The tribal farmers of Rayagada and Kalahandi districts in Odisha have promoted biodiversity on their farms and on their plates by adopting agroecological models of food production. They are on the path of self reliance by defining their own food system.
The tribal farmers of Rayagada and Kalahandi districts in Odisha face a number of issues like hunger, starvation deaths, drought, bonded labour, distress migration and so on. Most of these farmers have never been able to cultivate their small patches of land that was given to them by the government, as part of land reforms programme. Since there is very little employment in the region, these farmers migrate elsewhere and work as labour on farms and perform other odd jobs. To help these communities to get back to farming and achieve food security, Agragamee, a local NGO, has been promoting family and community based agro-ecological models of food production.
Alternative local food production initiative
Millets and pulses are core to dryland farming and consumption in Odisha. The public distribution system (PDS) in India, which is based on the wheat and rice model, has never benefited the tribal farmers. With Agragamee’s support, a group of tribal women farmers (115 women groups) in Rayagada and Kalahandi districts came together, to experiment with an Alternative Food Production and Storage System (AFPSS). They decided that any alternative would have to be significantly different, and based on different ideas about food security and sovereignty, than those adopted by the PDS.
In the AFPSS model, the first step is to work on the patches of degraded lands through efforts like bunding, trenching, top-soil addition etc. A seed loan from community seed cum grain bank, established by Agragamee, is given to the farmers, which they would need to repay in the form of grain. The next step is to cultivate this land with traditional and bio-diverse agriculture using indigenous seeds. Once the crop is harvested, the loan is repaid as grain and stored in the community grain fund. This not only ensures food security of the tribal community during the times of food scarcity but also promotes the traditional diverse agro-ecological practices to attain food sovereignty.
Indeed, every tenet of the AFPSS model is the pillar of food sovereignty: reclamation of fallow land, increased productivity of existing cultivated lands, biodiverse agriculture, market-focused and climate-driven planting, and emphasis on ‘local’ roles. The work is carried out through women’s collectives, and emphasizes ‘local’ at every stage – production, storage and distribution.
Agragamee’s effort over the past three decades has shown that, bio-diverse, organic, natural farming produces more nutrition per acre food, meaning more health per unit of land. Our recent grassroot level assessment shows that small farmers who have their own seed, practice chemical free, ecological agriculture and share fair trade markets earn 5 times more than their counterparts who are dependent on costly corporate seeds, chemicals from the same companies and depend on exploitative commodity markets. These small farmers have promoted local food product circles for direct consumer – producer links through farmers’ producers organisation, bypassing the exploitative ‘middlemen’. These circles have promoted biodiversity on their farms and biodiversity on their plates, which is not only vital for nutrition but also food sovereignty.
Reclaiming diverse food system
Over the years, the work of the Mahila Mandals (women groups) in 65 villages has resulted in reclamation of 2275 acres of fallow land and production of one million kilograms of extra food every season. Around 2000 employment days have been generated per village with 40 person days employment generated per acre. Alongside, the extra fodder generated is equivalent to 6,000 cattle feed. Every family has now 1000 extra meals. Overall this implies increased fodder, increased livelihoods and increased wage income. The Mahila Mandals continue their effort towards ascertaining food sovereignty in their villages and also convince neighbouring villages for the same.
Sani Majhi: an exemplary role model
Sani Majhi, a 34 year old farmer of Maligaon village of Kashipur block in Rayagada district, was determined to overcome nature’s unending challenge and achieved a sustainable source of livelihood. She worked almost single-handedly for five years on her 1.2 acre farm to ensure the right mix of crops, poultry, goatery and cattle.
In 2012, Sani Majhi opted for integrated farming system on her one acre family farm under Eco-Village Development – a sustainable model initiative of Agragamee. She was motivated to change the shape of the land, which could be developed into an integrated farming system by setting up a network of nutrient flow. She realized that to get a productive farm she needs to strengthen biodiversity on her farm, which would be self-supportive.
About 25% of her land was kept for growing cereals, millets, pulses and vegetables, 55% for fruit orchard development, 15% for rearing of cattle, goatery and poultry and the remaining 5% for border plantation of trees like neem, subabul (Leucaena leucocephala), pongamea, bael, amla, lemon, pineapple, ber etc. These perennial trees have planted for enriching the soil and for supplying fodder and fuel. She started mixed cropping, crop rotation, crop combination and inter-cropping regularly in order to increase the farm diversity. Gradually, Sani Majhi shifted to ecological farming which helped her attain food sovereignty. She has also saved varieties of seeds (vegetables, lentils, millets, cereals) in the community seed cum grain bank. These seeds are being used by the villagers every year.
“Now I have become the earning member of my family,” she says. She is using part of her earnings for children’s education and a small amount is being saved. She participates in family decision-making process. Sani majhi feels that now she has an identity of her own.
The tribal communities in south-western districts of Odisha have developed their livelihood systems which includes cultivation of a wide range of crops like cereals, millets, pulses, oil seeds, tubers and fruits. Their practice of diverse crops under integrated farming system on one acre of family farm has not only helped them to ensure food security but has also helped them to move a step ahead to attain food sovereignty. Moreover, it has provided a sustainable path of livelihood and food security even in the times of droughts. The practice of shifting cultivation, which was once a form of cultivation, has now harmonized with the ecosystems in its steady rhythm of mixed-cropping. The Kondhs, Jhodias and Parajas of these regions have become self reliant and independent.
The tribal farmers proved that food security cannot be achieved without taking full account of those who produce food. Any discussion that ignores their contribution will fail to eradicate poverty and hunger. Food is a basic human right. This right can only be realized in a system where food sovereignty is guaranteed.
Kulaswami Jagannath Jena
Agragamee, Kashipur, Rayagada,