In search of lost diversity

Sustainable agriculture

In search of lost diversity

Farmer movement: Gundenatti has 60  native paddy varieties. This makes it one of the most vibrant seed  preserving regions.

“You can see Karigajivili in this patch of land next year,” Shankar Langti remarks as his eyes scan the sugarcane plot in front of him. Persisting labour problem has posed a huge challenge to the farmer, in terms of harvesting ripe cane. Also, the price of cane has plumetted sharply. Today, Langti has more faith in paddy, the food crop, than the cash crop which dominated the fields after the green revolution.

Paddy cultivation is not new to Gundenatti, a village in Khanapur taluk in Belgaum district. A semi-Malnad region, the village has seen many crops being sown in the last six decades. Finally it was sugarcane to which most farmers stuck.

In the last 10 years, though, the trend has changed. Take this team of 40 farmers, for instance. They have come together to preserve paddy varieties in their fields, and are putting in a lot of efforts to promote the village as a hub of native varieties.

It all started 10 years ago when three consecutive drought years affected farmers badly.

The short, high-yielding paddy varieties could not endure the hard times. A couple of traditional varieties that sustained had disappeared from most of the fields. It was a revelation for farmers. They started searching for the lost diversity.

They started interacting with people from the older generation to know their favourite strains. The result was an eye-opener.  Shankar Langti recalls, “My grandmother and her friends gave us an array of names at one go. They listed out different varieties for different recipes. Roti, payasam, dosa, puffed rice, vegetable rice … you name a dish and a distinct variety was used for the purpose. They cultivated them on different patches as per their needs. While Karehakkalasali rice was given to typhoid patients, Karigajivili was a nutrition supplement for women after delivery. The paddy  also sported different shapes, colours and flavours.”

Crop economics

Only three or four varieties remained in the village by the year 2000. Introduction of chemical farming and periodical droughts had changed the agricultural pattern in the region. Farmers had tried cotton, maize, jowar but nothing worked for too long. Though they thought sugarcane was there to stay, it posed new problems like water scarcity, labour shortage and fluctuating prices.

It was then that a group of 10 farmers, most of them with land holdings below five acres, decided to bring back the lost treasure. It was not easy to convince people that the varieties that deprived the cattle of their fodder were not suitable for cultivation. But no one was ready to look into crop economics, it was the ‘yield’ that was an incentive.

Farmers like BB Kilari, Irappa Emminakatti, Ananda Tegura, Balappa Channannavar and Shankar Langti were firm. They pursued their search. It was a time when indigenous variety movement, and community seed banks were beginning to gain popularity in Karnataka. Shankar Langti approached Sharada Gopal and her friends who were working to ensure better living conditions for the villagers in the region through their organisation ‘Jagruti’.  Sharada encouraged his interest and helped him to attend seed festivals. That opened a new avenue for Shankar. In a couple of years a group was formed which travelled to different places to collect paddy varieties.

After seven years, now the village has 60 native paddy varieties. This makes them one of the vibrant seed preservers in the region. They don’t store the seeds in-house, but conserve them in the fields. The pattern they adopted is unique. Thirty farmers have grown two native varieties each in their farm. The variety that has good demand is grown in a larger area. “We are proud that there are so many seed conservers in the village,”says BB Kilari who is a farmer and retired school teacher. This community-based model has helped dissemination of information easy. Each farmer is proud that he has something to contribute. There is no compulsion; farmers grow the variety which they want to possess. They also share it with farmers from other villages.

All native varieties are grown organically. Even with other crops like sugarcane, ten farmers have shifted to organic varieties. With the sugarcane prices falling off this year again, farmers predict a larger shift to paddy.

Shankar Langti who has been driving the community towards sustainable agriculture with support from his team has seen changes in personal life also. He points to his wife Mahadevi and says, “Without her support it would not have been possible for me to succeed in my efforts.” They have been living in a small house on their farm from the last three years. Many others are following the trend by shifting from village colonies to farm houses. Shankar and Mahadevi are firm that their children after completing their education would return and work in the fields.

All said, only 25 per cent of the land is under paddy cultivation now. But there is a clear shift in the preferences of these families. Instead of sugar cane which doesn’t allow any other crop to be cultivated, paddy gives space to a range of pulses and millets during summer. Farmers can also grow vegetables for domestic use in these fields. “After we concentrated on paddy, our family’s food security has been guaranteed. We women have a say in life-based farming but market-oriented chemical farming undermines our strength,”says Mahadevi.

Community-based approach

Green Foundation, which has been working in the village under its project Community Based Biodiversity Management in South Asia (CBMSA), has given confidence to farmers through knowledge dissemination. “We do not support them financially. But impart knowledge through exposure visits, training in seed selection, purification, value addition and different agricultural practices,” says Green’s network coordinator in the region Shivaraj Hungund. This has helped the villagers to sustain their interest and also agriculture.

CBMSA has helped villagers here to network with experts in the field and also share experiences with like-minded people. Farmers also know the techniques of seed selection and storage. They are in constant touch with the Mugad Paddy Research Station. All this has boosted their morale. This was evident when Shankar Langti organised a Field
Day and a discussion among scientists, organic farmers, chemical farmers and consumers.

The programme organised a month ago had 150 participants from all the four sectors. “We were surprised by the paddy diversity. All the 60 varieties are healthy without any pest problem or disease,” says R Narayanasvamy, Assistant Director of Agriculture, Khanapur.

The growers have a good network of consumers, but there is always a disconnect between demand and supply. Sometimes they are forced to sell the produce off to middlemen. The group, with the help of Shivaraj Hungund, is closely monitoring the consumers’ preferences so that they can plan the crops for next year. Now they are getting orders from far off places too. They are confident of building a dynamic market.

As the women hum the song of harvest, men join hands to separate the grains from the straw. Cattle lying down on the side enjoy chewing the hay. That marks the beginning of a journey to sustainability. 

Comments (+)