Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU
EARTHSCAPES: May 20, 2001
P. V. Satheesh
National and international debates on agriculture are increasingly talking of a new buzzword: agrobiodiversity. What is this? Why is it practiced, and by whom? Why is it declining? To whom should we go to understand this?
Deccan Development Society
Make a departure from those taking part in these debates. Don't go to the great scientists in their white coats in their sterilised labs. Don't consult huge tomes in imposing libraries. Don't surf the net. Instead, go to the real repositories of agrobiodiversity on their farms and peep into their knowledge and cultures.
Come and meet a beautiful woman. Gangwar Manemma, 65. A wiry 5ft 2in woman with sparkling eyes. Her three acre farm in village Gangwar in Nyalkal Mandal of Medak district of Andhra Pradesh epitomises the term land degradation. It is a piece of land bestowed upon her by the benevolent government under its land reforms programme. This land could have been a nightmare for any farmer.
But Manemma does not think so. What a "piece of degraded land" is, for the scientific community, is "Bhootalli" (Mother Earth) for Manemma. As if in response to this infinite faith she has in Mother Earth, her most degraded land has never failed to shower her bounties; her family of six has never been hungry in the worst of drought years.
A walk down the little path that bifurcates her land is a feast to the senses as you are greeted by an incredible 20 odd varieties of crops. Four varieties of jowar in their diverse shapes (round, cone shaped, elongated) and colours (pure white, red, black and yellow) stand in solidarity with four varieties of pigeonpea - black, red, white and spotted. Panicles of foxtail millet - many varieties - nod in the wind while the creeping cowpeas carpet the ground with their green. Multicoloured flowers of Dolichos dazzle your eyes while their vines climb up on jowar stalks. The dark red of the finger millet makes a velvet canvas on the earth rising above the spread of creeping green gram.
Deccan Development Society
But it is not the aesthetics of her farm that should strike you most. What should is the principle on which she has created this farm. What she follows, intuitively, is a canon called agrobiodiversity, what many scientists now believe to be critical to the survival of farming.
Another fact that should strike you is that Manemma has produced every single seed she needs in all her 50 years of farming. She epitomises another principle some of us in India are fond of espousing, but as "educated" people fail to achieve: self-sufficiency in the basic elements that constitute survival.
Self-sufficiency is also the motto in the farming of Begari Laxmamma (32), a Dalit single woman from Humnapur in Medak district in Andhra Pradesh. With just one acre of rainfed farmland, she has helped to retrieve and save over 62 varieties of seeds. For Laxmamma, seed is a manifestation of her personal liberation. Control over seeds gives her the freedom of not having to go to the market for seeds.
For Laxmamma, diversity in agriculture is crucial. It brings her a variety of foods which are safe to eat and meet her divergent needs (cereals, pulses and oilseeds) and a range of fodder for her cattle. If she compromises on her principle of biodiversity, she will lose these advantages. She does not believe in the now dominant viewpoint that you can grow a single crop, sell the produce, and purchase your food from the market.
On the hills of Garhwal in Uttar Pradesh, farmer Bachan Singh organises his five acre slopy farm into a neat set of terraced fields. On the lowest patch which has fertile and moist deposits of fine soil, he grows jowar, maize and mustard. On the topmost parts of his field, where land is gravelly and eroded, he sows ragi (finger millet) which gives him a bumper harvest year after year. Between these two heights he grows dozens of crops: buckwheat, barnyard millet, a variety of ramdana (amaranthas), pearl millet, foxtail millet - all a part of the highly evolved Baranaja ("12 crops") system. Elsewhere, his fellow farmers have been fast losing out on this multi-cropping system under the onslaught of the market oriented, monocultural farming (such as soyabean). Of late, however, a group of farmers grouped under the Beej Bachao Andolan (Save the Seeds Campaign) have begun reviving Baranaja.
In the Deccan, women sing a chorus "Aadolla Bhoomillo Pannendu Rakhala Panta" ("on the women's farms twelve crops"). In Puri in Orissa, deities are supposed to be offered several dozen different crops taken from a close radius around the temple, which ensures that such diversity is grown in farmers' fields. Festivals in which the seed as giver of life is celebrated, are commonplace all over the country. These are but a few examples of how farming is indeed, agriculture . . . or was, till the Green Revolution came along.
Why are these farmers, from the heights of the Himalayas to the plateau of the Deccan, from the slopes of Nagaland to the plains of Rajasthan, interested in cultivating and conserving biodiversity on their fields? Why do so many, especially among the poorest and smallest farmers, continue to struggle against State policies that aggressively promote a monoculture (single cropping) system? There are several reasons for this:
* Diversified crops maintain soil fertility. Crops are planted in such a way that if one crop draws upon soil nutrients, another crop puts it back into the soil.
* Diversity optimises soil management in rainfed belts. Here soil depths vary considerably within a farm. Farmers adapt: one part of the farm hosts a crop whose roots reach deep into the earth whereas in another part, crops whose roots spread on the upper layer of the soil may be planted.
* Diversity means insurance against crop failure. If one crop fails there is another crop to fall back upon.
* Diversity optimises labour availability. Different crops are harvested at different times of the year and there is no pressure on all the labour to be available for harvesting at one time.
* Diversity ensures food security. At any time of the year, some crop is ready for harvest and therefore supplies food into the kitchen.
* Diversity of a range of foods ensures nutritional balance.
* Diversity provides a range of fodder to the cattle keeping them healthy and productive.
* Diversity helps women control their farm economics and seeds, since such locally adapted seeds are not available in the market.
* Diversity is the most ecologically sustainable form or agriculture.
The list can go on and on. But then, why is such a strong and rational system disappearing from our midst?
This question was posed to over 18,000 farmers in the Zaheerabad region of Medak District in a unique Mobile Biodiversity Festival, conducted as a part of the ongoing National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP) process. As part of this festival, initiated by the grassroots NGO Deccan Development Society, a caravan of ten decorated carts carrying diverse traditional seeds, with cultural and religious themes based on biodiversity, rolled from village to village. At each village, there was a burst of frenzied cultural energy not seen for a long time in this region. Looking at the seeds was an emotional catharsis for many farmers. One woman collapsed crying and said, "These were the very seeds I used to farm with. They have been snatched away from me. Now that they have come back I can die peacefully tomorrow."
People singularly blamed the government and the market for destroying their vibrant farming system. Their agriculture, seeds and knowledge were
* Marginalised by the market
* Rejected by the lending policies of the government
* Dubbed as primitive by formal scientific institutions
* Given no space by the media.
The forces of modernisation and globalisation had released such an onslaught on their system that made it difficult to survive. In the face of this savage attack, people like Manemma, Laxmamma, Anjiah, Bachan Singh and others hold on to this life-saving form of agriculture. They are the heroines and heroes of Indian agriculture. If this nation has a sense of honour, it should stand up and salute them. And help them and millions of others of their ilk to protect the only agriculture which can ensure food, health and hope for this country. One hopes that the ongoing NBSAP process, of which agricultural biodiversity is a critical component, can bring adequate attention to bear on this burning subject.
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