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Promoting a diverse food culture through people’s initiatives

Campaign on Food Sovereignty in Mayurbhanj

Believing that people have knowledge, giving due recognition to that knowledge, creating platforms to share and strengthening their capacities is what DULAL has supported by facilitating a people-centered development process. Farmers with renewed confidence are going back to their traditional systems of farming ensuring food and nutrition security for the households. Empowered farmers, today, are in a position to lead campaigns, meetings, rallies and food festivals promoting the establishment of sustainable food production systems.

A woman displays stored maize seeds
A woman displays stored maize seeds

Santal, Ho and Bhathudi, are three tribal communities of the  Mayurbhanj district in Orissa, India which like many others depend primarily on agriculture for their livelihoods. Traditionally, farmers in this millet growing region have been practising traditional methods of agriculture. Millets are the major food source with wild foods collected from the adjoining forest area, adding to the food diversity of these tribal communities.

During the sixties, the government introduced high yielding varieties of paddy though the lands were not suitable for paddy cultivation. The lure of high yields and the subsidy component attracted a number of farmers to opt for paddy cropping. Gradually the millets were replaced. Over the years, the paddy yields started declining. Also people started having easy access to “hand-out” food from the Public Distribution System (PDS) run by the central government. All this resulted in the neglect of locally grown food crops, the consequences being reduced diversity of food and increasing insecurity.

To help the local communities address their problems collectively, DULAL, a local development organisation, started working with these tribal communities since 1987. Informal groups were formed and some health programmes were initiated. Women came together to share their problems and find solutions and in the process also developed collective savings. Later, some income generating activities were initiated with and without the support of the government.

Emergence of people’s campaign

In 2002-03, DULAL promoted fruit trees on the waste lands, popularly known as the Badi model. We were happy that the farmers willingly participated in the programme and also reaped good benefits. The programme was also rated as “successful” in terms of its coverage and impact. Very soon we realised that the communities had merely implemented certain activities (like digging pits and planting) and they did so for receiving direct payments. As a result we found that the people had no sense of ownership for what they did and continued as long as the project support was provided. This set us to think and reflect.

We realised that in implementing programmes, we were focusing more on reaching targets and the organisation interests over-rode people’s interests. The demands of funding agencies to see tangible results often resulted in focusing on achieving ‘targets’. Often our reports had to bear the crude statistical achievements when there was a lot the people had ‘actually achieved’. The activity plans were prepared by the technical people on behalf of the local

communities and they were implemented as per the plans. Rigid plans and frameworks failed to foster people’s participation and to nurture farmer innovations. Our staff was most often “providing solutions” rather than understanding communities’ needs and priorities. We were sure that we needed a shift in our thinking, strategy and approach. A series of workshops were held at different places in India and Bangladesh with a number of other NGOs and with farmers, enabling deeper exchanges on the concept. In one of the workshops, we looked at the main issues and concerns related to the Badi model. For the first time, farmers’ views on how to replicate and sustain the gains from this model were taken into account. Interestingly, farmers came out with a number of suggestions, mentioning, for example, that beneficiaries could become trainers; that they could develop a corpus fund to help members buy saplings, meet the training costs; and enable other farmers to raise vegetables and pulses to prevent grazing.

Seed multiplication

In 2007-08, around 16 farmers started varietal trials on small patches of land. Uneven distribution of rainfall affected sowing and also yields. But the farmers were bold and experimental enough to continue trial cultivation (especially the older farmers). By 2009, already 155 farmers were cultivating several varieties of millet like Jowar, Khado, Gundulu, Mandia, and Kheri that had not been cultivated for over 20 years. The number of millet varieties being grown has expanded to nine, tubers to five, and 22 different leafy vegetables have been identified for cultivation.

The practice of seed purification by seed selection, which was abandoned for more than two decades, was taken up again.

Local seed exchanges

Farmers are on the path of regaining many of the seeds that they had lost. Around 1020 seed exchanges have taken place at a village, district and state level since 2006, all of which have enabled farmers to get back some seeds that were lost from their area. Farmers also set up seed banks in the villages to conserve the traditional varieties. More than 1025 farmers initiated individual seed banks in 225 villages.

These ideas were integrated into the Badi model and the results were amazing. Farmers started intercropping tubers, sobai grass, paddy, pulses, vegetables, millets, and also oil seeds in the Badi. They started exchanging seeds and also collecting and cultivating lost food varieties in the area. This brought “life” to the programme and farmers enthusiastically took care of their Badi plantations.

The success of the “improved” Badi models instilled a lot of confidence in the staff to carry forward new development processes. Staff members were trained to be “facilitators”. More importantly, they were made to understand the village economy and the role of indigenous knowledge in day-to-day life. With this new orientation, the Food Sovereignty campaign was launched with the aim of empowering people to lead the process of attaining food sovereignty. With this campaign, DULAL initiated a genuine people-led development process.

Regaining crop and food diversity

Farmers took the initiative to organise meetings at village squares. They started sharing what they were cultivating, the inputs used and the yields obtained. The farmers shared how they were compelled to use chemicals and more water to get good yields from the high yielding varieties of paddy seeds supplied by the government. They then analyzed the cost of cultivation, understanding how it was lower in the earlier days.

To have a better understanding of the farmer-led development processes, exposure visits were organised to farmer groups (women, elders, youth) in various places within the district and the state. Visits to farmer groups in Bangladesh and Thailand, where farmers have been through a similar process for a longer period, were also organised. All these events led to an increasing exchange of information and debates on traditional seeds, farming systems, diverse food and their cultural practices.

Displaying varieties of millet seeds
Displaying varieties of millet seeds

Farmer exchange sessions in the villages of the Kuliana, Bangriposi, Bisoi and Saraskana blocks helped in analysing various related aspects like the seasonality of crop production, the households’ average income and expenditures, and the periods of food security and scarcity. As part of this process, people identified the resources available and also looked at how they were being used. Communities carried out seed mapping exercises. All members of the community were resource persons in the process: the young and old, the men and women. They made a seasonal calendar. This analysis helped people to understand the “busy periods” and the “leisure periods” in cultivation, and led to a better time planning. The seed mapping exercises brought out that over a period of two decades the millets like Jowar, Khado, Gundulu, Mandia, and Kheri got replaced by crops like paddy. This meant that the village was losing its food diversity.

To bring back the food diversity farmers decided to include millets back into their cropping systems. But reviving millet cultivation was a challenge, since very few farmers were still cultivating these varieties, and it was hard to find the millet seeds. Farmers started collecting lost seed varieties of food crops from other farmers, sometimes travelling to remote villages where traditional cultivation was still alive. Some farmers collected seeds from fellow farmers during their exposure visits.

But the seeds of these traditional varieties were not many, so they had to be multiplied. Moreover, some desirable traits suitable to local conditions had to be integrated. All this meant that farmers had to start a seed selection and breeding process, and so they set up systematic field trials. This was supplemented by organizing seed exchanges and setting up seed banks (See Box)

All these efforts yielded many positive results. Crop diversification increased. Farmers started cultivating different crop varieties on a single land. Farmers are following mixed cropping and rotational cropping methods, and some became really innovative: for instance, one farmer in the Kusumi block managed to grow 92 varieties of crops on his 1.5 acres land! Many farmers have totally  “brought back” the traditional farming systems and are offering live labs for others to observe. The cultivation of millets is providing nutritious food to the households and also fodder for the cattle. Farmers have also started cultivating some wild varieties of food crops and have broadened their food basket. Seed storage systems that were limited to a few varieties of paddy grains have expanded too. Now, many varieties of pulses, millets, tubers and vegetables are also being stored in the seed banks. With the availability of local varieties, the number of farmers buying seeds of input-dependant, high yielding varieties from the market reduced considerably.

Communities take the lead

Initially, DULAL organised awareness campaigns on various issues like the impact of GM crops and the negative impacts of chemical use. Gradually, farmers started joining the process and began to take initiative in the organisation of sensitization campaigns, rallies, village food/seed analysis and crop planning. Farmer leaders in each of the 210 villages in the region organised farmers’ workshops on the issue of food sovereignty. Communities organised nine pada yatras to sensitize the larger population on food sovereignty issues. Four role plays on the ill effects of modern seeds were organized in four villages. Many of the issues related to crop cultivation were discussed. All events were entirely organised by the local communities.

Linkages established with experienced advocacy groups at the regional level provided a better understanding of the larger issues. Communities started getting involved in protests and campaigns. Three major protest rallies against GM seeds were organised in the Bangriposi, Bisoi and Saraskana blocks by the women groups and farmer groups. The whole effort was conceived and organized by the people. More importantly, the women took leadership in organising these activities. Such people-centered activities have resulted in wide spread awareness building on issues affecting the local communities.

Local communities have found different ways to celebrate and encourage traditional and diverse food habits. For instance, if a farmer cultivated millets and had a good harvest, he/she would organise a food festival in which many different dishes made from millets would be prepared and served to the villagers. Besides 35 village level food festivals, eight such festivals were organised at the district and block level during 2007-09. The food festivals have revived the celebrations of these customs with new vigour in the tribal villages.

People-led development processes are more empowering and inclusive. We found that there can be no limits either on the geographic coverage or in the number of people we could reach with this process. We see the “food sovereignty campaign” which has spread to 57 villages across seven blocks in Mayurbhanj district as just a beginning.


This paper has been possible with the kind support of the adivasi communities of Mayurbhanj and the DULAL team. We gratefully acknowledge their support.

This article was first published in (Ed) T M Radha, Jorge, Chavez Tafur, Anja Mertineit and Emmanuel Yap, “Strengthening peopleled development – A joint effort of local communities, NGOs and donors to redefine participation”, 2010, MISEREOR. The soft copy can be downloaded from http://www.misereor.org/fileadmin/

redaktion/MISEREOR_St rengthening_people-led_development.pdf

Seema Prasanth
DULAL, Convent Road, Baripada P.O.,
Mayurbhanj District, Orissa-757001, India.
Ph: 06792-262120, 06792-262105.
E -mail: dulalbaripada@yahoo.co.in; dulalorissa@gmail.com;