Hands-on ways to beat hunger

Text and photos by Laura Sheahen/Caritas

“We used to run out of wheat to eat after six or seven months. Then we’d have to buy it.” Lalita Bhalla, a grandmother living with her husband in a farming village in central India, saw her food situation improve after joining a Caritas farming project. “Now it lasts year round.”

Throughout the world, Caritas distributes food after natural disasters like floods or droughts. Caritas food banks and warehouses are there when systems break down, so that people don’t go hungry.

But the cornerstone of Caritas’ work is empowering people to grow enough or earn enough to feed their families without outside help. For decades, Caritas agriculture programmes have leveraged the best local knowledge and scientific advances, teaching farmers how to maximise the land and water they have. Highlighting practical, hands-on solutions to hunger is a key goal of Caritas’s worldwide “One Human Family, Food for All” campaign.

Lalita and her husband Ramesh are part of a Caritas farmer-led programme that tests seeds and growing methods to find what works best for small farmers. Like many families in India, the couple has limited land, water, and money for pesticides and fertilisers. And like all farmers, they are plagued by diseases that can wipe out their source of food.

“In this area, yellow mosaic virus affects black gram, a major crop here,” says Valentine Pankaj, an agricultural scientist and Caritas programme coordinator. “It’s caused by a white fly. When the virus comes, it destroys the whole crop. We had it last year.”

The Caritas programme tests seeds and offers a choice of free seeds to farmers. “We have to ask ‘Is it acceptable to the farmer?’ says Valentine. “We give options. The farmer chooses.”

Ramesh and Lalita “picked black gram seed type IPU-94-1 because it’s resistant to yellow mosaic virus and gives a better yield,” says Valentine. Caritas holds outdoor sessions to teach farmers about practices such as summer ploughing, which kills off certain insects like grubs that burrow deep in the soil. Caritas helps some farmers become certified organic, which in certain cases means they receive more money for their produce.

Caritas workers aren’t always teachers. Sometimes they are students, learning traditional local methods from farmers. “Ramesh and Lalita have used mustard oil to preserve their black gram seeds,” notes Valentine.

In places plagued by drought, Caritas builds dams, wells and irrigation systems for farms. Especially during times of hunger, Caritas offers “food for work” or “cash for work” to people building these water systems—or other infrastructure that benefits the entire community.

Caritas creates seed banks that have a literal multiplier effect on the community. Instead of spending money, farmers receive seeds from the seed bank for free, and then return twice as much after their harvest. Ramesh and Lalita returned several kilogrammes of seeds. “We feel good giving seeds to the seed bank,” says Lalita. “These seeds should belong to everyone and help everyone.”

This philosophy contrasts with “terminator” seeds that do not reproduce and cannot be shared year to year. Caritas programmes in places like Latin America support heirloom seeds movements that keep farmers independent from large agribusiness. Traditional seeds are sometimes better adapted to certain terrains and climates. “The Creole seeds are the only seeds that resist the drought,” says Father Uriel Vallejos, head of Caritas Nicaragua.

Caritas also connects small farmers with large companies, cutting out the middlemen so poor families can make a fair profit from their crops. In Peru, Caritas linked pineapple growers to a major business that sells the fruit throughout the country. In the Huancavelica region, Caritas Peru helped small farmers by reactivating a processing plant that now processes many tons of quinoa and other grains each week. When quinoa or wheat are ground into flour or flakes, farmers get a better price for it.

People who have to farm other people’s land often stay poor and are exploited. So Caritas focuses on land ownership, especially for people whose legal rights may be in jeopardy because of discrimination. In the North Kivu area of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Caritas works to make sure that women receive the land rights that they are entitled to.

Caritas’s reach is wide. Caritas India’s network, for example, is currently working with 43 thousand farmers. Caritas hosts regional meetings where farmers from different countries can talk about what works. “These small farmers are brave souls,” says Caritas India Executive Director Father Frederick D’Souza. “They’re continuously innovating and adapting to changes to sustain their farms, while also helping others.”

Caritas has run similar farming, land, and legal programmes for years, making steady progress towards the goal of no hunger. Starting in late 2013, all Caritas members decided to unite their efforts under the “Food for All” campaign. “The food campaign’s common focus and common goal have brought out the strengths of Caritas as a worldwide confederation,” says Martina Liebsch, head of advocacy for Caritas Internationalis in Rome. “Caritas has always fought hunger, but now we’re really sharing ideas and best practices across continents.”

Making sure people have enough to eat involves a lot more than handing out bags of food. Working in the field on issues like land rights, seed use, and irrigation, Caritas is helping farmers become independent—and beating hunger.

“Before this project, we’d take loans to buy seeds and fertiliser,” says Lalita. “Now we don’t have to. We have seeds to eat, sell, and use to plant next season.”

By Laura Sheahen, Caritas Communications Officer

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