Week 8: Navdanya

July 31st, 2012

Megan McElhaney ’13: Cornell International Fellow in Sustainable Agriculture

As I pause to write this blog post and look out at the Himalayan foothills, cloudy with another round of rain, I suddenly wake up to how much I appreciate where I am and what I’m doing.  I feel comfortable here, and novelty has faded to normalcy for many things, so I am embarrassed to admit how often I forget how extraordinary this experience is.  But tonight, I don’t forget.  In fact I am quite overwhelmed by gratefulness.

I am in India.  I am living in a paradise disguised as a farm.  I am interning for an organization that I passionately support and respect.  I helped create a food forest.  I lived almost entirely sustainably for two months.  I met people who inspired and challenged me.  And to say that I learned “so much” would be a ridiculous understatement.  In fact, I think my brain may be at holding capacity for new information and needs to process some of it before I learn anything else!

Moments like this serve as a reality check for those times when I can’t stop itching my mosquito/bedbug bites, when I complain about eating the same meal for lunch and dinner for two months, or when I get annoyed by being woken up every morning at 4 am by the mosque prayers over loud speakers.  (Seriously though, the entire hillside is not Muslim, so if they could turn the volume down just a tad…that would be fantastic.)

This week, I worked a bit on the agroforestry project, planting more sweet potatoes, weeding minimally, and digging pits for fruit trees which I was not allowed to help plant.  Dr. Ravat just didn’t seem to want me to help.  It was odd.  Now that the food forest project is pretty much finished, I think I’m going to help with another program called Seeds of Hope. It’s a school program that works with schools to upkeep gardens and do lessons about healthy eating and waste management, etc.  I think I might do a mural project at one of the schools in the next week or so.

I can’t believe my internship is almost over!  I know it’s cliche, but time passes so strangely in the summer.  Simultaneously slow and fast.

Until next time,


Week 7: Navdanya

July 24th, 2012

Megan McElhaney ’13: Kepler International Fellow in Sustainable Agriculture

What do you get when you cross unbearable humidity with torrential downpours?  A lot of reading.

I’ve worked more on the agroforestry project this week, planting sweet potato cuttings and chopping down the bushes in another plot.  The tool I used to clear the area was a heavy curved blade that you swing back and forth like a golf club.  It’s pretty effective but quick to give you blisters.  The cleared space needs to be planted with vegetables, but we’ve been working on digging pits for planting fruit trees.  It’s hard to catch a good time to work because it’s incredibly hot when it’s not raining buckets.

Since the rice transplanting is finished, the farm is pretty quiet besides working in the seed bank, sorting and cleaning seeds.  Another intern and I painted designs on the dorm walls, so there are now geckos and peacocks decorating the rooms.  I have also been able to read a great deal, which is such a blessing since I rarely make time to read anything but classwork during the school year.  I’ve been reading The Post-Corporate World by David Korten, Staying Alive: Women, Ecology, and Survival in India by Vandana Shiva, and Freedom at Midnight by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre.  I’ve also been trying to work on my environmental studies capstone paper on gender and agroforestry in India, but it’s proving difficult because internet access is mostly unavailable.

Some of the staff has agreed to give lectures for the interns, so it’s been interesting to hear from these very busy experts in their fields.  So far, a climatologist and a medicinal plant scientist have spoken to us.

Until next time!

Week 6: Navdanya

July 17th, 2012

Megan McElhaney ’13: Kepler International Fellow in Sustainable Agriculture

In the 1970s, a group of rural Indian women banded together to stand up against commercial logging companies and to combat the Forest Department’s policies which excluded villagers from the forests that provided their livelihoods.  Calling themselves the Chipko movement, these women organized forest patrols throughout Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh and protected the trees by hugging them if logging companies attempted to cut them down.

Women of the Chipko movement protecting forest edges

Sunderlal Bahuguna Jii, an environmental activist, contributed to the movement by walking 5000 km across the Himalayas, spreading the word about the Chipko women and inspiring one village after another to protect their forests.  Through his and the village women’s efforts, the rapid deforestation of the area was halted and a fifteen-year ban on felling green trees was put in place.  This week, I had the privilege to meet Sunderlal Bahuguna.  Nine interns crammed into a vikram (one of India’s variety of cheap transportation options) and set off to visit the 85 year old Green Gandhi, as he is called.  While we drove towards the community of environmental thinkers he has built as his home and headquarters, the landscape shifted gradually from trash filled villages to lush farmland to jungle oasis.  The forest surrounding his land is so healthy that it supports tigers.  After a winding journey down into a valley, Sunderlal Bahuguna Jii and his tiny little wife greeted us with rhododendron juice and cookies and spent a couple of hours talking with us about the environmental and economic future of India and the world.  His take-home message was that we needed to seek austerity, alternatives (in regards to energy and economics), and afforestation.

Earlier in the week, I took a trip to the Forestry Research Institute in Dehradun.  It is the second largest forestry institute in the world, and it is breath-taking.  Tucked away in what seems to be the only quiet corner of the city, FRI is a university for learning anything and everything related to forests.  All of the classrooms, labs, dorms, and professor’s homes are in and among the trees of a forest and are connected by bike paths.  The central building is mostly open corridors and courtyards with quirky trees in their centers.  This building houses six museums, all of which I visited (for a grand total of 30 cents).  It was a very enjoyable and educational trip.

The agroforestry project at Bija Vidyapeeth is about halfway finished.  We’ve planted millets, melons, maize, beans, gourds, trees for mulch, leguminous trees, and fruit trees in the amla plot, and we still need to plant sweet potato cuttings.  There is another site on the property that needs some bushes cleared in order to do similar plantings.  The more I learn about agroforestry, the more interested I become.  I know it’s not some sort of grand solution to feed humanity, but I find the principles behind it—minimal manipulation, high diversity, self-sustaining systems, conservation—to be very satisfying.


Week 5: Navdanya

July 10th, 2012

Megan McElhaney ’13: Kepler International Fellow in Sustainable Agriculture

The mango festival was this Sunday.  All operations were put on hold for this fundraising event, as guests came to experience the farm and the wonderful mango meal from Bija Vidyapeeth’s orchards.  Besides the many Indian dishes prepared, interns were asked to do cooking demonstrations on how to make dishes that use mangoes in recipes from our home countries.  There were mango spring rolls, mango salsa in tortillas, and mango samosas.  Someone asked me to make mango pies, but I opted to do mango cobbler instead because pie crust sounded fussy.  It was very well received.  Indians have a serious sweet tooth!

Now that things have settled after the festival, we are transplanting rice seedlings from their nursery plots to the rice paddies.  This involves squatting and plucking trillions of tiny rice plants, two or three at a time, then bundling them with twine and replanting them a couple of days later.  It’s tedious but actually quite fun with all the singing and language-barrier-defying banter that goes on to pass the time.

I want to know how Indian people squat for so long!?  It’s incredible—I really don’t believe it.  Either I am missing some essential muscle or tendon that allows one to squat for hours, or they are sitting down while I’m not looking.  If I squat for five minutes, my ankles fall asleep and my calves seem to be on fire with painful twitching, so I end up squatting towards one leg to give the other a break, which only intensifies the pain in the weight-bearing one.  After switching back and forth a few times, I stand up with a grunt of agony and defeat.  Blood rushes through my knees again, and I resolve to give it up and sit down.  Sheela Didi laughs and points at my swamp bottom as I sit in the mud, but it can’t be helped!

The food forest is finally underway, especially since Dr. Rawat has returned from Rajasthan.  I am, however, a bit frustrated with how often internet is not available because apparently monsoon season can mean no internet connection.  It seems that every time I want to work on research, it’s not possible.

Until next time!

Week 4: Navdanya

July 4th, 2012

Rice field awaiting transplanting.  We can finally see the mountains now that some rain has cleared the air.

Megan McElhaney ’13: Kepler International Fellow in Sustainable Agriculture

I think that to properly write about this week, I would have to sit and write for at least the next two weeks to get it all down.  It’s not that the week was incredibly eventful, just that it was incredibly eye-opening.  We interns are updating an electronic seed database, preparing for the mango festival, working on our individual projects, and taking day trips while the farm is not so busy.  Trips to Delhi, Dehradun, a staff woman’s home, and a Hindu pilgrimage site, as well as conversations with other interns and staff members have taught me so much.  The more I learn, the more I realize how little I know.

Indian history, US politics, the globalization of education practices, a bit of Hindu temple etiquette, Garhwali dance, French cooking, climate change, trying to come to terms with privilege, always more and more politics, the effect of environmental degradation on poverty, a crash course in Gandhian philosophy, how to book a train ticket (it’s harder than it sounds, okay?), the extent of violence against women,  and of course GMOs, patents on life forms, and chemical agriculture.  That’s just the tip of the iceberg, and the word “grateful” just doesn’t cover how I feel towards the Cornell Fellows program, for the opportunity to be here and expose myself to so many new ideas and issues.

I mentioned in my last post that I was going to Delhi to meet with the coordinator of Fibres of Freedom, a woman from Southern India named Lata.  In typical Indian fashion, there was no time set up to meet her, and no one at the office knew I was coming.  Someone pulled Lata out of a meeting, despite my desperately begging them not to.  She was so sweet and passionate and informative.  We talked for quite a while about the business end of the project before she informed me that apparently Fibres of Freedom is ready to grow, but it’s struggling to do so because it can’t seem to grow its supply of organic cotton.  The farmers they’re working with are hesitant to go organic, even though Navdanya is supplying the seeds and training and promising to buy at a premium price.  Lata said that she thinks they are planning to switch to soybeans, and that’s why they don’t want to commit to cotton.  Cotton failures have been prevalent in the region that Fibres of Freedom is targeting, often because of unexpected failures of Bt cotton, so farmers might be looking for a change.  Eventually, she told me that what she really needed was a Marathi speaker to spend time with the farmers to gain their trust and talk with them about the benefits of organic farming no matter what crop they choose.  Without that, Fibres of Freedom has nowhere to go right now.

Therefore, I’ve returned to my forestry project.  Everything for the agroforestry plot is ready to begin, as soon as it gets good and rainy.  Also, as part of my research, it’s been recommended that I visit India’s Forestry Institute, which is only about 45 minutes away by bus.  There, I can hopefully interview some people from different departments at the Institute to gather their ideas about “sustainable” forestry and visit a couple of the several museums on the campus with exhibits about India’s past, present, and future forestry methods.


Week 3: Navdanya

June 26th, 2012

Megan McElhaney ’13: Kepler International Fellow in Sustainable Agriculture

What a crazy week.  Everything is so different than it was one week ago.  First of all, the rains came!  Monsoons haven’t actually hit, but after 8 months of no rain, during the hottest summer in 110 years, even a couple of showers make a big difference.  The rain was actually dirty from all the dust and pollution.  But I don’t care.  It was cool and refreshing and so welcome.

Photos compliments of photographer-extraordinaire, Archibald Neyvoz.

Second of all, I finally got sick.  Ever since the beginning of last week, someone asked me nearly every day, “How long have you been here?  …And you haven’t gotten sick yet?  Just wait.”  Apparently it’s a rite of passage.  At some point when you get to India, your body just can’t keep up with all the new foods and germs and varieties of blood-sucking insects.  Well, I was convinced that I was going to be the one that got away, but I was very wrong.  It’s been many days in bed for me.  I am very grateful to my roommate who took such good care of me this week.

Third! My project has changed.  I know, I know.  Anyone who’s kept up with my project developments must think I’m seriously unable to keep commitments, but this project is so very perfect, so made for me, that I must switch one final time.  I promise.  Diverse Women for Diversity, the subgroup of Navdanya that I originally came to work with has launched a campaign called Fibres of Freedom.  Fibres of Freedom distributes free native varieties of cotton seed and guidance on organic farming to non-organic cotton farmers; supports local weaving, embroidery, and vegetable dying through an online store; and creates “gardens of hope” to help support widows of cotton farmers lost in India’s farmer suicide crisis.  I emailed Dr. Shiva about my interest, and she recommended I meet with the coordinator of Fibres of Freedom in Delhi.  Now that I’m mostly healthy, I’m traveling to Delhi tomorrow.  I will still be doing all my regular intern type jobs on the farm, and probably still helping with the agroforestry a bit, but I will also be working on a project for Fibres of Freedom.  I’m overwhelmingly excited about this because it really combines environmental studies and art. Woohoo!

This campaign is so important because non-organic cotton covers 5% of India’s cultivable land, uses 54% of all pesticides used in the country, and has been widely connected to the farmer suicide crisis.  Monsanto’s Bt cotton is forcing thousands of farm families into debt because both pesticide prices and insect resistance to those pesticides are on the rise.  The social and environmental consequences of the cotton industry are huge.  But, from what I understand, organic cotton isn’t so great either because it’s a very water-intensive crop, so maybe we should be talking about the potential for alternatives to cotton, or perhaps Indian monsoons are just right for it.  I have so many questions for my trip to meet the coordinator and for the rest of the summer.  As always, I wish time would go more slowly.

Delhi, here I come!  Belly, please behave!

Week 2: Navdanya

June 19th, 2012

Megan McElhaney ’13, Kepler International Fellow in Sustainable Agriculture

This afternoon, a huge ant bit me and ran off with a chunk of my foot the size of an M&M.  Eh, it’s India.  Yesterday, four interns and I crammed into the cab of a passing truck for a free ride to a Hindu temple built inside a tree.  Eh, it’s India.  The day before, it was so unbearably hot that the only thing I accomplished was washing my clothes and researching—which in this case means sleeping.  Eh, it’s India.  A cow was born.  A rat chewed through the power chord of the library’s only computer.  Vandana Shiva made an appearance at the farm.  A Muslim temple down the road had some sort of drumming extravaganza late into the night. Eh, it’s India.

I can’t believe I’ve been here a week already.  The days slip together.  The nights are too short.  The heat never stops.  We interns have been reassured that the monsoons and cooler temperatures (and mosquitoes) are on their way.  Despite the weather, I work all morning with a seed keeper named Sheela.  We are working on cleaning and drying all of Bija Vidyapeeth’s varieties of seeds in the sun so they don’t get moldy in storage.  It’s not difficult work, but with 600 varieties of rice alone, it’s very slow going. Sheela Didi is quite the character, and I’ve learned a lot from her about seed keeping considering the language barrier.

Language is wonderfully complicated here at Bija Vidyapeeth.  The interns include: five native English speakers, five French, one Japanese, one Italian, one Bengali, and one Hindi.  We all get along fine in English, but speaking to some of the staff requires venturing into the world of Hindi, where “yesterday” and “tomorrow” are the same word and everyone is called by some specific form of “brother” or “sister.”  I now respond to “bahan” (little sister) more than to my name.

Luckily, my mentor, Dr. Rawat, speaks English.  As soon as the rains come, I will be working with him on an agroforestry project, diversifying a plot that is mostly amla trees.  This will create an example of how to utilize forested land for something other than timber.  We will be planting and tending different types of trees, leguminous creeping plants, and food crops, as well as analyzing the soil quality of the plot over time.  Dr. Rawat has been kindly teaching me more about tree diversity.  In the afternoon, we walk the grounds, and he hurriedly lists the trees as we pass, pronouncing their scientific names in an accent that is nearly impossible to decipher and telling me some of their most important uses.  It’s amazing how many different types of trees there are and what they can be used for!  I have been told by staff members that I am very lucky to have so much of his time, and I really appreciate his expertise.

Well, that’s all for now.  May you be forever grateful for cold water and toilet paper!

P.S.  It occurs to me that I never actually described where I am.  My fellowship is with Navdanya, an amazing organization founded by Dr. Vandana Shiva, who I like to call an environmental warrior-saint.  The organization does so much good work related to sustainable agriculture, food security, biodiversity, women empowerment, etc.  You should check out their website!  Bija Vidyapeeth is Navdanya’s headquarters of sorts; it also serves as a biodiversity preservation farm and university.

Week 1: Navdanya–New Delhi, India

June 11th, 2012

Megan McElhaney ’13, Kepler International Fellow in Sustainable Agriculture

Today was, hands down, the single most difficult day of my life. But it was probably the single most amazing day as well. I spent it navigating the beautiful, filthy maze of Delhi with a 3 ton backpack in 108 degrees. (Three tons is an exaggeration and 108 degrees is not.) Also, all of those people who told me that most Indians speak English were very misinformed. Either that, or I was just running into all the non-English speaking ones.

With the help of my very tiny repertoire of Hindi and lots of gesturing, I managed to take a taxi, subway, bus, and rickshaw today in order to get to the Navdanya office, the bus depot, Dehradun, and finally Bija Vidyapeeth. I am terrible about getting lost, so I attribute this success to nothing short of a miracle.  Actually, it was less a miracle than the kindness of strangers. So many smiling, patient Indians. I would have never made it without them. From the henna-ed old women who kept shaking her head at me saying, “bacchi,” (child) who I had to assure that I am 21 years old and was going to be fine, to the man on the subway who insisted I take his seat because my pack looked heavy,  to the rickshaw driver who laughed with me at how “bahut safed” (very white) I was when I put on sunscreen, to the man who sneakily charged me half-price at an internet cafe because I just needed to look up directions.  (Okay, I did get very lost once.)  I was helped along all day. Yes, there were moments when I wanted to lie down on the rubbled sidewalk and cry and hope someone would scoop me up and fly me back to Cleveland—these moments were mostly dehydration induced—but all of the other moments were invaluable moments of trust and adventure and excitement.

And then there’s Bija Vidyapeeth, where I’ll be interning.  I’ve been here only four hours, and I’m already falling madly in love with this place and the people here.  More to come on Bija Vidyapeeth when I’m not so tired, but it does look as though my project will fall into place rather nicely.  Apparently, Navdanya wants someone to develop an agroforestry space on the property, and I’m highly interested in this because of its connection to women’s roles in the environment, as India has had a long history of women foragers. What a lovely project!  Alright, I’m swooning, and it’s time for sleep.  Namaskar!


  • About
  • Fellows
  • Archives
  • Admin