Farmer meetings in Odisha

Our third farmer meeting was deep in the heartlands of Orissa / Odisha.  By the time the road is in the buffer zone it becomes narrow, the tarmac thins and at some point you suddenly realise you are rolling over red earth.  And the sensation is one of utter relief, like slipping out of a formal suit at the end of a long sticky meeting, the tarmac falls away and with it the tiresome constraints of town planning.  The road winds its own knowledgeable way across open grassland studded with trees, deftly avoiding dry creeks that will fill with water when it rains, doing its best not to collapse into neighbouring ditches, until it slips into the trees and the forest grows up around you. You rarely see other vehicles, we passed our chairs and tables arriving on the back of a bike.  We had picked our cook up on the way, the food was in our vehicles, kitchen help arrived, huge cooking pots in hand and a makeshift kitchen was set up.  Some 50 metres from the kitchen, chairs and tables were set up in a small clearing (we always get chairs though we hardly sit on them) and a huge tarp was laid on the floor, et voila! Fully catered workshop space!

The understory is filled with saplings, it’s not impenetrable exactly but it would be difficult to walk through, you would be scratched to pieces and in places you might need a blade to cut yourself some space, if you wanted to walk through that is, which is rather unlikely. The dappled light, the slender saplings among larger trees, the falling leaves and, in the summer, the shimmering heat combine to make it hard to focus and the jungle animals pad and slither through, rarely seen but always seeing you.  Life is stratified, no niche wasted, from the top of the trees where yellow breasted green pigeons, tree ferns and orchids perch to the forest floor where the jungle fowl cocks bustle their ladies away from the road, the forest is a busy place.

Actually the day was relatively cool, at this end of winter it is only about 28 degrees.  The smell of the forest is incredible but almost impossible to describe. I have been a few times and all I can say is that the smell of the forest wraps itself around me like a beautiful embroidered cloak, light and fragrant, infused with earth.

The farmers arrived in small groups, they were organised into groups of 6 or so people and in those groups a structured discussion was initiated.  The questions were centred around crop production, pollinator decline, ideas for restoring declining populations.  It was clear that there had been dramatic falls in some pollinator species – 95% of blue banded bees for example – 95%!  But on the other hand some government initiatives giving training in husbandry were paying off.  This area is what we are classifying as extensive farming and it’s the first place that we found crop yields going up – in all other areas crop yields had peaked and were falling.  These small groups worked much better than individual questionnaires, the conversation flows freely and there is good discussion with a consensual answer.  We turn all the answers into a set of statements which we then run by a subset of people from all the groups and see what they agree with and what they weed out.  However, in this case its wasn’t possible to have subset, people would have felt awful being left out and there was no time to break into multiple groups so we tested the statements on the whole group and they came to a consensus on all of it.

I say‘we’, the whole thing was conducted in Oriya – two languages away from me!

We finished with lunch, all of a sudden I was starving!  Huge buckets of rice, dal, vegetables and pickle arrived.  Sitting in a forest, eating pickle with my fingers, so very far away from London.

Sundarbans

Last week we went to the Sundarbans to develop a new project. The Sundarbans stretch away to the south of Kolkata. If you drive, you shoot through the wetlands that are the kidneys of the city, through sulphurous tanneries and unlikely, bustling, noisy, truck-stuffed towns strung out along a newly smooth road.  After entering the Sundarbans proper, the road splits and you could go to Canning where Lord Canning set-up shop in 1864 to populate a pristine, tiger rich wilderness and take as much as he could carry.  If the thought of this is too depressing you could always do as we did and head to Godkhali, where you can hire a boat and go and bother the wildlife. We slid up a braid of the delta in a pretty white boat with an airy hold and a beautiful shady deck with cushions and chairs.  Once again I went prepared to do battle with nature but found myself being served fantastic flavoursome Bengali food in stunning surroundings.  Sundarban means beautiful forest in Bangla, it collapses Shundor: beautiful and ban: forest.  It’s not the kind of beauty that punches you in the face, it’s the kind that creeps up on you and ties itself to your ankles, anchoring you unexpectedly.

As we motored gently along, the mangroves slid past with their 64 species, many with adventitious roots which form arches, or are sentinels or form mats in the thick sticky black mud which is studded with crimson fiddler crabs. We were, of course, hoping for tigers (like everyone) but instead we saw crocodile, spotted deer, wild boar, little spotted owls, brown-winged kingfishers, pied kingfishers, smooth coated otters and a blood-orange sunset framing fishing boats.

We were there to formulate a project to look at the impact of introducing non-native honey bees into forest areas.  A key challenge in the area is that the tigers, who to be fair did have first dibs, tend to attack people who wander in front of them.  Yet people, who are largely subsisting, need to go to the Forest to forage and often stray into the path of a tiger. It’s a recipe for disaster. WWF are working on various interventions to reduce the conflict and the CPS will be looking at the ecological consequences of these … we have come a long way in two years!

Lists!

Made a start on the ‘list’

Mammals

Axis axis                                       Spotted deer (Chital)

Pteropus giganteus                        Indian flying fox (fruit bat)

Ratufa indica                                 Indian giant squirrel

Reptiles

Psammophilus blandfordanus       Blandford’s Rock agama

Hemidactylus frenatus                  House gecko

Birds

Actitis hypoleucos                           Sandpiper

Bubulcus sp.                                  Cattle egret                                       

Chalcophaps indica                         Emerald dove

Cinnyris asiaticus                            Purple sunbird

Corvus splendens                            House crow

Dicrurus caerulescens                     White bellied drongo

Dicrurus macrocercus                     Black drongo

Gallus gallus                                  Red junglefowl                

Halcyon smyrnensis                        White-throated Kingfisher

Milvus migrans                                Black Kite

Oriolus chinensis                             Black-naped oriole                                         

Pycnonotus cafer                             Red-vented bulbul

Spilornis cheela                             Crested serpent eagle

Terpsiphone paradisi                      Paradise fly-catcher (female)

Treron bicinctus                            Orange-breasted Green Pigeon

Turdoides striata                            Jungle babbler

Butterflies

Catopsilia Pomona                          Common emmigrant

Eurema hecabe                              Grass yellow

Leptosia nina                                  Psyche

Papilio demoleus                             Common lime

Pareronia valeria                              Common wanderer

Atrophaneura aristolochiae               Common rose

Ants

Oecophylla

Crematogaster

Hymenoptera

Apis dorsata                                       Rock bee

Apis cerana                                         Asiatic honey bee                           

Xylocopa sp.                                       Carpenter bee

 

We are coming to the end of the visit now – I leave next Monday.  Today was a momentous day because we interveiwed and appointed our Centre for Pollination Studies staff.  So here is the Centre for Pollination Studies team – photo taken just after we had let  them know the good news.

Been a busy week James and I gave workshops and a seminar. 

Tomorrow back to Orissa – here is a few photos from the last visit.

Our field centre in Orissa

Lily pool

Orissa

We drove to Orissa which gave me a chance to watch the landscape change.  Rolling along with Tagore songs on the cd player and Arpon and Parthib singing.  The air was hot but heavy and soft, the rain always waiting in the wings.  Tagore was a Bengali polymath who lived at the turn of the century, and is so influential in Bengal, especially in poetry and song.  He won the Nobel prize for literature and is adored here.  His songs are divided into love, nature, devotion and patriotism (love of country rather than nationalism). I had snippets translated for me, which I am assured don’t  really represent the beauty of the original.  Another reason to learn the language, however, as I am pretty much limited to greetings, asking where things are and saying how hot it is I have a long way to go!
We crossed the agricultural plains and entered a landscape dotted with groves of trees, homesteads with pools and fields full of vegetables and fruits.  We met up with Mano, who has joined the project as field assistant in a place called Nilgiri, a kind of frontier town.  You turn off here and go deep into a land of small holdings and forest.  Mano is a kind of fixer, he arranged our lunch of dal and rice (I find that people offer me spoons less than they used to so I must be making less mess with my fingers!) and sorted out our entry permissions into the forest reserve.  On our way to Kuldiha we stopped and looked at some potential field sites for our project. India works in mysterious ways.  We were rolling along and passed a man carrying long bamboo poles.  Mano called out to him and he stops, nods assent and takes us across some small paddies to a vegetable plot, surrounded by a living fence and planted up with a number of gourds and a tomato crop.  No it wasn’t his plot but he thought the owner would be interested in our project.  So he talked about the crops for a bit, accompanied us out and went on with his poles. So for those who are following the program this would be an intermediate plot with forest nearby but with many neighbouring fields and possibly some modern agricultural practices such as pesticide application. We went to Kuldiha to drop Arpon at the field station.  This is the jungle proper and I would have absolutely loved to have spent a night there.  It’s remote with no electricity (which means no fans) but in the hour I was there I saw more wildlife than in all the rest of my trip put together.  Arpon has found 137 species of ant alone.  There are two PhD students out there and it is a tough environment to live in full time but so incredibly beautiful. The station is surrounded by an elephant trench which also keeps out a number of other beasts.  The forest floor is relatively open, the trees support orchids and tree ferns.  The black naped orioles flit through the branches, quite heavenly.
We pushed on to Chandipur where we stayed the night and met up with Pranab, our project partner in Orissa.  We had a meal in the Forest Department’s guesthouse.  We sat on their little jetty, over the Bay of Bengal, eating pakora and drinking a beer.  The electricity failed and all there was were stars.
In the morning we got up early to walk out on the strand. The sea retreats 4 km here, and turns on a 6 hour cycle.  The sea was out and we wandered over the wet sand, picking over shells and horseshoe crabs.  The fishermen were coming back in, with a poor catch of a handful of tiny fishes and crabs.  They were hunkered down on the sand untangling their net.  How do they survive? We spent the day visiting potential sites.  The area is largely tribal, arranged in villages of homesteads.  We sat down with several local famers, under their thatched eaves and courtyards.  Lots of curious children, chicken, goats and everywhere mahoa flowers and tamarind drying in the sun. I smiled a lot.  The language here is Oriya, so I am completely lost. However, thanks to the amazing partnerships we have, the project progressed and we identified several potential sites. After swinging by Kuldihar again we finished up in Panchalingeswar, a pretty village in the foothills.  At Kuldihar the heat had built up oppressively and while we were there it finally broke and the rain lashed down with hailstones the size of marbles. Although, in the morning we travelled back to Kolkata we made a trip to the local temple. As Mano’s family are very involved in temple life we had a great guide.  The site is up a hill, nestled in a grove.  There is no central building, just a scattered shrines and stalls selling devotional bits and pieces.  The sacred site of interest is a waterfall fed pool.  You lie across it and plunge your hand in to feel Shiva’s five – well they were described as ‘siblings’ –but I have since read they are linga.  They are rocky protuberances.  I had a go and was indulged by the others.  Then we had chai.  Yum.  As a final flourish we went to visit a possible building for our site office / accommodation.  Mano had casually said his uncle had a house he might rent to us and we mooched along to have a look.  The house was newly built.  It has three rooms plus bathroom and kitchen area with a rather fantastic hallway.  It has a walled garden that we can use as workshop space and fields close by that we have been told we can use as an experimental garden. Also a roof terrace which looks like the perfect place for a moth trap and also an evening snooze. A beautiful village.
Back in Kolkata James has arrived!  We are giving workshops and seminars while working on project design and planning another trip to Orissa.
Have acclimatised to the heat now.  Hope it’s not too cold at home. 30 feels just about right

Just come back from Orissa – it was really successful trip but am enconsed in preparing a workshop today. So just a few more pictures of Kolkata today and will up date with new news and photos tomorrow.

There are lots of grand villas scattered around Kolkata


This park is a five minute walk from the guesthouse.  It has a network of ponds and a swimming lake.

Bengalis are musicians and poets: Parthib singing

A Bangali version of Blowing in the Wind being sung!

Kids enjoy it too 🙂