Bookshelf: Tending Our Land – A New Story

In ‘Tending Our Land’, authors M.G. Jackson and Nyla Coelho present a vivid, historical account of the great human enterprise of food production, an entirely new story– one that reinstates an ancient but eminently relevant imperative for our times. It makes essential reading for policy makers, academia and the budding bold generation of land tenders.

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tolThe domestication of plants and animals, like the earlier domestication of fire seems to have been a mixed blessing. On the one hand it made possible a settled community way of life and the growth and flowering of the many latent potentialities of humankind. On the other hand it led to the disruption of Nature. The latter was not initially perceptible, but dramatically appeared first in Mesopotamia and somewhat later in the Mediterranean littoral during the times of the Phoenician, Greek and Roman Empires. They left behind vast stretches of despoiled landscapes, and the depopulated ruins of settlements. The Indus valley civilisation may have suffered a similar fate. These features of decline began to appear in river valley and in upland settlements in other parts of the world as well and not least in India, over the next two millennia. The rate of decline has intensified and become more widespread worldwide.

The causes of this deterioration in the ancient world were apparently not understood at the time. Today, with hindsight backed by archaeological evidence and historical accounts, we can claim to understand them better. In fact, technical solutions have been devised for controlling soil erosion, rainwater runoff and the rehabilitation and care of vegetative cover. But we have still not been able to deploy these effectively. What stands in the way are the complex structures of present-day society with its exploitative economic paradigms and overbearing methods of governance.

During the 19th century tending of domesticated plants and animals in Europe and North America was chemicalised, mechanised and commercialised. These developments were extended to the post-colonial nations, including India[1], in the latter half of the 20th century in what was termed the Green Revolution (GR). Restricting its mandate to the delivery of higher yield in food grain production, none of our long-standing problems of deforestation, soil erosion, water-logging, and soil salinisation, was addressed by it. Rather, it brought in its wake a host of new problems: a proliferation of pests and diseases in food-plants, rapidly falling groundwater tables, chemical pollution of soils, air, ground water and food, farmer indebtedness and in the past decade even farmer suicides. The 1990s saw the introduction of the current globalisation agenda providing renewed vigour to the development of centres of industry, trade and services. This speeded up the alienation of land from traditional uses, massive displacements of communities from their existing settlements, increasing government and corporate control of all aspects of citizens’ lives and livelihood pursuits, and the disintegration of community life. These phenomena are more visible than those of soil erosion, the mismanagement of water, loss of species diversity and deforestation, but equally intractable. The result is the rapid build up of a crisis situation which threatens our very survival. Individually and collectively as a nation we have yet to understand and come to grips with the reasons for this crisis, its complexity and gravity. To do so it is necessary we first understand its global historical roots.

By the last decades of the 20th century there was a growing concern about the negative consequences of the GR. It is now explicitly clear that the GR is the worst and most sudden disaster that has befallen plant and animal tending communities in their entire history. On top of this, the weather has become more and more erratic disrupting existing patterns of plant and animal tending practices.

Numerous books, journal articles and reports in the media are testimony to our predicament.  The anxiety reflected in this flurry of publications is heartening to the extent that people are, however vaguely, becoming aware that there is a serious problem.  However, if the current crisis is too narrowly conceived, focused only on the GR, it will not be possible to devise effective corrective measures. The problems of land use in India today are far larger than the fallout from the GR.

Many symptoms of local landscape dis-ease are staring us in the face today. These include excessive deforestation, heavy soil erosion, falling ground water tables, rampant and uncontrollable  plant pests and diseases, pollution of ground water with heavy metals, fertilisers and pesticides, soaring rates of pesticide-related diseases among land tending communities, widespread under- and mal- nutrition resulting in poor growth and development and avoidable ill-health, family indebtedness often resulting in suicides, and the seasonal or permanent en masse distress migration of land tending community populations from the countryside. Additionally, sea-level rise is either inundating or eating away at the littoral forcing coastal communities to abandon their land, traditional livelihoods and homes.

The solutions we have devised to solve these problems are not working. Indeed, they mostly give rise to other surprising, and seemingly unrelated, problems.


Why do all our ‘solutions’ only make things worse? The answer is simple, yet profound. We have created these problems ourselves as a result of our defective notions about our world and ourselves. These notions are the rationale of the materialist, mechanistic picture of the universe bequeathed us by the specialists of the European so-called Enlightenment of the 17th century. This picture is of a huge machine. A machine can be understood and described in terms of its parts, their sizes, shapes, positions and movements. The behaviour of the machine and each of its parts is absolutely predictable. We human beings, in terms of this picture, are mechanics who can maintain and repair this world machine. Indeed, over the past half century or so we have become engineers, capable of redesigning and remodelling it. We use the language of mathematics to describe the working of the world and guide our activities.

With the fallout from the GR, not to mention from initiatives in other areas such as healthcare and education, it is time to stop and question our acquiescence in this machine metaphor. Perhaps we need a different metaphor.

During the 20th century a new metaphor did in fact begin to emerge in mainstream culture itself, brought forth by perceptive specialists and practitioners who were uncomfortable with the manifest inadequacies of the prevailing machine metaphor. One of them was Albert Howard a British national trained in Western-style plant and animal tending, who worked in India during the first four decades of the century. In his book An Agricultural Testament, published in 1940, he introduced the term ‘Nature’s round’. This was an attempt to give expression to an image of the world as an organism rather than a machine. An organism is a self-defining, perceptive and intelligent entity, governed by a single, all-encompassing universal order. This order is complex and subtle; it cannot be described in the language of mathematics, but only in symbolic language. Howard’s term, ‘Nature’s round’ (Howard, 1940, pp.1-21) is an echo of the ancient symbol of Mother Nature or Mother Earth. The use of ‘Mother’ suggests an all nurturing, protecting, and yet disciplining presence.

As a guide to action on the ground Howard explains that we must observe and then attempt to imitate Her ways. In the context of domestic plant and animal tending we are to be guided by the example of a natural landscape in our immediate vicinity. As an example, he specified the following features of a forest landscape that we should endeavour to maintain when we convert forests into land for the tending of domestic plants and animals. The surface of the land is always to be covered by a canopy of vegetation and the decomposing remains of plants, animals and micro-organisms; the landscape must host a variety of species of plants, vertebrate and invertebrate animals, insects and micro-organisms in mixture; and, all plant remains and the excreta and remains of animals must decompose where they fall and slowly become one with the soil. This set of principles he termed ‘Nature’s farming’. It has inspired and guided ever-increasing numbers of individuals, families and communities worldwide seeking an alternative to the GR agenda.

Later in the century the same symbol appeared in the researcher-inventor James Lovelock’s Gaia theory (Lovelock, 1979). It has, since then, been embraced enthusiastically by many professionals and others. However, Lovelock was, unconsciously, no doubt, ambivalent. In describing his theory he used the term ‘biosphere’ to designate the plants, animals, birds, insects and micro-organisms inhabiting the thin outer film of the planet. For him the planet itself, that is, the continents, oceans, rivers, lakes, mountains, continued to be insentient entities which are shaped by, in part, the ‘biota’ inhabiting it. He described the overall functioning of the planet in the familiar ways of mainstream contemporary science, that is, by analysing and quantifying. And virtually everyone else followed him in this regard. The upshot is that to the extent his proposition has been accepted by fellow researchers it is a ‘…watered-down, mechanistic, neutered systems science of textbooks in engineering, computers, management and geography.’ (Haigh, 2001).

The fate of the Gaia theory appears to be similar to that of Copernicus’ proposition of the then known universe – until it was later refined and corrected by Johann Kepler’s work a century later. Arthur Koestler commented on this by noting the three core beliefs of the medieval European worldview that stood in the way.

… the dualism of the celestial and sub-lunary worlds; the immobility of the earth in the centre; and the circularity of all heavenly motion. I have tried to show that the common denominator of the three, and the secret of their unconscious appeal, was the fear of change, the craving for stability and permanence in a disintegrating culture. A modicum of split-minded-mindedness and double think was perhaps not too high a price to pay for allaying the fear of the unknown.

(Koestler, 1959, p. 69)

It was to take a century for the heliocentric proposition to be generally accepted. Judging by what is happening today to our plant and animal tending communities, it may take a similar length of time for Howard’s Nature’s round to gain general acceptance.

When a new idea first appears it is always tentative. It takes time for its full implications to be realised, time to be explicated fully and unambiguously. Until that happens, the new idea causes incredulity, scorn, fear and also some uncritical enthusiastic support. All this is happening with the concept of the living Earth in general and Howard’s Nature’s round in particular. Howard’s concept has taken more than half a century to gain a substantial foothold, but even then it continues to be dismissed by mainstream GR professionals (see, for example, Kanwar, 2005). But, going by the history of new ideas, ‘nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come (Victor Hugo, quoted by Goldsmith, 2000).’ But time is now short. The question is: how long do we have?


The old story of the imagined autonomy of human beings from their independence of Nature’s round, and their freedom to dominate and manipulate Her has run its course. We urgently need a new story.

The newly delineated India at the time was a 20 year young nation that had just taken charge of its destiny after over a millennia of external dominance. It was a vast land of forest people, peasants, pastorals, fisher-folk, artisans, petty traders and others, with diverse socio-cultural moorings, and also many complex discriminating and divisive traditions. People lived mostly in small villages. The few towns and cities were only just emerging as centres of governance, education, enterprise, economic, and cultural activity. It was still recovering from the trauma of the struggle for independence and the subsequent settling down into a new governance regime. It had to also deal with regional and national scale natural calamities of epidemics, drought and famine. Above all it had to meet the demanding aspirations of being an independent country.

Tending Our Land – A New Story
M.G. Jackson and Nyla Coelho
Pages: 220, Size: 22 x 14 x 1.3 cm Price: Rs 350
Published by Peoples Books, Belagavi, Earthcare Books, Kolkata and Permanent Green, Secunderabad


Prologue 1

Our home
Soil, water, atmosphere, vegetation and human communities 9

The advent of domestication
Land tending communities in early civilisations  35
Land tending communities in India: 3,500 BP to the end of the 18th century CE  57

Western-style land tending practices come to India
The science of Western-style land tending 67
The introduction and establishment of Western-style land tending in    India: 1800 – 1960  80
Euphoria and despair: 1960 onwards 90

Fresh thinking, bold initiatives
Nature’s farming  113
Living Nature’s round  121
Restoring and tending our land  127

Healing the Earth, healing ourselves
From local to global in tending our land  163
There are no boundaries  181

Epilogue 186
References  192
Index  202
Acronyms 211


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