The Surprising Power of “Sentiment” in International Work

In a place where population growth is moving incredibly fast, added pressure on farmers in India in the wake of crushing debt and failed crops calls for a new agricultural approach. Genetic modification and organic farming present promising solutions. Young Explorer Andrew Flachs will investigate the effect of both growing strategies by interviewing farmers in Southern India.


“You’ve got to learn”, my research assistant Arun told me a few weeks into the project, “everything here works on sentiment”.  It has taken me a while to realize what he meant by this, but he’s right.  Hourly buses and trains can be hours late and power cuts stop night-time work, but your friends don’t fail you.

Taking a moment to relax and crack jokes after an interview. Photo by P. Vykuntum.

Anyone who works in foreign countries learns very quickly that work and a social life both come easier with the support of local organizations.  Even though I am neither a teacher nor a conservation botanist, one of the perks of being a Young Explorer is the opportunity to, well, explore projects outside of my own research.

A boy lays out the celebratory spread of candles for Diwali as firecrackers explode behind him. Each shop takes the opportunity to lay out attractive flower garlands and candles for the festival, which helps in part to secure good financial fortune in the coming year.  Photo by Andrew Flachs

Recently, I left the small villages of Telangana to travel to the highly-developed city of Bangalore and meet the amazing researchers of ATREE.  The people here work on projects all over the world, but they have allowed me to come and deposit voucher specimens in their herbarium, an archive for plants.

My vouchers serve two purposes:  proof that the plants farmers claim to have in their fields are the same plants I think they are, and a means of translating common names in Telugu into Latin names, a language that can be understood by scientists all over the world.

Voucher specimens ideally consist of flowers, leaves, stems, and roots so that future researchers will be able to identify the plant from any of these parts. When pressed, these plants can preserve for decades.  Photo by Andrew Flachs.

However, this is also a chance to learn how my own style of research works in other countries.  Later, over tea and Bangalore’s famous coffee, I learn about conservation projects in the Himalayas, efforts to help fishers and rice farmers manage wetlands, and console first year graduate students, saying that social theory papers are hard to read even for native English speakers.

Dr. R. Ganesan of ATREE demonstrates the correct way to prepare a specimen. As a plant taxonomist, Dr. Ganesan is able to identify a dizzying array of plants from tiny leaf or flower fragments, a tool that he uses to promote biodiversity and conservation programs that engage local communities.  “We need to move beyond tigers”, he says, stressing the importance of conserving entire ecosystems.  Photo by Andrew Flachs.

Back in the village, I spend two days a week volunteering with the Rural Development Foundation, a social organization that provides heavily subsidized meals and English-language education for village kids.  The school also provides them with cameras and a chance to introduce themselves to the wider world through a photoblog.

Onlookers sneak a peek at the coming photo over the shoulder of a photoblog student as she captures the images of her daily life.  The photoblog program has been running since the mid 2000s and has been featured by the BBC.  Photo by Anil Chary.

The results can be staggering, and speak to the value that these parents place on giving their children a bright future – often during interviews with illiterate farmers, their children will quickly pass through the house on their way to university programs in mechanical engineering or pharmacy.

When my project stalls, the teachers invite me to their own fields and help me ask the right questions; when I walk through the villages, the students race up to me and offer to help me find their randomly selected parents (in exchange for a photograph); when I dropped my wallet on the bus, a farmer that I had interviewed recognized my photo from the driver’s license and returned with a smile, refusing any reward.

Village girls play house, agreeing to show me the way to farm fields in exchange for a photograph. I have a separate folder on my computer called ‘portraits’, in which I save photos like this so I can print them when I travel to cities. It’s difficult to explain when and how research on agriculture will benefit these specific farmers and it’s easy to see that they are doing me a favor by answering my questions. Returning the photos is a small gesture but it helps me give an immediate and tangible display of gratitude.  Photo by Andrew Flachs.

This is the attitude of people who are used to unreliable infrastructure, who are instead teaching me to rely on a growing network of annas and akkas (everyone is referred to as big brother or big sister).  This is the sentiment that keeps work like mine up and running.

NEXTRisk and Reward for Organic and GM Farmers: A Tale of Two Villages

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Andrew Flachs is a PhD candidate in cultural anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis. His research follows agricultural change and the adaptation of ecological knowledge among small farmers in the newly formed state of Telangana, India.