Sanjay Nagpal says his duty is to strive to do good to people and the environment in every action because we never know how far our impact stretches in the world.
As of January 2019, The Forest Trust has become Earthworm Foundation.
This is the third in a series of five blogs on our work with the company Maisons du Monde and its work to transform its supply chain in India.
In the state of Haryana, a 6-hour car drive west of Delhi, we met one of the key positive deviants of the MdM shisham story. Sanjay Nagpal is a sawmill owner. Like many of his compatriots, he does not see much separation between his material and spiritual life, between his business and his beliefs. And it shows in the real world: his sawmill stands right next to his house, which itself is surrounded by a beautiful garden where food and tall shisham trees grow… while in the middle of it all, a tent has been raised for meditative practice… Not surprisingly he expresses a sincere belief and understanding of interdependence. He tells me how deforestation in Africa can impact rainfall in India. He goes on to say that his duty is thus to strive to do good to people and the environment in all his actions because we never know how far our impact (positive or negative) stretches in the world.
So when in 2011 MdM and TFT came to the region looking for a solution to source traceable and sustainable shisham wood, Sanjay Nagpal saw this as an opportunity to further both his business and his personal convictions. He helped link MdM’s supply chain with groups of farmers that he believed could benefit from the sustainable harvesting of shisham wood and at the same time supply his sawmill. The journey could then continue down the supply chain and the roots of the lotus. And here again positive deviants answered the call.
One of the first farmers to respond was Surendrapal Singh Sihag, a wealthy farmer by Indian standards, living on a family estate 20km away from the Pakistan border, further west in the region of Punjab. Surendrapal Ji’s forefathers were horse breeders during British rule. With his quiet manners, elegant white Kurta (the traditional Indian long shirt) and his elaborate moustache, he seems to have inherited much of the dignity and grace of his ancestors. He also likes to get his hands dirty and, as he takes us around his estate, he shows great passion and knowledge of his land. Today he owns more than a 100 acres of land on which he raises cattle and grows many crops such as wheat, cotton, pulses, mustard and Kinnoo (citrus fruit – a delicious mix of orange and sweet lime) as well as other fruits and vegetable for his own consumption. Yet Surendrapal Ji’s actual link with the MdM project relates to the specie that marks the boundaries of his field: his 700 shisham trees. While these forms the physical boundaries of his land, his vision and influence stretches far beyond these boundaries.
Surendrapal Ji is a humble and practical person, a respected leader in his community; just like the sawmill owner Sanjay Nagpal, he is also a man with a distinctive vision, a positive deviant who dares to take a different path from the logic of the current system and the Wasteland it has created. So when he first got in contact with MdM and TFT in early 2011, he quickly understood that working with other farmers for a better management of shisham could be a step in the right direction for the whole community and its environment. Still today he works hard to bring more farmers to the project.
Shisham trees increase shade and soil fertility. They are example of agroforestry and of possible synergies between trees and crops. In a world that sees agriculture and forest as opposite, clashing between our needs for food and the needs of natural systems, agroforestry is a testimony that the answer is not in their separation but probably in their fertile integration. Shisham trees also serve a direct economic function as a complementary source of revenue for farmers. Local tradition wants parents to plant a shisham tree when a daughter is born so that when she is eventually ready to marry (a shisham trees take between 15 and 20 years to mature) the tree can be cut and the money used to pay the dowry to the groom’s family.
Today nearly 300 hundreds farmers in Punjab and 500 farmers in Haryana have joined a farmer group like the one led by Surendrapal Ji, with MdM and TFT providing free seedlings, advice on management and a link to global markets. Thus selling timber straight to the sawmills and cutting the middlemen means more revenue for the farmers. In just a couple of years, the initial connections between positive deviants, from the retailer Mr Marie, to sawmill owners such as Sanjay Nagpal, and farmers like Surendrapal Ji has grown and its roots has branched out into tangible benefits for hundreds of farmers across the region of Punjab and Haryana and is still growing.
Yet for all its great benefits, Shisham is only part of the story for those farmers. At the end of the day, it can only represent a fraction of their revenues. By itself, the responsible management and sale of the timber will help but not fundamentally change the grim reality that many small farmers face in those regions. What the shisham supply chain does though is create conditions and connections for a larger story to take place. What indeed matters most is the link the tree has created between those positive deviants, those individuals and groups who have a different vision of the human relationship with the land. And as we will see on our next stop on the journey, a vision like this does not know boundaries.