Women farmers shine as 'super-heroes' in India's climate fight

Farmer Rupa Chilukuri looks out over her natural farm in Reddygudem village, India, August 31, 2023

Farmer Rupa Chilukuri looks out over her natural farm in Reddygudem village, India, August 31, 2023. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Roli Srivastava

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Women lead the charge for climate-friendly agriculture on the ground, though many important decisions still rest with men

India's millions of small-scale farmers face rising pressure from climate change, which is hurting harvests and fuelling debt. Done right, potential solutions like natural farming could make them more resilient while reducing emissions. Context's new series, Growing Green, explores the path to a just transition.

  • Women's collectives promote climate-resilient farming
  • Men still dominate land ownership, key crop decisions
  • Female self-help groups hailed as a "game-changer"

CHEVATURU, India - Farmer K. Rama Devi spends her days teaching climate-resilient agriculture skills, an unassuming champion of women's rights in a rural part of south India where men still take key decisions.

The head of a self-help group in Andhra Pradesh state, Devi has never marched in a climate rally nor lobbied world leaders, instead focusing her efforts on the practical details of growing crops in a world suffering the effects of more extreme weather.

The 34-year-old advises fellow female farmers on how to mix manure and grow multiple crops on their land and issues warnings that chemical fertilisers can harm their fields and health.

Farm workers transplant paddy seedlings on a natural farm in Kothareddygudem village, Andhra Pradesh state, India, August 31, 2023. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Roli Srivastava
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A worker packs lentils at a natural farm produce store in N.T.R District, India, September 2, 2023. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Roli Srivastava
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Despite her efforts, breaking male dominance in agriculture is hard in a sector that relies on women's labour but does not recognise them as "farmers" - an identity linked to land ownership which most rural Indian women lack.

"(Men) farmers didn't listen to us when we started, as they felt we didn't know anything," said Devi, sitting cross-legged at a farmers' support centre, showing a colourful chart documenting her project's performance in Chevaturu village.

She and others are trying to shift gender norms by building a movement of rural women's collectives that are helping non-profits and local governments promote crops and methods to combat climate pressures and cut planet-heating farm emissions.

For five years, members of Devi's group have demonstrated how to make manure and screened videos about "natural farming" which avoids synthetic pesticides and fertilisers and instead utilises cow dung mixed with other ingredients.

They have managed to get 312 of 786 farmers in their village to adopt natural practices on cotton, paddy and mango farms.

"Men can't do this kind of awareness. They only look at earning money. Women have a lot more patience. I feel happy doing this work," Devi told Context.

More than 75% of India's rural women workers are in the agriculture sector but just 12% of them own land, according to government data. Most women work as farm labourers or unpaid workers on family-owned fields.

Their lack of status as farmers means they cannot access government support including subsidised loans, special credit cards and cash aid.

Yet women are pivotal to the expansion of new agricultural techniques to tackle climate change - for instance growing crops that are more resistant to heatwaves, downpours and droughts.

"Women self-help groups are the game-changers. About 55% of our trainers are women," said T. Vijay Kumar, who leads a natural farming project in Andhra Pradesh and is also executive vice-chairman of a state corporation for empowering farmers.

As the women's groups can access bank loans, it has given them financial clout and improved their standing in villages.

"Their involvement in decision-making in the household has improved. They are important to take this initiative (of natural farming) forward," Vijay Kumar said.

Farmer K. Rama Devi reviews a chart on the performance of her group's natural farming project in Chevaturu village, India, September 2, 2023

Farmer K. Rama Devi reviews a chart on the performance of her group's natural farming project in Chevaturu village, India, September 2, 2023. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Roli Srivastava

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Women show the way on solutions

Agriculture is India's biggest employer - supporting the livelihoods of 250 million farmers and informal workers - but farming is getting harder as climate change hits harvests, fuelling debt, migration and farmer suicides.

In response, natural farming projects have taken root in the country, but experts say their scale and success hinges on how well they can protect incomes among poor rural producers.

Women's collectives, with their extensive networks, are playing a pivotal role in convincing those farmers to go green.

Of India's 12 million self-help groups, serving 140 million households, 88% are all-women, government data shows.

To combat climate change, women's collectives in eastern Odisha are bringing back millet - a long-forgotten drought-resistant crop - while in northern Uttar Pradesh they are changing sowing techniques to help retain soil moisture.

Many farmers in Andhra Pradesh, meanwhile, have long grumbled that they cannot find markets for their naturally grown vegetables, which are more expensive than regular produce.

That situation motivated farmer Parisineni Thirumala, 29, to pile her vegetables onto her scooter and try her luck at selling them to school teachers in Maddhulaparva village.

She is now hailed as a marketing genius thanks to her success in creating a new customer base of teachers, government officials and even local police.

"I tell them the benefits of buying my produce - it's healthier and tastier," she said as the sun set on her farm.

Women in self-help groups are a precious asset in outreach for climate-friendly farming because they work in the business, speak the villagers' language and understand their challenges.

"Climate solutions will be incomplete and unsuccessful if they leave out women farmers. And women are finding an opportunity to get into leadership roles," said farmers' rights campaigner Kavitha Kuruganti of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture.

A farmer picks okra on her natural farm in Reddygudem village, India, August 31, 2023

A farmer picks okra on her natural farm in Reddygudem village, India, August 31, 2023. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Roli Srivastava

A farmer picks okra on her natural farm in Reddygudem village, India, August 31, 2023. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Roli Srivastava

Of emissions, men and migration

Worldwide, agriculture accounts for 17% of total global greenhouse gas emissions, with Brazil, Indonesia and India the top three emitters, according to a 2021 U.N. report citing data from 2018.

Emissions from agriculture in India began to rise after the introduction of high-yielding rice and wheat varieties about six decades ago, as part of a drive to combat hunger and poverty.

"Farming became market-intensive and men dominated it," said Shiraz Wajih, president of the nonprofit Gorakhpur Environmental Action Group.

But increasingly fickle weather linked to climate change and rising spending on chemical fertilisers have made farming ever more risky as a profession. That has spurred many men to migrate to cities, hoping to find more reliable and better-paid work.

As a result, women left behind in villages have assumed responsibility for farming, Wajih said.

"They are the actual managers of the farm but they are not yet treated as farmers. They are gradually being recognised, but (there is) still a long way to go," he added.

Rural-to-urban migration has added to women's domestic burden - be it on farms or looking after their families at home.

"Women are better workers ... but there can't be complete invisibility of what's already on their plate," said gender expert Monika Banerjee, a senior consultant with nonprofit Mobile Creches, which works with marginalised children.

"Women are expected to be climate super-heroes, but lack support and their work is often devalued."

Warnings about extreme weather, for instance, are sent to mobile phones mostly owned by men, with fewer than half of rural women having access to a phone, while big decisions like choosing crops or seeds still rest largely with male relatives.

But farmer Devi remains undeterred - even if it means asking women to convince their husbands to change cultivation methods.

"We are getting a good response," she said. "Our importance is growing."

(Reporting by Roli Srivastava; Editing by Megan Rowling and Alister Doyle)

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Farm labourers carry rice saplings for planting in a field on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, India, July 21, 2023

Part of:

Growing green on India’s farms

With climate change hurting harvests and incomes, poor farmers need support to adapt and shift to eco-friendly agriculture

Updated: November 23, 2023


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