody could avoid passing it without showing at least some curiosity about what we were doing.
The Biolaya garden consisted of about two acres of land, including a small apple orchard and different areas for growing medicinal plants, vegetables, traditional grains and tree seedlings. Although not directly related to our herb business, to us the apples, vegetables, grains and trees were equally important in the context of researching and promoting sustainable farming systems (not to mention essential for feeding ourselves fresh organic food). Our intention was to promote diverse agroecosystems in which medicinal plants were just one part.
In our first year in Deushar – for our own benefit as much as the local farmers – we arranged a series of training workshops led by Dr Thimmaiah, an expert in organic and biodynamic farming. Having had our doubts, we were surprised by the level of enthusiasm of the farmers – far greater than the discarded packets of fungicide had led us to believe. Many of them wanted to stop using chemicals – they just didn’t believe it was possible without a significant drop in yields and income.
Dr Thimmaiah’s argument, shared by many other proponents of organic farming, especially in the developing world, was that any initial drop in yield can be compensated by lower costs of inputs. And in the longer term, crops grown in healthy soil in a diverse ecosystem will eventually out-perform any monocrop grown in soil devoid of biological activity and organic matter.
This made sense to us. And if the farmers were still dubious, we were willing to put theory into practice and hope that the results would speak for themselves. So, beyond basic organic principles such as crop rotations, intercropping etc., much of our work in the garden focused on creating low-cost inputs made from locally available resources. We made giant compost heaps, liquid manures, vermiwash, cow-pat pits, panchagavya and many other concoctions, all designed to optimise crop productivity and resilience at minimal cost.
A biodynamic compost heap made during Dr Thimmaiah's training
Apart from a few cases of stubborn tomato blight and some sooty blotch on the apples, the results of our trials in Deushar were promising. It was hard to narrow down exactly which methods were having the most effect as we mixed them all together in a slightly random, unscientific manner. But the main thing was that we were able to demonstrate that most pests and diseases could be controlled without chemicals and that we were still able to get good yields.
A few of the farmers, inspired by Dr Thimmaiah’s training and the results of our trials, embraced the philosophy of using low cost inputs and replicated them on their own land. Vermicompost, in particular, was a big success. For many though (especially the more wealthy apple growers), the inputs – although cheap to make – involved too much time and effort. They were used to quick and easy solutions, and preferred the idea of buying ready-made organic inputs from the market.
At the time, ready-made organic inputs weren’t easily available. They also worked out more expensive than their chemical counterparts, which meant that the only way to maintain the same level of income would be to sell the produce at a higher price. The problem with that was that there wasn’t yet an established local market for organic produce. It also led to the question of whether to go down the route of 3rd party certification, and how to tap into (often distant) high-value markets.
We soon realised that to make a real impact, not only did we need to introduce organic practices, we also needed to explore ways of creating new markets. One option we explored was to create a Participatory Guarantee System (PGS) – a low-cost alternative to 3rd party certification based on trust and social control, and designed more for the local market. This is a concept with great potential, but was beyond the scope of a rapidly growing Biolaya.
As we became busier with other projects, we also struggled to find time to prepare all of our own inputs. We experimented with buying ready-made bio-pesticides and fungicides, hoping we might find easier solutions. Some proved to be very effective, but simply replacing chemical inputs with organic inputs just didn’t seem right. Why focus so much time and energy on trying to fix the symptoms rather than address the underlying cause?
Having experimented with many different crops, I personally felt that the main issue was not so much how to treat pests and diseases, it was more the suitability of the crops that were being grown. The most lucrative and therefore most widely grown cash crops, such as cabbages and apples, were also the most susceptible and required the most toxic treatments. The traditional crops, on the other hand, having been bred locally for centuries, were perfectly adapted to the environment and barely suffered any problems from pests and diseases. They were also far more nutritious, providing vitamin-packed leaves during the summer months and protein-filled grains for the winter. So why weren’t more people growing and eating these crops?
One of the reasons, as we found out for ourselves, is that they require a lot of hard work (especially in dehulling). And also because tastes seemed to have changed. Traditional grains such as millet, amaranth, buckwheat and chenopods are perceived by many of the locals to be ‘poor man’s food’, grown and eaten by their forefathers before they had the choice available today. People now prefer to eat flour and rice from the market – for many, the whiter it is the better. And when you can sell a kilo of apples for up to 20 rupees, you can buy a lot of flour and rice.
As a result, traditional crop varieties are dying out; nowadays they are only grown in the most remote villages where they still make up an important part of their diet. Like many of the medicinal plant species we were working with, these crops are becoming increasingly rare. But unlike wild herbs, which thrive in the absence of people, traditional grains rely on farmers to propagate their long-term survival.
For us in Deushar, unimpeded by the economic pressures of earning a living from the land, shifting our focus to more pest-resistant traditional crop varieties was an easy and logical decision. But for local farmers, especially those who have no other source of income, sacrificing any amount of income for long-term environmental (and health) benefits is less likely.
In reality, any significant shift from conventional to organic farming will require a combination of all the different strategies described above; for some farmers, creating their own low-cost inputs may be the only solution they need. Others will find ways of compensating for the higher costs of purchasing organic inputs by selling organic produce at a premium. And hopefully, any notion of traditional grains being ‘backward’ will be turned on its head as people realise their value, and production may rise again with the introduction of appropriate technology to help with post-harvest processing.
Fortunately, there is a resurgence of interest and appreciation of organic and traditional crops coming from the Indian cities, and there are a growing number of NGOs, such as Mountain Bounties and Navdanya, who are supporting farmers by buying their produce and introducing small-scale processing technologies. Hopefully this is the start of a much bigger movement to come.
As always, by looking more closely at the connections between what we eat and how our food is grown, we are reminded of the responsibility we all have to know where our food comes from, and to eat in a way that nourishes the diverse agroecosystems that every one of us is so intimately connected to.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Regenerative Agriculture in Italy, Interview in Telecolor, Italian national TV Channel

My recent interview in Italian national TV. Some of the major concerns in agriculture are; empowering farmers to be self-reliant, supporting local food production, low-cost methods for carbon sequestration and creating enabling environment to support ecological farmers are discussed. Regenerative Agriculture is becoming a buzz nowadays, however lot needs to be done to reduce the cost of production, policies to support ecological farmers and ways to transform farming into a profitable enterprise.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Webinar on Low-cost Regenerative Organic Gardening for urban enthusiasts.

Regenerative organic agriculture is getting very popular now as a system of farming to produce safe and nutritious food  and a solution to Degenerative agriculture. We all know that the current system of farming is against all the laws of nature. The food produced is laced with synthetic agrochemicals is hot healthy for any living system. In addition the techniques of modern agriculture make farmers dependant on several purchased inputs.

Farming is an extension of natural ecosystem. Humans domesticated a few plant species that were in wild and started cultivating them to meet their food, feed fibre and other needs. Regeneration is integral to farming akin to forest ecosystems. However the greed and short sighted views of  humans has reduced agriculture into a set of few chemicals and corporate control. Farmers committing suicide, family farms going bankrupt, loss of topsoil, cruelty to animals and rising incidence of diseases are some of the symptoms of the 21st century.

Though Regenerative agriculture is the solution to address the environmental damage caused by current farming system the concepts are not fully understood by many yet. In many discussion forums and events  the scope of  regenerative farming is restricted to building soil carbon for carbon sequestration to address climate change. I see regenerative agriculture as a system that empowers farmers. It's not limited to sequestering carbon by adopting  sane farming techniques. The purpose of regenerative agriculture is to produce safe and nutrient dense food through methods that regenerate the soil, seeds, waterbodies, biodiversity, ecosystem, economies and the human thought. In this process farmers need to trained to become least dependant on purchased external inputs.  A dependant system is not sustainable nor regenerative.

Please find below my recent webinar where I introduce Regenerative Organic Gardening to the urban enthusiasts.

Monday, August 5, 2019


Food is no more food. We need to be very careful while buying food.  There are many invisible contaminants in food like pesticide residues, GMO ingredients and other chemicals that are of great concern for human health and wellness. Food laced with toxic pesticides, hormones and a set of synthetic chemicals is a major health challenge in the US. According to World Health Organization (WHO) studies, ‘Pesticide residues in food   induce adverse health effects including cancer, effects on reproduction, immune or nervous systems”. One option is purchasing organic food from grocery stores or from the local farmers market.

Have you ever thought that you can grow food in your backyard garden or in pots? Many think its lot of work tilling, weeding, composting, managing pests and diseases. Hardships can be transformed into smart gardening by understanding low-cost regenerative gardening techniques that are simple, practical and economical.

Low-cost regenerative gardening is a smart way that does not involve tilling and composting every time you grow crops. At our homes every day we throw away wastes like water after washing rice and lentils, spoiled fruits, fish wastes, weeds and many other biodegradable resources. These wastes are in fact resources when utilized in a scientific way. This system uses wastes from kitchen and garden to prepare many preparations for providing nutrition to plants and also manage pests and diseases. The aim is to create self-sufficiency without being dependent on purchased inputs like compost, organic nutrient sprays and natural pesticides. You can also produce your own vegetable seeds.

Join the webinar to have an introduction to low-cost regenerative gardening. It will be followed by a day long intensive course in near future during Saturday or Sunday.

Guest Speaker:

Dr.Thimmaiah is an international expert in Regenerative Organic Agriculture. For 20 years, he has advised large scale organic agriculture projects in 10 countries. As an Advisor to the Government of Bhutan, he orchestrated the transition of the Himalayan Kingdom into 100% organic nation and carbon neutral.

He feels gardening should be a fun filled activity, all  inputs required like manures, natural pesticides, growth promoters and seeds need be produced in the garden itself and be least dependent on purchased inputs. He has designed many simple, low-cost techniques that are widely used by farmers and gardeners in several countries.

Dr. Thimmaiah holds PhD from Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi and an expert in ancient Vedic systems of farming as well. He is a Professor, lives in Iowa and advises projects in US, Europe and Asia.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Italian National TV Telecolor interview on Regenerative Organic Agriculture outreach

Last month I was interviewed by Telecolor, a national TV in Italy on my global outreach in Regenerative Organic Agriculture.

Regenerative organic agriculture is all about mimicking nature and understanding the complex functioning of nature that are happening every moment. Its about observing nature and learning from every other species around us how they all are striving for the wellbeing of the environment and their habitats. Human  beings are the only species on earth who pollutes its own food. Regenerative organic agriculture is a process of regenerating the life through life supporting systems. How we improve the health of soils, enhance the biodiversity  of life forms above and below soil, enhance the nutrient density of crops, produce all the inputs on farm by using the locally available resources. Its about freedom from the dependency on external inputs in farming, empowerment of every producer. Ancient civilizations have realized that life begets life, the synthetic chemicals cannot support life.

In addition to understanding different techniques and approaches in regenerative  agriculture there is a need to realize and appreciate the creative intelligence of nature. Modern science and the ancient wisdom of living in tune with the laws of nature has to converge for the success of regenerative farming systems.

Gaia, Telecolor TV Interview