Free the land to save Earth

Free the land to save Earth

Degraded tracts can be used for orchards and agro-forestry to help store more carbon in the soil. This will help mitigate the effects of climate change
 
The fire of humanity’s end has started to burn the Amazon rainforests. Our hunger for destruction of forests is older than the Roman Empire’s greed for wood or Amazonian farmers’ need for more land. In India, we are victims of rampant logging and deforestation, too. The mighty Himalayas in Himachal Pradesh are stripped for lumber and in the plains trees are chopped to make way for real estate or farmland. Badland use means degraded land of 26 million hectares (ha) while excessive use of chemicals in industrial agriculture is resulting in more fertile tracts being destroyed each day. But time is up and, “any wrong step towards Earth’s degradation by anyone, any government around the world affects each one of us.” This was made clear at the recently-concluded United Nations’ Convention to Combat Desertification Conference of Parties (UNCCD COP14) held in India.  
India tops the charts as “the most climate-affected country of the world.” This means that we may see temperatures hitting 55 °C, agriculture production failing and water wars in the next decade. We need to swerve towards healing the Earth and adopt realistic policies to address environmental degradation with a mass mitigation movement, otherwise climate change will destroy India.  And city dwellers can’t do it alone. India needs its farmers to save not just the country but perhaps, the world. And this time cultivators need help from our policy-makers too.
India is well stocked in cereals and is in fact heading towards over-production in rice and wheat, which is destabilising market prices and not allowing for farming of other crops. The culprit is the state policy of the limited scope of the Minimum Support Price (MSP) scheme.  The Government needs to extend MSP beyond wheat and rice, and given the newer challenges of water scarcity and climate chaos, we need to innovate to expand the scope of farmers’ support system. A direct way is to include more crops under MSP, but the other can be to introduce relaxations to land ceilings as advised by the Economic Survey of India. This can be strictly done for growers who are willing to devote over 80 per cent of their land to orchards, agro-forestry using ecological practices like inter-cropping, natural composting and so on. The Government needs to come out in support of cultivators who can become the vanguard of India’s climate mitigation campaign. We need a policy, which incentivises carbon sequestration by growers and Farmer Producers’ Organisations  (FPOs) using carbon credits matched by water efficiency scores.  Carbon sequestration is the process by which carbon dioxide (CO2 ) from the atmosphere is absorbed by trees, plants and crops through photosynthesis and stored as carbon in biomass such as tree trunks, branches, foliage, roots and soils.
 We don’t need all of the Indian farmland for cereal production and should promote orchards and agro-forestry, which are good for the cultivators and the Earth. As per a study conducted by the Environmental Defence Fund (EDF) in India, methane and nitrous oxide emissions from rice farms could have the same long-term warming impact as about 600 coal plants. Compare this to a research on mango orchards by ICAR-NICRA (Indian Council of Agricultural Research- National Initiative on Climate Resilient Agriculture) published in 2019. The study stated that the, “country as a whole has sequestered 285.005 million tonnes of carbon in its mango orchards. Andhra Pradesh (AP) and Telangana put together, having a maximum area under mango cultivation, sequestered 69.98 million tonnes of carbon. This is followed by Uttar Pradesh (35.58 million tonnes) Karnataka (29.57315 million tonnes), Odisha (21.07 million tonnes) and Bihar (20.09. million tonnes).”
This figure can grow if agro-ecological practices such as inter-cropping with pulses, other fruit trees, organic composting and fertilisers are used.  Most degraded land can also be used for orchards, hence adding incomes for the farmers/FPOS and helping store more carbon in the soil.
In Ladakh, Nubra Valley produced about 4,650 metric tonnes (MT) of apricot, apple, walnut, mulberry, grape and plum and sequestered 22,300 MT of carbon. The cultivation of such temperate fruits can be used for carbon sequestration and rejuvenating degraded land, cold-arid regions by improving Soil Organic Carbon (SOC) contents and bringing more prosperity to farmers.
After achieving food sovereignty, we should diversify and not only meet climate targets, by planting trees and agro-forestry, we save water, clean the air and bring higher economic returns for farmers. To free the land to heal and repair the Earth, we have to address the issue of degraded areas. The burden of cereal production has been rapacious for bio-diversity. We need to rejuvenate bio-diversity of the hinterland, especially along the Gangetic plains and river plains of the south with trees. Let the bigger farmers grow forests, so the small and medium cultivators can grow cereals, lentils and oilseeds. Once the bigger farmers shift out of cereal production, small growers can get better prices for their produce through the Government and grain traders. FPOs can play a very big role in this.
Take for example Lucknow or Kanpur, both of which are high on the air pollution index. The State Government can identify clusters of degraded or wastelands and convert them exclusively into agro-forests or mixed orchards. If a cluster decides to use agro-ecological methods of farming, it should be incentivised by allowing each individual farmer to own more than the prescribed limit in the Land Ceiling Act of UP.
Instead of the Government bearing all burden of degraded land restoration, through policy decisions facilitate farmers/FPOs to buy it. The Government can assist by providing region-wise bio-diversity-based plans. Inter-cropping, natural composting, organic farming should be encouraged within the orchards and agro-forests.   
Farmers/FPOs should be exempted from the Land Ceiling Act if they purchase degraded land and bring 90 per cent of it under tree cover/orchards based on local biodiversity in the next two or three years. This should be over and above the land ceiling limits within State laws. This would ensure that the project is economically viable and reduces the pressure on the land and the Government. State laws can be amended to include this new category of farmlands and a limit should be imposed to ensure that they stay under tree cover for the next 60 years.
 The next step would be to create a national kisan carbon credit programme, linking it to the global carbon credit system. Then FPOs/clusters can earn carbon credits for the country. This will also encourage developed nations and progressive states like California to make an investment into rural communities directly. Global companies too could buy carbon credits to reduce their emissions. The farmers will earn more and we clean the air of surrounding cities while earning investments straight into rural and semi-rural India.
If land ceilings are relaxed for renewable energy projects, why not for climate mitigation through bio-diversity?  Indian farmers, much like the solar industrialists, are fighting climate change; they only differ in their approach. One uses shiny solar panels while the cultivators are armed with their saplings and seeds. They should be given every opportunity to contribute to India’s climate mitigation because the threat is very real and affects the farmers and rural India more. We need integration of old wisdom and new farming technologies.
The size of the land-holding is too small and is ever-shrinking, while the degradation and depletion of land fertility are at an all-time high. We have to free the land and free the farmers to help restore the ecosystem.  Days of bullock carts are long gone, we need to embrace technology and steer it for the protection of the Earth and our nation.
We need to embrace new science and the forest together, to save our civilisation from the negative effects of climate change. Reconnect with the Earth and act now unitedly for the benefit of our Vasudeva kutumbakam (global family) or else as best articulated by James Baldwin, “Instead of ending the world with water, God will end it with fire next time.”
(The writer is Programme Director for Policy and Outreach at the National Seed Association of India)
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