In a place where population growth is moving incredibly fast, added pressure on farmers in India in the wake of crushing debt and failed crops calls for a new agricultural approach. Genetic modification and organic farming present promising solutions. Young Explorer Andrew Flachs will investigate the effect of both growing strategies by interviewing farmers in Southern India.
“You’ve got to learn”, my research assistant Arun told me a few weeks into the project, “everything here works on sentiment”. It has taken me a while to realize what he meant by this, but he’s right. Hourly buses and trains can be hours late and power cuts stop night-time work, but your friends don’t fail you.
Anyone who works in foreign countries learns very quickly that work and a social life both come easier with the support of local organizations. Even though I am neither a teacher nor a conservation botanist, one of the perks of being a Young Explorer is the opportunity to, well, explore projects outside of my own research.
Recently, I left the small villages of Telangana to travel to the highly-developed city of Bangalore and meet the amazing researchers of ATREE. The people here work on projects all over the world, but they have allowed me to come and deposit voucher specimens in their herbarium, an archive for plants.
My vouchers serve two purposes: proof that the plants farmers claim to have in their fields are the same plants I think they are, and a means of translating common names in Telugu into Latin names, a language that can be understood by scientists all over the world.
However, this is also a chance to learn how my own style of research works in other countries. Later, over tea and Bangalore’s famous coffee, I learn about conservation projects in the Himalayas, efforts to help fishers and rice farmers manage wetlands, and console first year graduate students, saying that social theory papers are hard to read even for native English speakers.
Back in the village, I spend two days a week volunteering with the Rural Development Foundation, a social organization that provides heavily subsidized meals and English-language education for village kids. The school also provides them with cameras and a chance to introduce themselves to the wider world through a photoblog.
The results can be staggering, and speak to the value that these parents place on giving their children a bright future – often during interviews with illiterate farmers, their children will quickly pass through the house on their way to university programs in mechanical engineering or pharmacy.
When my project stalls, the teachers invite me to their own fields and help me ask the right questions; when I walk through the villages, the students race up to me and offer to help me find their randomly selected parents (in exchange for a photograph); when I dropped my wallet on the bus, a farmer that I had interviewed recognized my photo from the driver’s license and returned with a smile, refusing any reward.
This is the attitude of people who are used to unreliable infrastructure, who are instead teaching me to rely on a growing network of annas and akkas (everyone is referred to as big brother or big sister). This is the sentiment that keeps work like mine up and running.