By Jency Samuel
Standing among his lush green rice paddies in Nagapatnam, a coastal district in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, farmer Ramajayam remembers how a wave changed his entire life.
The 2004 Asian tsunami wiped out Ramajayam's crops and thousands more, as huge volumes of salt water flooded the area's fertile lands.
The disaster killed 6,065 people in Nagapatnam, more than 85 percent of the state's death toll. The surviving farmers had to reclaim their fields, which in some places were flooded even three kilometers from the sea. The waves washed away some 24,000 hectares of crops.
The salty water did not recede and ruined the rice crop that was to be ready for harvest 15 days after the catastrophe. Small ponds that farmers dug with government help turned saline, and the evaporation of the water had a "corrosive effect," according to farmers, killing organic matter critical to future crops.
The plots of small producers like Ramajayam, no larger than five hectares, looked like salt flats. Even the trees that withstood the onslaught of the tsunami did not survive the salt flood, recalled Kumar, another farmer.
"We were used to natural disasters, but nothing like the tsunami," Ramajayam stressed.
The State and aid organizations offered alternative livelihoods to the victims, but the nearly 10,000 affected small producers, who worked these lands for generations, were not willing to change their occupation.
Many ignored technical reports warning that the soil could take up to 10 years to recover, sowing seeds just a year after the tsunami. But not a single one ever sprouted.
It was then that several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) came into action and a period of renewal and regeneration of organic soils began that became a model for countless places affected by climate change.
The "doctor of the earth"
One of the first NGOs to intervene was the Tamil Nadu Organic Producers Movement (TOFarM), which adopted the town of South Poigainallur as a site for its pilot work.
The first step was to measure the magnitude of the damage. When the land was confirmed to be uncultivable, the NGO developed tailored solutions for each farm that included selection of seeds and equipment based on soil conditions and topography.
Sea mud deposits were removed, containment structures erected, and fields plowed. Deep trenches were dug in the plots to fill them with the trees uprooted by the tsunami. As these decomposed they aerated the land.
Seeds of dhaincha, a legume known by its scientific name sesbania bispinosa, were also sown.
The dhaincha "is known as the 'doctor of the earth' because it is a green manure crop that grows well in saline soils," explained M Revathi, the founder of TOFarM.
When the nutrient-rich dhaincha plants bloomed after about 45 days, they were plowed back into the soil, to loosen it and open its pores. Compost and farm manure were added in stages before planting.
Today, the process is an example of the capacity of organic solutions.
Saving organic practices
Poor farmers in Tamil Nadu depend on public aid to survive. Every month the state's Public Distribution System distributes three tons of rice to more than 20 million people.
At the same time, the State buys the crops for a fixed price that is much lower than that of the market, although it guarantees producers a stable income.
In this way, the approximately 13,000 small farmers in the state barely earn enough to cover their monthly needs. And in places like Nagapatnam, where freshwater sources are 25 meters below ground level, those who depend on rainfed agriculture are at a great disadvantage.
When the tsunami took over the land, many feared they would never recover.
"The number of microbes on the head of a pin, which should be 4,000 in good soil, fell to less than 500 in this area," observed Dhanapal, a farmer from Kilvelur, Nagapatnam and director of the Cauvery Delta Farmers Association. .
But help was not far off.
Farmer S. Mahalingam has a rice field of just over three hectares near a canal in North Poigainallur, whose crops were washed away by the tsunami.
Several NGOs, supported by private and humanitarian agencies, pumped seawater from the fields of Mahalingam, and distributed free seeds and seedlings, while the state government forgave him the outstanding debt for an agricultural loan.
In addition to the manure produced by the farm, Mahalingam uses the leaves of various indigenous trees as green manure.
Later rains also helped remove some of the salinity. The farmer then planted traditional varieties of salt resistant rice, called kuruvikar and kattukothalai. In two years his farm recovered, allowing him to continue growing rice and vegetables.
The Trichy-based NGO Kudumbam has innovated with other methods, such as gypsum, to rehabilitate unused land.
Farmer P. I. Manikkavasagam, for example, received help from the organization to recover his two hectares of land. Using an age-old practice, he dug trenches and filled them with palm leaves that grow in abundance along the coast.
Kudumbam supplied him with biofertilizers like phosphobacteria, azospirillum, and acetobacter, crucial to bringing the flooded land to life.
“The general perception is that organic farming takes years to generate good results and income. However, during the post-tsunami rehabilitation work… we demonstrated that in less than a year organic methods can give better results than… chemical ones, ”said Revathi from TOFarM.