Energy Farming: A New Life for America
Healing a Heart: The Himalayan Institute launches the world’s first School of Energy Farming in Africa, sowing the seeds of social and environmental regeneration.
By Ishan Tigunait
When I first set foot in Africa two years ago, my preconceived notions of a dry, dusty, and barren land were instantly shattered. Landing in the East African nation of Uganda, I was struck by its wealth of natural beauty. I wondered if perhaps it were an isolated phenomenon. After all, Uganda’s land is famed for its fertility—Winston Churchill hailed it as the “Pearl of Africa.” But over the next two years, I visited a half dozen other nations across the continent, and each time, I found myself inspired and awed by Mother Nature’s gift of beauty and abundance.
At the same time, it was clear that nature’s bounty alone had not been enough to ensure a healthy and prosperous society. The social and economic conditions of rural communities were often at complete odds with the abundance of natural resources. It was painful to reconcile how such poverty and hardship could exist in such a beautiful land.
This reality of contrasts and extremes has become a defining attribute of the 21st century. Around the world, the agrarian way of life is experiencing a catastrophic collapse, and the land itself is one of the best indicators of this devastation. Once representing a sacred gift from the ancestors, a blessing from nature, and the most precious resource to sustain and nourish life, land is now largely viewed as a commodity. This commodification is a reflection of a far greater social transformation being experienced throughout the developing world: the replacement of a vocation-driven, cooperative trade economy with a commodity-driven, cash economy.
While a person’s societal value and identity was once determined by their contribution to community, it is now measured by their productivity. The rural agricultural way of life was once synonymous with stewardship of the land and stood as the centerpiece of time-honored customs and rituals. Today it has been reduced to subsistence farming—a means of survival bereft of dignity. This has led to a profound erosion of the fabric of rural society and a disconnect from its very roots.
The social crisis is mirrored by a growing environmental crisis threatening much of Africa, with symptoms ranging from deforestation and soil erosion to desertification and severe drought. The land degradation is further aggravated by an increasing emphasis on unsustainable farming methods characteristic of modern agriculture—practices which will ultimately leave the soil devoid of its fertility.
A way of life has been lost in our desire for modernity. If we are to avert the collapse of rural society, it is vital that we reintroduce the notion of sustainability, and reawaken the dignity and self-respect which were once the hallmark of the rural way of life.
ENERGY FARMING—FROM SOIL TO SOUL™
The solution lies in rural empowerment, which offers lasting social regeneration at the grassroots level and is at the very heart of the Himalayan Institute’s humanitarian mission. Rural empowerment is effected through the model of Energy Farming—the sustainable cultivation of the limitless potential that lies dormant in our soil, our environment, and our society.
In application, Energy Farming is a revolution in sustainable agriculture and green energy, acting as a catalyst for rural empowerment. It refers specifically to the sustainable cultivation of crops capable of providing green energy—most notably biofuel, which offers an alternative to the fossil fuels powering most of Africa’s vehicles and generating its electricity. These crops are known as energy crops, and span a wide range from traditional crops including rapeseed, sunflower, and castor, to novel crops such as the Pongamia tree. Besides biofuel, these crops can yield additional green energy products such as biogas, and valuable byproducts like biofertilizer and biopesticide: the seeds are crushed for oil, which is turned into biodiesel, and the resulting seedcake can be utilized as a natural fertilizer or converted into biogas, with applications ranging from cooking fuel to transportation.
The Energy Farming methodology is applicable to a range of other plants beyond energy crops, including food, medicinal, aromatic, and cash crops. Its goal is to rediscover the economic viability of rural agriculture by increasing crop productivity and decreasing the cost of cultivation, all while offering environmental regeneration through a holistic approach to farming. By integrating economic empowerment and environmental regeneration, Energy Farming is able to offer a sustainable solution for social transformation.
The grand vision of Energy Farming aims at harnessing and unfolding the energy that lies dormant in each and every one of us, whether we live in a cosmopolitan urban center or a forgotten rural village. It is about healing a heart, one person at a time, until society is awakened and ready to bring forth a lasting transformation.
HI SCHOOL OF ENERGY FARMING
Energy Farming’s capacity as a catalyst for social transformation is the reason why the Himalayan Institute is launching the world’s first School of Energy Farming in Cameroon, West Africa, as the flagship program of the HI Community Center in Kumbo.
A Firm Foundation
The HI School of Energy Farming in Africa draws upon the Institute’s experience and leadership in the field of Energy Farming, developed and refined over the last ten years. In rural South India, the Institute helped spearhead the use of the Pongamia tree for sustainable biofuel cultivation, alleviating the immense social and economic pressures faced by the region’s drought-stricken farmers, who were committing suicide by the thousands. By the end of 2006, over 20 million trees covering 100,000 acres had been planted, offering a livelihood to nearly 40,000 families. (To learn more about this project, read my article “Seeds of Hope.”)
Meanwhile, over the last decade, the Institute’s Varcho Veda botanicals department in the United States has pioneered Energy Farming with BioVedic farming techniques, which combine ancient Vedic principles of spirituality and sustainability with organic and Biodynamic farming methodologies. At the Institute’s research and development farm, over 50 types of medicinal and aromatic plants have been cultivated using BioVedic techniques, and are utilized in many Varcho Veda herbal formulations. In addition, Varcho Veda offers a six-month apprenticeship program, which provides comprehensive training of the complete BioVedic Energy Farming methodology.
Having ripened at the Pennsylvania campus, the entire BioVedic Energy Farming program—including research and development activities, apprenticeship training, and cultivation of medicinal and aromatic plants for Varcho Veda’s herbal formulations—is being transplanted to its new home in Africa.
The School of Energy Farming derives great strength from the HI Community Center’s base of local support in Kumbo, Cameroon. Since summer of 2007, community sensitization and outreach efforts have been received with great enthusiasm, anchored by the planting of 10,000 trees in the region (see ”Highlights” for more about this project). At the HI Community Center, public lectures and workshops on Energy Farming were offered to local farmers, along with public events at the Center’s demonstration plots and nurseries.
In the meantime, preparations for the School of Energy Farming’s main campus were underway. Located about 45 minutes from the HI Community Center, the School of Energy Farming is situated on a 125-acre campus near the small village of Kishong, nestled in the rolling hills above Kumbo. The campus is surrounded by thousands of acres of remote grasslands and is adjacent to one of the last remaining stands of mountain jungles in the region.
The School is being launched with the establishment of a training center and model demonstration farm to showcase the entire vision of Energy Farming, from crops to cultivation to processing. This facility serves as a base to provide intensive training and hands-on experience in Energy Farming to local farmers. More importantly, it is the key to the Institute’s outreach campaign, aimed at inspiring and educating the surrounding communities about the benefits Energy Farming has to offer. From this base, thousands of neighboring farmers can be mobilized to undertake the cultivation of tens of thousands of acres.
ARTEMISIA—GROWING A CURE
The first crop that the HI School of Energy Farming will promote and cultivate is Artemisia, the leading cure for one of Africa’s greatest killers—malaria.
Each year there are over 500 million cases of malaria worldwide, leading to the deaths of over a million people, most of them young children in Africa. Malaria causes over 20 percent of all childhood deaths in Africa; every 30 seconds, a child dies needlessly from this curable disease.
Today, nearly all traditional drugs for malaria have been rendered ineffective because most strains of the parasite have become drug-resistant. The most effective remaining cure for malaria is now found in Artemisia annua—a medicinal plant which has been used for thousands of years in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. The plant Artemisia, also known as sweet wormwood, contains an active ingredient called artemisinin, which forms the basis of the most widely recognized treatment for malaria: Artemisinin-based Combination Therapy (ACT). Promoted globally by leading public health institutions including the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control, ACT has a documented success rate of over 90% when administered correctly. In a study published in June 2007, the Journal of the American Medical Association noted that “artemisinin derivatives clear parasites more rapidly than any other class of anti-malarial.”
Demand for ACT treatments is sharply increasing, resulting in a global supply shortage of artemisinin. To offer an African solution to the African crisis of malaria, cultivation of Artemisia is critically required. (Learn more about malaria and Artemisia.)
ENERGY FARMING—A BRIGHT FUTURE FOR AFRICA
At the outset, the School of Energy Farming will cultivate Artemisia on the demonstration farm, along with energy crops including sunflower, castor, and peanut. The energy crops will enable the project to become energy independent, by using the oil crushed from the seeds as fuel for electricity production and transportation. Additionally, organic biofertilizer will be placed back into the fields to fortify the soil.
The combination of the training center’s education and outreach efforts, and the activity generated by the initial production from the demonstration farm, will have a profound effect in inspiring local farmers to participate. While cultivation continues at the School’s demonstration farm, neighboring farmers will be invited to join HI Community Cooperatives as out-growers to cultivate Artemisia for value. This will allow cultivation output to reach a critical mass, eventually enabling the project to incorporate large-scale processing facilities locally.
Establishing processing facilities will be a ground-breaking measure for bringing value-addition to Africa’s products: the continent has consistently seen its natural resources extracted for export in their raw form with only a fraction of the value passing back to the local community. This infrastructure will enable the local community to realize greater value for their resources and effort by creating jobs locally, enabling local production of vital goods, reducing dependency on foreign imports, and facilitating global distribution of the medicine by extracting the herb’s essence on location.
Africa is a land of opportunity, both in its abundance of fertile land and natural resources, and in the vitality of its people. The great challenges Africa struggles to overcome, and the pain and suffering which continue to plague its people, are well known. Africa seeks the opportunity to empower itself and move forward. It is this call to action which inspired the Himalayan Institute to launch the School of Energy Farming, fostering social regeneration through rural empowerment. With this effort, we work towards sparking a revolution with the potential to transform the lives of millions. June 2008 will mark a historic event for the Institute, and a momentous occasion for Africa, as the first HI School of Energy Farming is officially inaugurated in Kumbo, Cameroon.
Son of Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, Ishan Tigunait received his first spiritual lessons from Swami Rama. He earned a degree in computer engineering and worked for IBM before returning to the Himalayan Institute to lead the Energy Farming initiative. Ishan now serves as Director of Strategic Development for the Himalayan Institute and spearheads the expansion of the Institute’s humanitarian projects around the world.
Learn more about the HI School of Energy Farming and HI Community Center in Cameroon, Africa.
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