- Last monsoon season, 65-year-old Sunadhar Ramaparia, a member of the Bhumia tribe in the eastern Indian state of Odisha, mixed indigenous crops like ‘para’ paddy, foxtail millet and oil seeds in his upland plot.
The rains came, then played truant for 23 days and in the scorching heat even lowland farmers’ hybrid paddy saplings burnt to dust. But Ramaparia harvested a full crop.
Deforestation and climate change have resulted in erratic rainfall, shrinking water bodies and severe soil degradation in Ramaparia’s hamlet of Tentulipar, located in the Eastern Ghat region of Odisha’s Koraput province, leaving scores of farmers vulnerable to extreme hunger.
But the Bhumia tribe is simply falling back on the wisdom of their 3,000-year-old traditional farming systems to ensure a year-round supply of healthy food.
The tribe uses local seeds from the biodiversity-rich Eastern Ghats, a discontinuous mountain range that runs parallel to the Bay of Bengal along India’s eastern coast at an average of 900 metres above mean sea level.
The agricultural system here has adapted to the intensely hilly terrain, built resilience to the changing climate, and developed a natural pest-control mechanism. Tribal farmers grow hardy crops on the highlands, and more water-intensive crops on the midland and low-lying areas.
Though the government of India has offered the tribe subsidised hybrid paddy, which yields about 3,700 to 4,800 kilogrammes per hectare – a much larger haul than the 2,400 to 3,300 kilogrammes farmers can expect from traditional seeds – Ramaparia and his 20-member family have no intention of abandoning their indigenous crops.
“The rice from government seeds not only has no taste or aroma, they demand a lot of costly medicine (chemical fertiliser and pesticides), and they give diseases to those who consume them,” Ramaparia told IPS.
Agricultural festivals are a uniquely local mechanism for promoting seed preservation.
Forty-one-year-old Chandrama Bhumia, who owns just half a hectare of land but has never gone hungry, told IPS, “In April, we have the ‘Bali Jatra’ (Sand Festival), where households collect the sandy topsoil from river banks in leaf containers and sow in it sample seeds that will be planted in June.”
Nine days later, nearly ten thousand people congregate with their geminated seeds and the ‘dasari’, or medicine man, assesses the saplings’ health before rejecting them or giving the go-ahead for cultivation.
For those whose saplings are found to be unsuitable for planting, the event gives an opportunity for seed exchanges. "A lifetime of eating our own grains has kept an old man like me strong, let any young man try arm wrestling with me,” he challenged jovially, looking around at the assembled villagers.
According to the 2003 India National Sample Survey — based on which the National Policy for Farmers (NPF 2007) and the agricultural programmes of the 11th Five Year Plan (2007-2012) evolved — 69 percent of India’s 1.2 billion people are rural. Tribal communities constitute 10 percent of the total rural population; of this, roughly eight percent follow traditional agricultural practices.
According to the National Sample Survey, 46 percent of farmers use the government’s hybrid seeds, while 47 percent use “saved” seeds