Permaculture on Indian Soil

Originally posted on, posting here with kind permission from the author.

My time in India is nearing its end, and with it, my Grand Tour of Sustainable Living Sites, which apparently just keeps getting better and better! Today I’m really excited to share with you my first visit to an actual permaculture farm in India.

In Hyderabad, I met Narsanna Koppula, a pioneering Indian permaculture practitioner. Narsanna took the first-ever permaculture design course taught in India by Bill Mollison and Robyn Francis (my own PDC teacher, so Narsanna and I are in the same guru-parampara, or “teacher lineage”!). In the late 1990s, he and his wife Padma started Aranya Agricultural Alternatives, an environmental and developmental organization that empowers rural communities to achieve food and nutrition security and sustainable livelihoods through permaculture practices and natural resource management. They took me for a day trip to Zaheerabad to see the permaculture farm they have been developing since 1997.

“Aranya” means forest. And entering the farm really feels like walking into a forest. Cradled by tall wind breaks are lush mixed orchards with incredible biodiversity. Although there are some fields with annual crops, the farm is primarily perennial systems: trees, shrubs, live hedges, herbs, tubers, etc. Here are just some of the plants I remember seeing: mango, citrus, custard apple, pomegranate, guava, chikoo, star fruit, jackfruit, amla (Indian gooseberry), cashew nut, sandalwood, teak, bamboo, tamarind, neem, drumstick, cactus, Palmyra palm…

Throughout the farm, plants are grown together in productive polycultures or guilds, complementing each other. The photo below shows a chikoo fruit tree (on the left), teak, and Indian gooseberry growing and thriving right next to each other.

The mango season is now over, but the next round of fruits is already well on its way: among others, star fruit (carambola), pomegranate, and chikoo.

The soil here is beautiful, dark red. And boy, do things decompose fast in the tropics! Narsanna proudly showed me the soil underneath some mulch, which was teeming with insects, fungi and microbial life. His soil-building strategies include composting, mulching, and green manures. Two plants, in particular, that he likes to grow under or near fruit trees include a shrub called Calotropis gigantea (left), and Gliricidia sepium, a leguminous tree (below). Calotropis is a good green manure plant with incredible medicinal properties. It doesn’t require water in the summer, and when added to compost or mulch it accelerates the decomposition process. Gliricidia was growing all over the farm — Narsanna planted it as his pioneer species to improve the soil. It is a multi-purpose plant that can be used for fodder, green manure, live fencing, firewood, or insect repellent. Below, Narsanna demonstrates “chopping and dropping” of the branches for nutrient cycling and mulch under the young fruit trees (right where the Gliricidia is growing — less work and effort carrying and hauling):

Another planting strategy suited for tropical climates is planting tree saplings in a pit filled with organic matter or compost that then decomposes under mulch. The tree is planted in a shallow depression, and surrounded by a small earthen boundary, to maximize the amount of rainwater that the soil receives and retains.

But Aranya’s work is not just about developing idyllic farms and trying out cool techniques. They take very seriously the permaculture ethics: earth care, yes, but also people care and fair share. “Agriculture is not just agriculture – it’s a social responsibility,” Narsanna said. Both he and Padma have worked on various watershed management, sustainable agriculture, and community development projects since the 1980s, so they know that they cannot address only one aspect of a community’s life to create long-lasting changes.

Before implementing watershed protection programs, for example, they spend literally years in conversations with the locals, learning about their concerns and needs, empowering women to participate, etc. Most recently, they have started the Tribal Permaculture Project funded by a Danish organization, working with the tribal populations in rural areas several hours outside of Hyderabad.

They teach tree planting and orchard maintenance, soil building, basic food security including home gardens, and resource conservation (solar lamps, solar pumps, water harvesting structures) — but always with the social and economic aspect integrated into everything they do. Even though I learned a lot about tropical permaculture and plant properties during my visit, it was my conversations with Narsanna and Padma, and the integrity of their vision, that probably impressed me the most and will stay with me the longest.

Narsanna and Padma Koppula will be presenting in the Permaculture in India session at the International Permaculture Conference.