KODAGUCOMMUNITY.COM EXCLUSIVE: The SOS Foundation is a registered public charitable trust founded by Amrita Chengappa and Vineeta Shekhar with the aim of improving educational, social, and environmental development in Kumaon in Uttarakhand.
By involving external parties, this local project does not only produce new ideas and solutions for problems which are globally relevant, but it also stimulates the rural population into participating in personally beneficial economic and educational activities.
Here are the excerpts of an exclusive email interview with Amrita Chengappa, who is also the granddaughter of General K.S. Thimayya.
Do share with us the story behind SOS Foundation and SOS Organics? When did the idea germinate? Since when has been this initiative functional?
SOS Organics was incorporated in 2002, but has been functional only since 2007. We are based in the middle of Pant Village, Chitai, in the Almora region of Uttarakhand. After having started Organic India, a company that deals with Tulsi Tea, we decided to move to the Kumaon area. We travelled for a few years to see what we could do to generate employment without ruining the environment and started working on making value addition products with regard to the local indigenous material available here. Our entire unit is run solely on rain water harvesting and all the people that work for us are from the village itself and from nearby surrounding areas.
What are the challenges you face to run the concept of SOS Foundation?
The biggest problem here is that people do not want to do farming anymore. Lack of water, combined with a poor market for the indigenous grains are some the reasons. The indigenous foods that grow here are basically super foods that the locals do not appreciate anymore. Poor nutrition is rampant in the area; people have stopped eating their local grains and cereals, depending solely on white rice and other inferior material that is sent up from the plains. The indigenous food that grows here, like finger millet, barnyard millet and amaranth are now being considered “poor people’s food” resulting in poor nutrition. We are trying to change their mindset by showing them that there is a large market that values their produce, encouraging them to use old techniques of multi-cropping as well as working with them on techniques of non intensive farming.
Why organic? What has been the response to your organic products? Are you contemplating moving out of the area you are now supplying to?
Given that traditionally crops were grown without the use of pesticides and given the harmful effects now being seen on the land and food quality, thanks to the intensive chemicals used during the green revolution, organic for us was the most logical step forward to begin healing the earth and making it more productive with better results.
What are the organic products that you sell?
We have a wide range of products, handmade soaps, creams, scrubs, lip balms, air fresheners, massage oils and more. We do herbal infusions, seasonings, local grains and cereals and bee wax candles.
Could share with us your connection to Kodagu?
I was born and brought up in Bangalore and my family name is Kongettira. Both my parents are from Kodagu. My father was in the army and constantly travelling and I remember spending many happy vacations at our family estate in Chettali. I have had tremendous inspiration from my father’s mother, an amazing lady whose qualities, for me, represent what Kodagu is about. A great amount of being able to do what I do must be credited to the support of my immediate and extended family.
Why did you establish this initiative in Almora?
I’ve always loved the Himalayas and I’d grown up hearing a lot about the Kumaon, as my grandfather was from the 4 Kumaon Regiment, and had always wanted to visit. After moving on from Organic India which is based in Lucknow, we moved up to Almora.
Your concerns include local, organic and bio-diverse farming, re-forestation among others. Any plans to bring the idea to Kodagu which also seems like an ideal place to implement these ideas?
I think Kodagu is a lot better off in terms of natural resources. There are still mixed forests and most estates have their own food forests. The climatic conditions here are very harsh and the land is not as productive as in the south. There are, however, living food forests in the interiors and we are trying to encourage people to go back to self sustainable models.
What is your message to the estate owners of Kodagu?
I think most estate owners in Kodagu do an amazing job with their estates. There is nothing in this region that comes close to the kind of mixed agriculture that is found in coffee estates. I think that there is a strong connect with Kodavas and the land, and that most people who work with the land are aware of the pitfalls of using too many chemicals. I think people are slowly moving back to practicing agriculture the way our forefathers used to.
Like you all have done, how can residents of Kodagu seek to implement socially, economically and environmentally sustainable projects that preserve the resources and culture of Kodagu? What can be the driving factors?
There is so much abundance in terms of nature and what it has to offer. Any value addition can generate income. I think there is a wealth of knowledge still in Kodagu regarding traditional medicines and other traditional knowledge systems that should be preserved and recorded.