We arrived in Agatarla with the first shower of rain since October, the temperature plummeted to 31 and it felt almost cool as we crossed the tarmac. In Bengal they say that when visitors arrive with rains then the rain is from the Gods. It’s a good omen. Agatarla is the capital of Tripura, a northern state, bordering Bangladesh and is itself only 5 km from the border. It is carved into the jungle, the roads in a grid pattern lined by lock-ups selling, making and fixing anything you might need. The main street, a kind of Oxford Street, is a bustling mix of modern shops and traditional market. There are a profusion of tuk tuks as well as bicycle rickshaws which ride perilously close to the huge painted lorries with ‘Blow Horn’ on the back. And everyone does. The area is a great producer of fruit and vegetables and the market is currently a cornucopia of melons, which make everything we have in England look hilariously puny. The houses tend to be bungalows, many with woven flattened bamboo walls but there is a general trend in the direction of concrete – which is more secure and lasts longer –although I expect insufferably hot. The latter can be grand, painted in bright colours, each with a small plot of tropical flowers and fruits. Grand is a theme. The railway station looks like a palace. Along the lanes, the forest scrambles to come back in.
We are staying at the state guest house, I do not have my own room, I have my own suite complete with conference area ! I don’t think I will even sit in all the chairs available. It is positively palatial, faced in pink marble, with a grand entrance and cool white marble floors throughout. We have two staff a piece looking after us and the kitchen is wonderful. I am battling my English need to tell everyone not to bother and am being appreciative of the honour that I am being given. Not that anyone can understand me and I am seriously starting Bengali lessons when I get home, I will not survive without it.
Our visit has been architected by Baharul Islam and as the days go by I can see the skill he has. We are appearing to just come across just the right sites in just the right places, all of which is, I am sure, the result of very detailed planning.
The first afternoon we visited an organic small holding of about 1 ha. The arrangement is what is called a ‘composite’ farm here and what we would probably think of as a permaculture plot. Behind the homestead is a pond for fish and irrigation (and ducks). Around and beyond are plots of various fruits and vegetables in particular a number of gourds, including our favourite ‘pointed gourd’, and brinjals (aubergine) of several types (there are a great diversity of brinjals in India), cucumber and tomatoes and others. There were also some lime trees. The farm is run by an early adopter who took up this kind of farming in the face of local opposition. But by making it work he has won over the local community and now trains other farmers and made an amazing success of his enterprise. One of the most exciting things for us is that he keeps bees. He has four hives of Apis cerana, a small honey bee indigenous to the area. His son opened the hive and showed us the queen, I have never seen anyone open a hive with so much skill and so gently, it was beautiful to watch. The hives produce about 6 litres of honey a year. The truly exciting part is still to come. When Sri Nitai Saskar started he had to hand pollinate his pointed gourd but with 4 Apis cerana hives per hectare he doesn’t need to do it all. He also felt that overall production of pollinated crops had increased by around 30%. This gives us incredible hope for our project. We were beside ourselves. But the good doesn’t end there as Nitai Saskar Is keen to be involved and has agreed to act as a training centre. He can feed up to 100 at a time.
The next day we went up to Teliamura which we had identified as a possible project area using google earth (!). We were lucky with the weather, it didn’t top 33 today and was around 29 for much of the time (I am acclimatising, put the heating on for me when I get home!). The first stop was at a site that has a certain amount of pesticide use in the rice but is also close to the forest – what we would consider within our project framework to be intermediate (not an intensive area but not in the forest and not completely pesticide free). The site grows a lot of limes, which are pollinated by the common lime butterfly (those Victorians knew what they were up to eh? ;)). I wish I could post the smell of a sweet lime, freshly picked under the tropical sun. It is a soft smell, the sharpness is almost a whisper. It’s no good – I can’t describe it, you will have to come and smell for yourself. Among the vegetation we saw a couple of dragonfly which were beautiful, one incredibly fancy (common picture wing – no photo) that it could have been a butterfly from a distance if it’s flight pattern hadn’t been so distinctively dragonfly like.
We then went to a homestead (close by) where they were growing pointed gourds and where the lady who owns the homestead has agreed to have an experimental plot for us. Basically she will look after the crop and record yield, our field assistants will record pollinators. Pointed gourds are going to be a recurring theme of my life for the next three years, they are a key crop and very dependent on pollination services. I can’t imagine what the girls giggling in the shade made of me, Indian women are so incredibly groomed, even when they are going into the field. I was in clothes I consider suitable for the field, cool and practical but ultimately pretty charmless with my big funny hat. I must look a scream to them. Although it looks productive the land stills offers a fairly meagre income and any improvement in production will improve livelihoods.
Anyway -enough for today! to be continued …..