A Public Health Stranger in the Land of Medical Care
Monday, April 12, 2010
During a recent stay in Bangalore, India, we visited a farm unlike any we had seen before. Brought there by our host, Georgekutty (known as “Kutty”), it’s about 50km and 90 minutes outside of the dusty, busy, noisy streets of Bangalore near Kolar.
The farm has no edible crops, no sowed fields, and no silos. At least not yet. What it does have is Kutty’s vision and passion, which is more than enough as it turns out. It has been his dream to develop an organic farm that would be used for educational and nutritional purposes. After many years, by which time most of us would have grabbed onto new dreams, Kutty found some land, raised the funds, and started this non-profit community venture.
To the uninitiated like me, it looks more like a rocky desert than a farm. I wondered how anything would grow in this soil. There were a few trees, bushes, bamboo, and lots of rocks and boulders. But as we walked around, Kutty showed us what I was not seeing. He showed us all the saplings and seedlings that he planted and explained how they will be used. The trees and bushes there were planned to assist with irrigation and preventing erosion. The rock formations were placed there by design to create a funnel-like system to collect rainwater. He pointed out the cozy and functional building with red clay or thatched roofs that had been designed by architects to encourage interaction, a sense a space, and cool cover on hot sunny days. After a few hours of showing us the embodiment of his vision, the place came alive.
Last summer, Kutty said, a group of 20 students from the US had spent a summer there helping on the farm. They lived in the small dormitory buildings sleeping in cots, preparing their own food, and learning about sustainable ideas, politics, and organic farming from professors (who stayed at hotels in Bangalore) who were selected for the openness to the knowledge that these opportunities can convey.
Kutty seemed especially proud of small trees he called “Neem trees.” These, he said, have medicinal and antibacterial qualities and are very common in India. However, a few years earlier, WR Grace, a large chemical company, had applied for and received a patent from the European Patent Office for a pesticide derived from the Neem trees in India. Pharmaceutical companies were also interested in patenting the Neem tree’s other natural substances.
Concern grew from all over India that the Neem tree would be “owned” by major corporations. Vandana Shiva and others have labeled this an example of “biopiracy”. To the surprise of many, the European Patent Office listened to the protests and revoked the patent that had already been awarded to WR Grace. This was an enormous (though perhaps temporary) victory for farmers and those opposed to biopiracy. But as a result of these events, Kutty, among others, refers to the Neem tree as the Freedom Tree. It is, he said, an emblem of freedom from corporate dominance of our natural resources that belong to everyone.
As Kutty remarks below in his comment, the Free Tree Commune was inspired by Corinne Kumar, the founding director of the Center for Informal Education and Development. If you would like a copy of the brochure, please email me at email@example.com.