Rahibai Soma Popere of Kombhalne village in Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra is highly knowledgeable about agro-biodiversity, conservation of landraces, innovative techniques in paddy cultivation and the like. Her insight is based on experience, and hence, when she speaks in her earthy Mahadeo Koli tribal dialect, even experts listen intently.

The 54-year-old farmer has the distinction of conserving and multiplying 48 indigenous landraces of 17 different crops including paddy, hyacinth bean, millets, pulses and oil seeds.

Rahibai in her farm of landrace hyacinth bean that she has helped conserve among other traditional crop varieties. Photo credit: BAIF

“The tribal households traditionally had a backyard garden that had multiple, multilayered and multipurpose indigenous trees, plants, herbs, and shrubs,” Sanjay Patil of BAIF Development Research Foundation, an NGO that works with Adivasis in 16 states of India, told VillageSquare.in. “The produce from this small garden was sufficient to meet the dietary and nutrition needs of a family for an entire year.”

Wide variety

The Adivasis of Palghar district traditionally cultivated more than 300 rice varieties, each consumed for a specific intent such as for instant energy when exhausted and for medicinal properties. These native varieties were the result of years of dedicated efforts to develop and conserve crops suitable for the local agro-climatic conditions.

Farmers are involved in participatory selection of rice. Photo credit: BAIF

The high-yielding rice varieties introduced in the early ’60s during Green Revolution failed to have significant effect in the western regions in the first three decades. But in the subsequent decades, the high-yielding rice varieties such as Ratna and Jaya replaced the indigenous ones considered to be the most responsive.

Unfortunately, these high-yielding varieties failed to give any spectacular increase in yield as the resource-poor tribal farmers were unable to afford the recommended inputs like chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

After cultivating for many years, the farmers realised the limitation of hybrid seeds as the seeds lost vitality after a generation or two. Moreover, they found that the dwarf varieties introduced for higher productivity resulted in lesser hay and hence shortage of fodder for the livestock, an integral part of the farming system.

This awareness has resulted in the Adivasi farmers reverting to native seeds and organic methods of cultivation, thus reducing their dependency on external inputs, namely, seeds, growth promoters, fertilisers, and pesticides.

Seed savers

To help the farmers go back to native crops, Rahibai prepared 5,000 seedlings of hyacinth beans and shared them with members of self-help groups in 25 villages. 89 acres were farmed with these seedlings.

Rahibai’s collection includes Kolbhat, a scented, long, fine rice with good fodder quality, Dhavul, a short variety rice consumed as gruel for instant energy, Rajbhog, a scented, long, fine rice that can withstand high rainfall, Godval, a hyacinth bean, which grows both in rabi and kharif seasons and is drought tolerant.

She played a key role in forming the Kalsubai Parisar Biyanee Savardhan Samiti in Akole in Ahmednagar district, towards conservation and propagation of traditional varieties. Indigenous seed melas or fairs were organised in different parts of the district to create awareness among farmers about the diversity of seeds and the need to conserve them.

Known for the famed Warli art, Jawhar in Maharashtra’s Palghar district is home to the Warli, Thakar, Katkari and Kokna tribal communities. In Jawhar taluk, an effort similar to Rahibai’s in conserving traditional varieties of paddy was initiated by Sunil Kamadi of Kamadipada village and Mavanji Pawar of Chouk village.

While harvesting his paddy crop in 2010, Kamadi observed an unusual panicle of paddy that had more number of grains compared to the others. Isolating the panicle from the rest, he sowed its seeds separately for four successive seasons. With BAIF’s assistance he successfully developed a new selection of this rice variety with specific traits.

Conserving crop diversity

An active member of a seed saver farmers’ group, Kamadi helps fellow farmers in conserving crop diversity in the locality and is considered an expert in participatory seed selection in crops such as paddy, finger millet and proso millet. Over the years he has collected scores of local varieties of tubers such as karande, kochi, suran and vegetables such as bottle gourd, bitter gourd, ash gourd, brinjal, pumpkin, cowpea, colocasia, lablab beans and gherkin.

Kamadi and Pawar are recipients of the Plant Genome Saviour Farmer Recognition Award for 2011-’12, conferred by the Ministry of Agriculture. Kamadi got the award for his paddy variety called Ashwini, developed through selection method and Pawar for his three paddy varieties, namely Kamal, Kirti and Sadhana.

Rahibai, Kamadi and Pawar are associated with BAIF in their participatory seed production, with the active involvement of the local farming community.

Seed banks

Through seed exhibitions and personal interactions with growers, the BAIF team has collected data on the likely reasons behind the extinction of varieties, existing crop landraces and their specific properties, besides factors affecting crop diversity.

Data indicate that Dhadgaon in Nandurbar district and Jawhar have a number of landraces of food crops that are resistant to pests, grow on poor soils, flourish under changed climatic conditions and offer high nutritive value.

Presently farmers are involved in conservation and revival of indigenous crops in 56 villages of five tribal blocks, spread across Nandurbar, Gadchiroli, Ahmednagar and Pune districts, with a focus on paddy, finger millet, proso millet, hyacinth bean, cowpea, sorghum, maize, barnyard millet and foxtail millet.

Revival of landraces is facilitated through community seed banks. The farmers who are assigned the task of producing seeds are offered choice samples collected after four or five generations of purification and upgradation. The seeds, sold at a price decided by the seed saver group, offer a new avenue of income. If a farmer is unable to pay for the seeds in cash, he is offered the seeds with a condition that he return double the quantity of seeds that he took.

Presently, 15 villages in Gadchiroli, 12 in Nandurbar, 10 each in Palghar and Ahmednagar, and five in Pune are involved in producing seeds and in operating community seed banks towards preserving traditional crop varieties.

This article first appeared on Village Square.