The Right Road

OUR ENVIRONMENT is not as pristine or as unspoiled as we would like it to be, in India, in America, or anywhere else; on that almost everyone agrees. Outside, a haze generated by air pollution obscures our view; automobile noise in the morning disturbs our peace of mind. Enchanting woods disappear; water reservoirs get polluted or dry up. Drastic climactic changes occur -- the rain is acidic; the ozone layer gets depleted. These are just some of the environmental changes we face today.

Loyola College in Madras, India, through its Entomology Research Institute, is addressing these issues. The institute was founded in 1964 by professor T. N. Ananthakrishnan, and while its name reveals its original focus of studying insects, through the years the institute has widened its scope to bring the rural people and especially farmers to work in a more environmentally friendly way. Until recently, it was the better-educated city people who had heard about the environmental issues like pollution because they could read and write and had easier access to the media. But in the end in India it will be the masses of rural population that can ultimately protect or destroy the natural environment.

Woman watering plant

Fifty-eight percent of India's population lives below minimal conditions for survival. This fact naturally impacts the environment; when the issue is survival, one is usually less concerned about nature. Thus our institute directs its attention mainly toward the poor in the country, and even there it concentrates on economically weak groups such as women and agricultural workers who live in drought-stricken areas.

The institute is in direct contact with 50 villages in the Madras region, a very underdeveloped area in the state of Tamil Nadu. We organize training programs for rural people, farmers, and schoolchildren to make them aware of our fragile environment and to instill in them the great need to work together for a better environment. We promote nature clubs in villages and schools, and we help people to plant more trees in backyards, on community land, and in wastelands, trees like teak and tamarind and papaya for shade and fuel and food. We use a variety of means-videos, slides, puppet shows, and demonstrations of hands-on projects-to give people the experience of doing something to improve the environment.

Beyond basic general education, we are training farmers in eco-friendly agricultural practices by promoting biopesticides and biofertilizers to replace synthetic chemical pesticides and fertilizers, by promoting the use of medicinal plants, and by conducting research to develop disease-resistant crops.

India is a land of small farmers; for many rural people farming is the only way to earn a livelihood. But many are not aware of new methods of cultivating high-yielding varieties; they need help to use available resources to the maximum while not incurring undesirable side effects.

For example, many farmers use chemical fertilizers to increase yield, but doing so has been detrimental. For one thing, while chemical fertilizers initially increase production, they also add unnecessary chemical ions to the soil, depleting the soil of its natural richness and fertility and turning it saline or alkaline or acidic. These chemical fertilizers are also very costly, and when crops fail, the farmers end up borrowing from private money lenders at interest rates of up to 200 percent and thus becoming almost their slaves. So our institute has been promoting biofertilizers and the use of plants like legumes, which enhance the nitrogen in the soil. These fertilizers are good for the soil, readily available, and cheap.

Another pressure on the food supply, and thus on the small farmers, is the pests and insects that destroy nearly 30 percent of the crop in the field or in storage. In order to fight back, farmers rely on insecticides and fumigants. These synthetic chemical pesticides, however, pollute the environment and poison our food; our vegetables are contaminated, and milk is not safe. And quite often the pests and insects develop resistance, and hence we seek alternative compounds, which can be even more harmful.

Our institute has been fighting the use of such pesticides. We are carrying out research on some plant materials that are effective as pesticides, and we encourage the farmers to use them. It is even possible to use other, beneficial insects as biological control agents to kill the pests.

Researcher in Lab

Through lab research and practical instruction, Loyola College's Entomology Research Institute promotes a better life for small farmers and a healthier natural environment in India.

One example of our success comes from a village named Arumbakkam, where Krishna and his wife Rani are small farmers with one hectare of land. Their children Latha and Arun go to school; on vacation they work with their parents in the field. But the grain that they work so hard to produce is subject to insect attack. We could not use pesticides at all, because the grain is used for human consumption. Fumigation might have worked, but this village has no facilities for that. When our researchers conducted a training program in Arumbakkam, they advised these farmers to use plant extracts of Murraya konigi-curry leaf-to protect the grain. It worked totally-no insects, no chemical pesticides.

Another approach to assuring our food supply is to find ways to make the plants we grow for food and medicine more resistant to pests and disease. Thus our institute concentrates on breeding and producing disease- and pest-resistant crops and vegetables. We also carry out research to find the causes of diseases and to develop remedial measures. We conduct seminars to disseminate our findings. Researchers and scholars from other institutions in India and elsewhere come to help us with our programs.

We also help farmers learn modern methods of cultivation by training them in pot irrigation and drip irrigation with a view to saving the precious water that the monsoon rains provide from September to November. We help them practice crop rotation to enrich the soil, rotating cereals such as rice with legumes like peas. And we also train them in horticulture. As small farmers gain greater awareness and get higher yields, they live better and find greater self-fulfillment.

From time immemorial plants have played roles as curative and protective agents, and we know of many life-saving medicines obtained from plants. Indigenous medicine is one of the advancing frontiers of medical science. We cultivate Andrographis paniculata (green chiretta) for snake bite, for example; or Chromolaena odorata (Siam weed) to heal wounds and Aristolochia indica (a birthwort) to relieve stomach pain. Our institute both trains people in the use of medicinal plants and carries our research to find more medicinal uses of plants.

Helping farmers increase and improve the food supply can go hand in hand with protecting the environment; this takes research to see beyond easy answers and education to change methods and outlooks, but it can be done. And our institute in Madras is doing its part, with its staff of seven and twenty research scholars, to provide better and more abundant food, enrich the soil, and at the same time help farmers stay out of debt. We see a long and broad road lying before us, but we have begun to walk that road and to invite others to come with us. It's the right road to take.

Fr Ignacimuthu, SJ

Fr. S. Ignacimuthu, SJ, has a doctorate in genetics and has done postgraduate work in insect-plant interaction. Besides being a researcher and author, he is director of the Entomology Research Institute at Loyola College, Madras, India.