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Community perspectives on organising, growing and eating in the climate crisis

16 October 2022
On World Food Day, we hear from our Grounded Imaginaries community researchers in India and Australia on how we can reimagine our food systems.

By VPJ Sambhavi, Josh Gowers, Joel Shelton and Sacha Shaw

This year, SEI’s Grounded Imaginaries team has been working with communities to drive real transformation and possibilities in achieving food systems change and sovereignty for all. In many parts of the world today, people experience helplessness and desolation in the face of the climate crisis, and are often caught up in stories that discourage collaborative thinking and action. In recognition of this, the Grounded Imaginaries team works across three sites in India and Australia to foreground stories of transformative action. It highlights the communities taking the necessary steps to respond to a climate changed world from the creation of local employment opportunities to engaging in sustainable farming to achieve food sovereignty in the community. 

What follows are three stories united by the common theme of food. They each provide an insight into the experience of three communities, separated by culture and geography, but connected through an imagining of a food system that is more inclusive, healthy and sustainable.

Kewar Village, Chamoli District, Uttarakhand, India

By VPJ Sambhavi

Nestled in the Pindar valley of Uttarakhand lies a quaint agrarian community that is at the heart of quiet, slow revolution in the arena of climate change. The community of Kewar village is made up of 50 to 70 households at the forefront of transforming their village by returning to its traditional farming practices. Although blessed with dense vegetation, fertile soil, ample water sources and geographical diversity, the community has faced declining agricultural productivity in recent years.

The community has grappled with major landslides, erratic rainfall, cloud bursts, rising temperatures and a consequent loss in vegetation. In addition to these calamities, the shift to chemical pesticides degraded the soil quality and agricultural yield. It is clear that the combination of climate change and shifting agricultural trends has gravely impacted the resilience and sustainability of the local ecosystem. This has not only threatened the community’s farming heritage, but also its food security. The government’s push towards chemical farming was intended to boost productivity but ended up stressing the local agriculture ecosystem and water sources, and even degraded the crop quality and yield.

To combat this damage, Uttaranchal Youth and Rural Development Centre (UYRDC), a local NGO, has been encouraging regenerative farming and natural farming practices in the community. Led by its pioneering director, Sidharth Negi, the community has shifted from chemical farming to nature-based farming through the adoption of Bara Anaaja (which means 12 crops)1, and zero-budget natural farming2. It is also returning to traditional crops such as millets, which require less water and are thus excellent for drought areas. The long-term vision is to support farmers to produce nutritious, sustainable crops and achieve food sovereignty in the community.

The combination of climate change and shifting agricultural trends has gravely impacted the resilience and sustainability of the local ecosystem. This has not only threatened the community’s farming heritage, but also its food security.

Moruya, New South Wales, Australia

By Josh Gowers

On the south-east coast of the continent now referred to as Australia, within the heartland of the Yuin nation and home to the durga-speaking Walbunja and Brinja yuinj (people), lie the misty river flats of the Deua/Moruya river. Layerings of rich silts have accumulated in the wide river basin bowl and have been a place of food and medicine for many thousands of years, shielded by granite fingers from a hungry river mouth. 

SAGE Gardens sits on the floodplain of the Moruya River by Josh Gowers.

Since colonisation, displacement and dispossession, these mutually nourishing relationships and foodways of the yuinj have been agriculturally suppressed and overwritten, with deep furrows and channels carved through generationally enriched sediments, stealing them away into the once-deep river channel to mix with the sandy spoil of goldfields upstream as shoals and silted snags. Their riches, extracted in the forms of ‘domesticatedsup-plants and crops, were syphoned out to Sydney through steadily shallowing waters canalised by granite. Crushed under hoof and wheel and sprayed with warfare-developed pesticides, eventually these forms of extraction halted themselves in poisoned tracks, relegating land and waters to bovine-barricaded floodplains.

Generations later, inhabitants of the river valley in Moruya have come to realise the legacy of their forebears, choosing in 2009 to reimagine their collective, modern-day foodways as protest and passion against industrialised agribusiness through the most political of all artforms – gardening.

Calling themselves SAGE (Sustainable Agriculture Gardening Eurobodalla), a slow-food community of eaters and growers has since supported and seeded their less-extractive food producers through the development of a local farmers’ market and food economy, ongoing educational programs and events, and have begun once more to build soil, share food, and feed their local communities. Throughout their time on the river flats, they’ve worked to provide a reliable source of food for their community throughout anthropogenically exacerbated fires, floods and pandemics, and have begun equipping a next generation of growers to continue their work of feeding the soil.

Generations later, inhabitants of the river valley in Moruya have come to realise the legacy of their forebears, choosing in 2009 to reimagine their collective, modern-day foodways as protest and passion against industrialised agribusiness through the most political of all artforms – gardening.

Perumbakkam, Tamil Nadu, India

By Joel Shelton

Perumbakkam is one of the largest resettlement sites in Tamil Nadu, comprising nearly 21,000 houses. Constructed by Tamil Nadu Urban Habitat Development Board (TNUDHB), it is located in the district of Chengalpattu. After resettlement, the families faced serious livelihood challenges because their work was connected to the place they were evicted as a result of development. The Information and Resource Centre for the Deprived Urban Communities (IRCDUC), a city-based NGO, has set up a Community Resource and Information Hub to help women leaders in the settlement gain access to basic services and government schemes. One initiative of the Hub is the ‘urban garden’ program, which has proven to be a catalyst for empowerment in different low-income settlements across the globe.

In much of the world today, food is instant, unhealthy, artificial, hybrid or inorganic. The garden provides an alternative: to collectively grow and consume healthy food, and in doing so, it provides an employment opportunity.

Image by Mr Dilip Kumar A.

1. A system of crop rotation that ensures yield all year round.

2. Zero-budget natural farming (ZBNF), popularised by agriculturist and Padma Shri-recipient Subhash Palekar, refers to the process of raising crops without using chemical fertilisers and pesticides or any other external materials.


VPJ Sambhavi is a Fellowship and Learning Co-ordinator for the Western Himalayan Youth Fellowship at India and Bharat Together (IABT). She has Master’s Degrees in Psychology and Education and has an ethnographic research background in the area of environmental education. She is also an alumna of Delhi University and KU Leuven, the latter where she was an Erasmus Mundus Scholar and an IRO Scholar.

Josh Gowers is a landscape architect working and growing on brinja ba walbunja ngura, koori guradwaraga ya ngadjuwaraga, muryan duraya (Brinja and Walbunja Country, koori lands and waters, Deua River). He currently researches the colonial Food Landscapes of Sydney, in addition to forecasting scenarios for Australia's agricultural landscapes to 2050. Josh is a Community Fellow with the Sydney Environment Institute on the Grounded Imaginaries project.

Joel Shelton is a Community Fellow with the Social Entrepreneurship Association on the Grounded Imaginaries project and a postgraduate social worker specialising in community development. He has been working with the Information and Resource Centre for the Deprived Urban Communities (IRCDUC) for over two years, which is an organisation based in Tamil Nadu, India undertaking policy research related to land and housing rights of the deprived urban communities. Joel finds it fulfilling to work on policy research, as well as advocate for affordable housing and land for deprived communities in Chennai, India.

Header image: Lush fields of Kewar village, Chamoli District, Uttarakhand after using natural farming practices by Mayank Shah.

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