It is sowing season for the paddy farmers of West Bengal, and Bablu Burman – a farmer from Bhattadighi village in the district of Uttar Dinajpur – is preoccupied. Burman is using pieces of wood to build nesting boxes for birds that he will hang in his fields.

“They will provide shelter to feathered guests such as mynahs, barn owls and sparrows this cropping season [that will] feed on the paddy pests,” he said. Each box is about four feet in height and two feet wide. An extended sloping roof keeps the rain away and there are perches inside for birds to rest on or even roost.

Burman owns about 1.33 hectares of land and cultivates about 50 varieties of organically-grown indigenous rice. Till about five years ago, he was growing high-yield rice using chemical fertilisers and pesticides. His decision to transition to organic cultivation caused a sea change in the ecology of his paddy field. “The soil gets so lively, teeming with countless insects, frogs, earthworms, snails and birds during the crop season,” he said.

Burman is one among 25-odd farmers in his village who have shifted, or are in the process of switching, to ecological farming. According to the environmental non-profit Greenpeace, “ecological farming ensures healthy farming and healthy food…by protecting soil, water and climate, promotes biodiversity, and does not contaminate the environment with chemical inputs or genetic engineering”. It involves using natural manure, growing pulses and leguminous plants, such as riverhemp, and floating fern in paddy fields as part of the crop-rotation process. This replenishes the soil with humus, helps in nitrogen fixing, and makes it more cohesive and resistant to erosion. It also serves as a nurturing ground for diverse micro and macro organisms such as insects, birds, molluscs and fish.

Egrets in the paddy field. Photo credit: Moushumi Basu.

Adjoining Burman’s fields are neem, mango, black plum and wood apple trees. Their branches are ideal to hang the nesting boxes, which he secures firmly to prevent them from getting dislodged during the rains. They will remain there for the next three-four months to attract avian visitors, who, according to Burman, are effective and cost-free antidotes for pests and rats.

Natural pest controllers

“Burman’s efforts will not go in vain,” said Rupak Paul, assistant professor of geography at the Dewan Abdul Gani College in Dakshin Dinajpur district of West Bengal. According to him, old trees that once thrived in the region have gradually been chopped, making way for agricultural land. Birds, which usually nest in hollows or cavities of old trees, are likely to prefer these boxes.

A nesting box. Photo credit: Bablu Burman.

Rupak Paul, who has been studying biodiversity in paddy fields for a few years, is also a member of the Forum for Indigenous Agricultural Movement. The grassroots organisation is active in the villages of Uttar and Dakshin Dinajpur and focuses on the principles of traditional organic farming. It started in 2011 with a handful of members and now has 100 farmers in about 22 villages across the two districts, says Chinmoy Das, general secretary of the movement.

“Traditionally, farmed paddy fields using natural organic fertilisers and pesticides are the best examples of temporary wetland systems that develop [a] self-sustainable ecological pyramid,” said Rupak Paul. Birds such as owls, mynahs and herons are at the apex of the pyramid and their presence indicates a healthy and vibrant rice field ecosystem, thereby ensuring a good yield.

Such ecosystems harbour a rich biodiversity of flora and fauna and create a viable food chain between them, thus enabling their sustainable co-existence. For instance, the delicate water primrose grows with abandon in these paddy wetlands. Its conspicuous yellow flowers attract butterflies such as the grass jewel and grass blue, which are preyed upon by the Indian mynah and the fork-tailed black drongo. These birds also eat paddy pests such as stem borer, leaf folder moths and swarming caterpillars, acting as natural pesticides. The number of natural pest feeders (predators) that these chemical-free traditional rice ecosystems attract, as Rupak Paul explains, far outnumbers that of the pests.

Barn owls are common predators. Photo credit: Moushumi Basu.

Farmers also grow plants, such as riverhemp, that act as effective bird perches in the paddy fields. “The wooden branches [of the plant] are comfortable seats for the birds,” said Salim Sarkar, a young farmer from Nakair village in South Dinajpur. “[On these plants] they merrily consume various insects. Nocturnal birds such as nightjars and owls also use the same perches and prey on rats in the fields.” Farmers sometimes create T-shaped bamboo structures and tie them to paddy plants for birds to sit on them and devour insects, but they are removed once the grains start ripening, explains Sarkar.

“The paddy fields typically bear the characteristics of aquatic grassland ecosystems that can nurture wide range of bird diversity,” said Arvind Mishra, ornithologist and member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Species Survival Commission (Spoonbill, Ibis and Stork Group). Mishra explains that rice plants are essentially types of grasses, which can tolerate standing water. Hence, organic paddy fields provide the ecological benefits of both grasslands and wetlands.

Asian Open Billed storks in the trees near the paddy fields. Photo credit: Moushumi Basu.

Open-billed storks and ibis are the perfect eco-managers of paddy fields. Near the rice fields of Uttar Dinajpur is the Kulik Bird Sanctuary, which is populated by storks, egrets and night herons. The paddy fields are ideal hunting grounds for these birds, given the profusion of mollusks, rats and crustaceans that abound there, says Mishra. The birds not only control the spread of harmful pests, they also oxygenate the soil as they move through the standing water. Their droppings act as natural manure and during nesting season, they build nests with the leaves of the plants.

The water is also an invaluable habitat and nursery for various kinds of fish such as carp, tilapia, mrigel, catfish and punti. These fishes naturally enter the fields from the surrounding waterways at the time of flooding. They also serve as an additional source of income for the farmers – species such as catfish can fetch a good price in the market. “One bigha [0.13 hectares] of wetland paddy can yield up to three quintals of catfish [priced at Rs 400 per kg], along with two and a half quintals of paddy in eight months’ time, fetching us up to Rs 1,00,000 besides [providing] the ecological benefit,” said Sarkar.

Fishing in the waters of the paddy fields. Photo credit: Moushumi Basu.

“Safely hidden from birds, the fish and paddy plants easily enter into a symbiotic relation with each other,” explained Dr Anupam Paul, assistant director (agriculture) at the Nadia-based Agricultural Training Centre. The roots of the paddy plants serve as a good refuge for the fish. In return, they eat the unwanted filamentous algae and aquatic weeds and pests such as stem borers. They also help in controlling the spread of diseases such as malaria by eating the mosquito larvae.

It’s not just the crop yield that improves with this symbiotic relationship. Kulik, a stream that flowed about 400 metres from the paddy fields in Raiganj in Uttar Dinajpur, was running dry in the summers, over the last decade, with the bed getting shallower each season. However, over the past few years, local farmers were delighted to find six inches of water in the stream, even during the dry summer months.

Water makes a reappearance in the Kulik stream. Photo credit: Rupak Paul.

Rupak Paul explains this is possibly due to a rise in the region’s water table. Over the last few years, farmers have started growing patches of folk rice such as as Tulaipanji, Kataribhog, Josua, Badshahbhog, Chiniatope, Kalojeera alongside the traditional high-yield varieties. The chemically-grown high-yield variety of rice requires a lot of water, which leads to over-extraction of groundwater through pumped irrigation, resulting in lowering water tables. But in comparison, folk paddy is more water efficient, besides irrigated fields cause the surplus water to seep below, restocking the ground water. These factors could have led to water making a reappearance in the Kulik river bed. Anupam Paul says that practicing traditional eco-friendly farming could lead to the rejuvenation of other dried-up natural water bodies.

Rupak Paul’s explanation is substantiated by a study that says there is 15% to 20% greater movement of water through the soil in organic fields to the groundwater level, and therefore, higher groundwater recharge. Water capture and retention capacity in organically-managed soils is up to 100% higher than in conventional soils. nice paddy

Sunset over the paddy fields. Photo credit: Abhijit Kar Gupta/Wikimedia Commons [CC Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic].

Studies show that ecological farming can also contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions that are responsible for global warming. Further, diverse crop-rotation strategies and natural soil-building practices with the use of organic manure, as in the villages of Uttar and Dakshin Dinajpur, reduce overall emissions while sequestering carbon in the soil, thereby enhancing overall biodiversity in the region.

The story has been produced with support from Earth Journalism Network.