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Past for the present

Revival of agro biodiversity that characterizes traditional agriculture is crucial for addressing food and nutrition
security. Bringing back millets, pulses, coarse cereals etc. into the cropping systems can help fill the nutritional gap that is ever widening in the present rural communities. 

Mixed cropping being practiced in the homestead
Mixed cropping being practiced in the homestead

Chandan’s grandmother is surprised to find her ten-year old grandson carefully taking down the recipe of  ‘jhungre ki kheer’, a pudding made with barnyard millet. She herself has not tasted it in the last 30 years. She never learnt to read or write and she never felt the need to put down the recipes she was taught by her and her husband’s family. Besides, she thinks, no one even grows food like that anymore; so, what would be the point of recalling these relics from the recesses of memory?

Chandan is one of the students of Odhla High School, Govindpur who is participating in a traditional recipe competition being conducted in their school by the Smallholder Innovation for Resilience (SIFOR) team. SIFOR has been working in five villages in the Kumaon Himalayas since 2012, to assess various aspects of traditional agriculture and climate preparedness of the same.

Changing farming conditions

As with many mountain communities around the world, agriculture in this region is practiced in the age-old way without any chemical inputs and growing mostly traditional crops for sustenance farming. These include crops like Mandua or Ragi/Finger Millet (Eleusine coracana), Jhungra or Barnyard Millet (Echinochloa frumentacea), Cheen or Proso Millet (Panicum miliaceum), Kauni or Foxtail Millet (Setaria italica), Jaun or Barley (Hordeum vulgare), Ugal or Buck Wheat (Phagopyrum esculentum), Phaphar or Bitter Buckwheat (Phagopyrum tataricum), Cholai or Amaranth (Amaranthus caudatus). Lentils grown in the region include Bhat or Himalayan Black Soybean (Glycine max), Maas or Blackgram (Vigna mungo), Masur or Lentil (Lens culinaris), Rains or Rice Bean (Vigna umbellate) and Gahat or Horse gram (Macrotyloma uniflorum) and oilseeds such as Alsi or Flax seed (Linum usitatissimum), Bhangjeera or Beefsteak Plant/Chinese basil (Perilla frutescens) and Til or Sesame (Sesamum indicum).

“We have increased our production of mandua (finger millet) and jhungra (barnyard millet) in the last 2-3 years”,
says Bachuli Devi, a sixty-year-old womanfarmer from Kujoli.

Agriculture in the Himalayas, especially the above mentioned crops, have suffered much in the last few decades due to various reasons at the global, national, regional as well as local levels. Climate change is a major reason. According to some studies, the mean temperatures in the Himalayan region have increased more than the global and the Indian mean. Another major deterrent to agriculture is crop-depredation by animals like wild boar, monkeys as well as stray cattle.

With basic food grains like rice and wheat being easily available at subsidized rates through the Public Distribution Systems (PDS) and the continuous decline in crop productivity, many farmers have given up on agriculture. They prefer getting daily wages in exchange for their labour at various construction sites in and around their villages, through the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, or simply moving to cities that seem to be dreamlike worlds of income security. There are many villages in the region which have become ghosts of their past with most or all of the residents leaving the green for greyer urban pastures.

Families that still practice agriculture, have started growing vegetables adjacent to their houses as they no longer can cultivate owing to factors like – their inability to protect their far off farms from  depredation, erratic rainfall and shortage of hands to work in the fields. The youth in villages is also increasingly getting distanced from agriculture. Rich agricultural heritage and diversity has suffered because of this growing discontent which favors only a handful of crops and white-collar jobs.

Women provide crucial support to agriculture in the region
Women provide crucial support to agriculture in the region

Restoring crop biodiversity

SIFOR started working in five villages in Uttarakhand to restore the local traditional crops. There were very few farmers or none that were growing barnyard millet, proso millet, foxtail millet, flax seed etc. It was indeed a challenge, as some of the crops were completely lost. Seeds had to be brought from other villages where they were still being grown.

Some farmers have revived flaxseed, and also discovered an innovative cropping pattern to prevent damage by birds. Birds dislike flax seed and growing them on the field margins protects the main crop. Finger millet is a traditional crop that has always been grown. Presently, many families have scaled up its production as it is hardy and performs better in the face of climates vagaries. The SIFOR team introduced a traditional variety of wheat with long awns that deter birds and animals from attacking it. The variety had become extinct in the villages and hence the seed was obtained from the Champawat area near the Nepal border.

There were several problems during the revival process.  Proso millet is preferred for its short duration nature. But, being an early crop with a sweet taste, the crop is prone to destruction by birds. In case of Barnyard millet,  it was noticed that a particular kind of bird came to feed on it, which had not been spotted before. The effects of climate change have not only increased the instances of diseases and pest attacks but also brought about a change in the kind of pests and diseases that farmers have not encountered before.

Keeping in mind these challenges, efforts are being made to mobilize the community to take action to address food security of the villages in the long run. A community seed bank is being established with the aim of providing seed security and conserving agro biodiversity. In the seed bank there are a total of 158 crop varieties that have been collected from nearby villages as well as elsewhere in the Himalayas. They consist of many varieties of paddy, wheat, millets as well as vegetables. The seed bank is being managed by the SIFOR team at the moment and will eventually be handed over to the community.

New radish variety  developed by Dayanand Joshi
New radish variety developed by Dayanand Joshi

A ‘Crop Protection Committee’ discusses various issues and has appointed a guard to watch out for crop raiders in the areas where the village fields lie. The women of the region have been mobilized to constitute new Self-Help Groups (SHGs). These SHGs actively discuss and jointly take decisions on livelihood and agriculture matters as well as benefit from government related schemes and funding for such collectives. The SIFOR team facilitates many of these meetings to help keep the interest alive. Many of the activities are also routed through the SHGs.

Nurturing innovations

The knowledge of traditional farming, though passed on from one generation to the next, also fosters innovation, that helps its adaptation to changing times. Dayanand Joshi of Gallakot village is an exceptionally innovative farmer who has no scientific training in agriculture but has developed his own variety of radish by crossing a hybrid with traditional variety. He carried out the experiment for six years about twenty years ago. This new variety, called Dayakesari, can be used as both a vegetable and salad unlike the original varieties that can be used as either a vegetable or salad. Moreover, the green leaves of this variety can be used as a vegetable during the summer season when not many greens are available.

Way forward

Local and indigenous communities have their own agricultural knowledge systems that have been developed over many generations. The systems and practices being integral to their natural surroundings, makes them sustainable.

Revival of agro biodiversity that characterizes traditional agriculture is crucial for addressing food and nutrition security. Bringing back millets, pulses, coarse cereals etc. into the cropping can help fill the nutritional gap that is widening in the present rural communities. Eventually, it can also be scaled up with market linkages, making agriculture lucrative for the youth.  Institutions have an important role to play in reviving biodiversity and promoting ecologically sustainable practices at the community level.  Then, kids like Chandan can not only learn about his agricultural heritage but can also become a successful farmer, taking pride in the rich crop biodiversity on his farm.

Prakriti Mukerjee, Ajay Rastogi and
Reetu Sogani
Smallholder Innovation for Resilience
Lok Chetna Manch, Chetna Kunj,
Rai Estate, Ranikhet – 263645
Uttarakhand, India.
E-mail: mukerjee.prakriti@gmail.com