Twice a year Anil Gupta goes on a journey. For a week or so, he and his followers walk from village to village in the Indian countryside. It is a pilgrimage of sorts but not a religious one. It’s the journey of the Honey Bee Network.
Honeybees fly from flower to flower. They don’t harm the plants. Instead, they perform the critical role of passing pollen between plants—making essential connections. Likewise, in his travels, Gupta (the founder of India’s Honey Bee Network) connects villagers as he seeks to find and share traditional knowledge and innovative rural inventions.
The network promotes the use of technology that is accessible to the poor, and beneficial for both communities and the environment. Honey Bee is very free in sharing the information and inventions it finds. It does, however, use intellectual property right laws to protect such findings from corporations that might try to patent the information.
When the wandering group arrives in a village, they meet with people of all ages. The elders receive gifts in recognition of knowledge they share. Children are encouraged to learn lessons from the past and to envision the future.
The Honey Bee cooks (who follow the walkers in a truck) prepare huge meals which are shared among all. At night, Gupta and his followers sleep in barns or on the floors of schools. Honey Bee promotes biodiversity. Its catalogue lists a great number of uses for indigenous plants as food, medicine and natural pesticides. In biodiversity contests, students collect samples from as many different plants as they can find. In this way, biodiversity is catalogued cheaply and quickly while the youth develop a greater awareness of their landscape.
Small businesses using native plants have sprung up in Gupta’s path. For example, one community started to produce a skin cream made from local plants; the villagers now have a source of income and are encouraged to protect native plant species.
The network also holds cooking contests using native plants as the main ingredients. The published winning recipes create a greater demand for, and pride in, native crops. These successes make it less likely that the farmers will succumb to the lure of genetically engineered cash crops (or to the pressure of agrichemical companies).
The rural technologies that Honey Bee celebrates are inexpensive and relatively easy to produce using readily available materials. Examples include a bicycle-powered water pump; a medicinal poultice made from herbs; milk sprays to control viral diseases in crops; a modified pulley that allows someone to pause and rest while raising buckets of water from wells. My favourite is the “amphibious bicycle”—a bicycle retrofitted with rubber flotation devices that allows for easy access over flooded land.
Gupta does not just admire the new technology he finds but also honours the people behind it. He’s a professor at the Institute of Management at Ahmedabad but also a student of peasants. In his view, “the Indian soul resides in the wisdom of the poor.”
The villages involved in the network develop “cultural survival strategies.” One village in northern India, for example, traditionally held many festivals during their cold winters. However, the monks decided to postpone the festivals until the summer so that they could attract tourists. But the local people were too busy working their fields in the summer to go to festivals, and tourists didn’t come to the poorly attended events. Winters became more dreary, particularly for the children. After a few years, the festivals were moved back to the winter. This provides an example of the need to protect not just plants and information, but also to protect culture from being diluted by commercial interests (by either corporations or Buddhist monks!).
When I first heard about the Honey Bee Network, I wanted to get involved. I love finding out how individuals solve common problems, whether it be the design of a milking stand, a crop rotation that contributes both to soil health and farm income, or a way of threshing beans by hand or by foot.
In Canada, we can celebrate our innovative farmers and share their techniques. We can pass the information on during farm tours and conferences. I have found that often the most valuable exchanges occur during the coffee and lunch breaks, in the informal conversations between individuals that may or may not be stimulated by the guest speaker.
The cross-pollination of ideas can also occur in the pages of this magazine. Please let me know if you have ideas to share or know of farmers you think others should hear about.
If you want to learn more about the Honey Bee Network, see www.sristi.org.