After many months chewing on the information we gathered in Delhi, the question that keeps nagging us is, what part of this, if any, is sustainable? There seems to be a real disconnect between what we read in the literature about urban agriculture and what we saw on the ground with the farmers we worked with. A lot of the literature points towards the potentials of urban agriculture; improved health, use of organic wastes, greening of city spaces, and so on. To be fair, most of the literature is talking about a very different type of urban agriculture (in more affluent, developed areas), but nonetheless, we saw a very different picture on the ground. These were real farmers struggling to make a living. Livelihood requirements trumped anything else.
There is a real tension here between the more short-term, immediate decisions that people make for livelihoods and the longer-term strategies required for sustainability. The farmers said themselves that using organic fertilizer was better. They knew that not leaving fields fallow was contributing to loss of production potential. They knew these things; but with land tenure uncertain and the need for immediate income, they relied on methods they knew and that would have a more immediate return.
The take-away lesson for us is that people’s livelihoods have to be at the center of any discussion about sustainability and making changes. At a most basic level the need to provide for oneself and one’s family is a major driver of behavior. We need to be able to recognize this tension between short-term livelihood decisions and long-term sustainability goals and forge a path that works with people’s need to provide for their families, but does so in an environmentally and socially conscious way.