Growing wheat in the hills of Pakistan

July 1, 2021

Pakistan Kissan Mazdoor Tehreek (PKMT) is an alliance of small and landless farmers in Pakistan. Formed in 2008, PKMT is active in 16 districts across three provinces of Pakistan: Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab and Sindh. PKMT offers a collective voice to small farmers advocating for seed and food sovereignty, and equitable land distribution in Pakistan.

According to the World Food Program, Pakistan is one of the main producers of wheat on the planet; the country exports more than one million tons of the grain every year. Yet, despite massive food production, national nutrition surveys estimate that around a third of Pakistan’s population suffers from food insecurity.

To curb food insecurity and increase public health and nutrition,  PKMT has taken the lead in collecting and regenerating traditional seeds. Its members maintain community seed banks, ensuring that locally adapted wheat, rice, corn and nutritious vegetable seed varieties that have been neglected since the Green Revolution are saved and exchanged among farmers. At the policy level, the organization has denounced Pakistan Amended Seed Act 2015, asking for seed laws that promote the rights of small farmers rather than agro-chemical corporations. PKMT filed a petition in Lahore High Court against this anti-farmer seed amended act.

With the Agroecology Fund’s support, PKMT is scaling up agroecology through its Jazba Farmers’ Cooperative, a network of farmers collaborating with researchers and students at the Nawaz Sharif Agriculture University, leading peer-to-peer educational programs on agroecological farming, and practicing agroecology on 18 cooperative farms in Shikarpur, Ghotki, Multan, Haripur and Dir.  Since 2020, the cooperative has been producing and marketing locally milled organic wheat flour.

However, as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic, farmers faced several production, transport, storage and marketing difficulties; these hardships were exacerbated by water scarcity, untimely rains, a locust outbreak, and a lack of availability of organic manure. Bakhtiyar Zeb, a wheat farmer and member of the Cooperative from Dir,  in the foothills of the Himalayas, shares his story with the Agroecology Fund.

Could you tell us a little bit about yourself? 

I, Bakhtiyar Zeb, have my own land and my family and I work on the land ourselves producing for our needs and some for the market. My father used to practice traditional agriculture, kept his own seeds, used oxen for ploughing and never used chemical fertilizers and pesticides. There was little or no expenditure related to agricultural production. The food we ate was nutritious. Life was simple, and did not have many of the material attractions that are part of our lives now.

When I started working on the land, I adopted modern agriculture practices and started using hybrid seeds, chemical fertilizer, and pesticide among others to get higher production. But gradually, I realized that this form of production was extremely costly and I could not save much. We were not able to get a good price for our produce in the market. Apart from this, the food produced was not nutritious anymore, and we found we were spending more money on medicines and going to the doctor. I also realized that we had become dependent on external inputs even for seeds; we were left at the mercy of corporations.  Even though I have my own agricultural land, I cannot decide for myself.  Then I decided to go back to my father’s practice. For the past 10 years I have been practicing traditional agriculture and agroecology; there may be less production but certainly less expenditure, as well. Above all, I am not dependent on any external input produced by corporations. I use my own seeds, my own cow dung as fertilizer. I am much more  satisfied now: at least I have nutritious chemical-free food for my family.

My land is on top of a hill and it’s difficult terrain. My sons and I have gradually increased our cultivable land through terrace farming; we have done this using our own hands. It’s not possible to get machinery in this area. We have a number of cows and goats. My wife, and other women in the family collect all the animal dung and add it to our water tank (constructed by the government, this tank collects rainwater) and it mixes with the water used for land irrigation. It is tough labor as going up and down the hills with not very good walkways is very hard. My sons, once they come back from school, help me in the fields. So it is very hard labor for my entire family but there are many benefits.

What drove you to finally move from conventional agriculture to agroecology? 

In 2010, I had sown hybrid maize on one acre. On another acre of land, I cultivated my own traditional maize seeds. I put the same amount of effort on both patches but the hybrid crop had a pest attack and the traditional crop was healthy with no pest attack. I also noticed that the hybrid seed needed more water than traditional seeds. The traditional maize was ready for harvest 10 days earlier than the hybrid maize. I sold the hybrid maize in the market because my family found traditional maize good for their own consumption. It is also good for our health as there is no chemical or pesticide used. If we care about our health and our family, we should not practice chemical agriculture.

Why is agroecology the right decision for you and your family? 

Most importantly, it provides nutritious food for my family. Apart from that, it is a low-cost agricultural production method. It is beneficial since most of the time we don’t have cash to buy inputs. This traditional form of agriculture does not need much cash as most of the inputs are our own.

How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected your work?

Days and weeks have been very difficult as my daughter and I were infected with COVID-19. It was a very painful experience. I had a terrible cough, fever, and body ache. My sleep was badly impacted and I could hardly sleep for 13 days. I was unable to taste food. Self-isolation was not easy and I only realized this when I had to go through it myself: I wanted to be able to see the skies and my land, my crops! Even when I recovered I was very weak, and could not walk or even sit. Both my parents are diabetic and suffer from high blood pressure; to keep them safe we sent them to another brother’s place. Even after coming out of quarantine I still have a bad cough.

Has this crisis changed your views on food security and food sovereignty?

Since I am a member of Pakistan Kissan Mazdoor Tehreek (PKMT), I understand the importance of food security and food sovereignty.  But certainly, the idea of food sovereignty got sharp attention during the COVID-19 period. The self-sufficient communities who have control on their food production are in a better condition as far as food is concerned. It is expected that there will be huge food shortages in the coming months and years. We decided that we will not sell our wheat crop in the market and will save for the expected days of food shortage. PKMT is also planning to store as much as they can store so that it can be distributed to needy PKMT members, if needed. There is already a shortage of wheat flour in the market, and spikes in wheat prices, even just 1.5 months after the wheat harvest. The government has decided to import wheat to resolve the issue.

What kind of responses are important now, from communities and from policy makers?

Pakistan is an independent country but it is considered to be ruled by feudals and capitalists.  They are 2% of the total population of the country, but they rule and run the country.  The same people make policies for their own interests, with no safeguards for the marginalized people. The people need to stand up and raise their voice. Only organizing and mobilizing peasant labor can bring some kind of relief in our lives. In terms of practical strategies, as mentioned above PKMT members have decided they will store their food crops for communities in need during this crisis. There has also been a call to grow our own vegetables as much as possible. Since I started practicing agroecology, I have grown vegetables in small pots within the boundaries of my home. I will keep doing this.