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Local knowledge, local solutions – Adapting to climate change

SRI methods, which use less water, are being applied to rice, wheat, millets and other crops

The innovations by farmers to adapt to climate change conditions are an evolution of local knowledge.  This knowledge is also relevant and useful to farmers within and outside the area in which the innovations take place. Identifying, harvesting and organising this growing body of knowledge will be of great benefit to farmers in building their resilience to climate change.

The Himalayan mountain system, the youngest mountain system in the world, is not only geologically unstable, but also sensitive to climate change. The villages in the middle Himalayas, range from 2000 ft to 6000 ft in altitude with considerable micro climatic and geographical variations due to differences in altitude, aspect, slope, soil and water resources.

Agriculture is predominantly rainfed in nature with small areas in the valleys being irrigated using gravity flow, from streams and rivers. The uncertainty of rainfall at required time has always been a risk. Farmers have accumulated traditional knowledge and practices which are risk resilient. Living amidst challenging circumstances, farmers in this region are continuously innovating and adapting to climate change.

Farmers replaced wheat and mustard crop with flax to overcome failure of winter rains.

In 2012, INHERE, a partner NGO of a MISEREOR supported project on Local Innovation and Experimentation, conducted a study. The study was done to get a sense of farmers perception on climate change and it’s impact on agriculture. The focus of the project was to identify innovations made by farmers to adapt to climate change as manifested in uncertain weather conditions and extreme weather conditions. A survey was carried out with farmers of mountain villages of Chamoli and Almora districts in the state of Uttarakhand.

All farmers had observed changes in weather conditions and effects on their crops as well as the natural vegetation. The major observations are frequent failure of winter rains, fewer pre-monsoon showers, delayed rains, longer dry spells, increased frequency of cloud bursts and torrential rains. In winter, they observed that there was lesser snowfall and prolonged spells of frost which killed crops and even mature fruit trees. The reduction in snowfall affected soil moisture which is essential for crops sown, soon after winter.

Farmer innovation to adapt to climate change

Farmers are adapting to uncertain weather and climate changes in their own way. Innovative and adaptive practices relate to land preparation, sowing methods, aftercare, harvesting, storage and post harvest techniques. Changes are taking place in cropping patterns and choice of crops.

To adapt to the early onset of summer and warmer winters, some farmers have preponed  sowing of some vegetables like hill cucumber, chilly, beans and some varieties of pumpkins, from March to January end,  with good results. To lessen the effect of prolonged cold winter spell, Janki  Devi of Sherubhaneria village sowed seeds of vegetable creeper crops in a tin. The tin was then kept on a heap of fresh cow dung. When the weather was appropriate she planted the seedlings and harvested the vegetables in time.

The failure of winter rain has been leading to poor growth of traditional crops like wheat and mustard. Also, these crops were increasingly being attacked by wild animals, like monkeys and wild boars.  Heeraballabh of village Sherubhaneria successfully replaced wheat and mustard crop grown in winter to flax or alsi, solving both the problems.

Farmers like Sarla devi, Mohni devi and Hansi devi in Fadika village, have revived planting of local traditional crops of bakula and den that have been neglected for a long time. Bakula is a bean crop with green leaves eaten as vegetable. Den is an oilseed. Its leaves are also cooked as greens. Both these crops withstand dry weather conditions.

To conserve soil moisture, some farmers have reduced the number of ploughings, from three to two or one. This is being followed to conserve moisture from the first rains and adapt to unknown length of dry spell between two showers. Some farmers are making efforts to collect and conserve water from springs and marshy areas in their fields. Mulching is being increasingly taken up to conserve soil moisture. SRI methods which use less water are being applied to rice, wheat, millets and other crops.

Frost is a crop killer. The intensity, as well as length of frosty days, has been growing. Frost starts to set in late evening and stays till the morning sun is strong enough to dissolve it. Basanti Devi observed that plants were much less affected by frost, if watered in the afternoon during this period.

Due to change in climate, there is increasing incidence of white grub pest, locally called as kurmula. This is the larval stage of May beetle. It lies in the soil and feeds on plant roots causing the plant to wither and die.  Dharam Pal Singh, a farmer of Basora village having observed that kurmula was much less near akarkara plants (Anacyclus pyrethrum), grew them on the boundary of his field. He observed much less incidence of kurmula.  Similarly, Laxmi Devi of Naugaon Beria village intercropped akarkara plant with vegetable crops and was successful in reducing kurmula attacks. Other farmers have also tried this method and found it useful.

There are changes in the time of flowering of fruit trees. Insects are attracted to flowers and lay eggs in them, which stay inside during fruit formation. Rajendra Bisht of Dasaithal village observed that spraying cow urine on the flowers at this stage prevented insects from laying eggs. Farmers are discovering that compost, liquid manures and growth promoters, as well as, pest controllers made out of botanicals, are more effective than chemicals during drought conditions.

Prolonged rains and moisture can be detrimental when they occur at the time of threshing, drying and storage.  Turmeric is commonly grown in the central Himalayas, as a cash crop. Traditionally, after harvesting, turmeric is boiled, cut into halves and then kept to dry under sunlight for  8-10 days. However, these days, there aren’t enough dry days, thereby causing rotting of turmeric.  To overcome this problem, Kamla devi of Adigram village boiled the turmeric, cut it into smaller pieces and then crushed the pieces. This process reduced the sun drying time by 4-5 days. The same process was adopted by some women for drying ginger too.

Farmers are building shelters and low cost poly houses to protect their harvest from hailstorms which have become frequent in the growing period. Pratap Singh, a farmer has built shelters using waste biomass to protect his onion seed crop.

Rohida village farmers cover onion nursery using plastic waste to enhance germination

Local innovation, research and science

Innovative farmers, both men and women, use their creativity and knowledge to solve problems or evolve new ways of doing things. This knowledge, is valuable for many farmers, who may be facing the same challenges in a wider area. Innovations which are relevant can also come from outside the area or environment and still be relevant with adaptation. What is common knowledge in one area could be innovation in another area.

Innovation can be a new view point or a new way of organising the old. This requires openness and continuous search. The successes of individual farmers require to be validated to understand scope of application and wider dissemination. However, most of the innovations by farmers mostly go unnoticed by the wider community in the absence of mechanism for learning about them. Agricultural research based on local peoples own initiative and creativity will result in finding location specific solutions, which can make agriculture, resilient to climate. PROLINNOVA, a global network of practitioners promoting farmer innovation, farmer led research, participatory innovation development, is an example where farmer is at the centre of knowledge and research.

Sonali Bisht
E-mail: sonalibisht@yahoo.co.in