Narsanna Koppula is a pioneer Indian permaculture designer, an energetic and enthusiastic teacher, passionate nature-lover, and a staunch feminist. Padma Koppula is the other hand of this pioneering permaculture couple, whose quiet, behind-the-scenes organizational skills, calm demeanor, superlative patience, local farming knowledge and social skills hold the joint reins of this couple's life of service. Together, the Koppulas founded 'Aranya Agricultural Alternatives' in 1999, an organization focused on permaculture advocacy and education in India and worldwide; and set up the Aranya farm as a demonstration site for permaculture at around the same time.
Permaculture, a portmanteau of the words 'permanent agriculture' or 'permanent culture', is a design science that seeks to design landscapes, be they ecological farms or gardens, social systems, or personal emotional landscapes, using ethics and principles derived from the observation and mimicry of Mother Nature. The three core ethics of permaculture are earth care, people care, and fair share/future care (that is, returning surplus yields to nature).
Narsanna Koppula was first introduced to the concept of permaculture by his late mentor, Dr. Venkat with whom he was working in Deccan Development Society (DDS), one of India's premier agriculture-based, grassroots NGOs, in the 1980s. Dr. Venkat arranged for the first PDC (permaculture design course) to be conducted in India in 1987 by Bill Mollison (a co-originator of permaculture) and Robyn Francis (a senior teacher and close collaborator of Bill's), and Narsanna participated in that historic PDC. That was the beginning of a lifelong love affair and commitment to the permaculture way for Narsanna, and he has never looked back, since then!
The Aranya farm was designed as an archetypal dry-land, fully rain-fed, mature permaculture food forest, providing diverse yields for humans and other creatures throughout the year. Its lush greenery, biodiversity, rich top soil and abundant water resources have to be seen, for one to believe what is possible in terms of design, in landscapes that receive a meager 650 mm of annual rainfall. The Aranya farm has served as an example for local and national farmers of what is possible when committed to the permaculture way of living and farming. And since 2014, the Aranya farm has been the site of residential PDCs, where students from all walks of life are introduced to the various layers and intricacies of permaculture design. It took a pandemic to stop Narsanna and Padma in their tracks and world-record-setting commitment of hosting a PDC every single month, since 2018. Not to be fully outdone by the covid-19 virus, they have since resumed their monthly PDCs, with appropriate precautions in place that ensure physical distancing on their large farm.
A heart-warming feature of Narsanna is his open and generous acknowledgment of his lifelong teachers of indigenous natural farming techniques – the local women farmers of Bidakanne and other villages in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, which have been his primary sites of activity. He is quick to clarify that he is an outsider to the village and region Aranya farm is located in since he hails from Adilabad – he stayed since he was explicitly requested by the local women farmers to do so and he respectfully accepted their request. Narsanna is also a fiery defender of India’s last-remaining natural forests and a staunch conservationist who has not been afraid to raise his voice and his fist, and mobilize local villagers to prevent destruction of reserve forests. The reserve forests in the vicinity of Aranya were saved from their fate of illegal conversion to monoculture Eucalyptus plantations by his relentless activism, and their quiet regeneration provides a ray of hope in a country poised on the precipice of climate change catastrophes. Another aspect of his work has been as a crusader for the rights of the landless poor, often belonging to the marginalized castes. For example, in Bidakanne, the village adjoining Aranya farm, almost every household currently has access and rights to a piece of farmland, as compared to the 1990s when about sixty percent of them were landless.
Padma Koppula is the co-founder of Aranya Agricultural Alternatives. Previously, Padma worked for 10 years with DDS, where she and Narsanna first met, and their lives intertwined subsequently. Padma helms several permaculture outreach programs, on behalf of Aranya. For example, as lead facilitator for the Andhra Pradesh drought mitigation project, which seeks to aid 165,000 households of small and marginal farmers to establish water security, Padma works with farmers to harvest rainwater and diversify cropping patterns, gently nudging them towards the holistic permaculture way of life. She also works with tribal communities who have been displaced from their ancestral forestlands, aiding them in re-establishing their ancestral practice of permaculture-led natural farming on the farmlands that the government has allocated to them.
Padma gives trainings in and extensively uses the participatory rural development approach to work with villagers. She teaches seed preservation of local and native seeds and has helped establish seed banks in many villages. She’s worked with 3000 women farmers empowering them to access natural resources, on legal issues, financial decisions and also creating awareness on child marriages and women’s rights in this area. To see her in action, mediating and anchoring conversations and consensus-based decision making amongst villagers is a master-class in human resource management, done the permaculture way!
Join us this weekend in conversation with Narsanna and Padma, a powerhouse permie couple, moderated by one of their permie design students and ServiceSpace volunteer, Gayathri, as they talk about permaculture, its ethics and principles and how to design lives of service to the Earth and all its creatures.