Returning to Greener Pastures in Wayanad

Wayanad has a rice variety for every situation. Many of them may be on their way out, but local farmers and biodiversity scientists have determined that a panchayat-led effort is our best chance at getting them back.

The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami left paddy farmers in affected countries literally at sea. Rice is one of the most salt-sensitive food crops, and the seawater that swamped fields destroyed a lot of crops. Farmers in lowlands face this challenge every day, but thanks to special salt-tolerant varieties like Pokkali, they are able to tackle the salinity. It’s in situations like this that the worth of having a pool of rice varieties can truly be appreciated.

The hilly town of Wayanad in Kerala is known for being particularly rich when it comes to rice biodiversity. “Wayanad’s unique climate makes it home to several varieties that can only grow here,” says Mareen Abraham, a scientist at Kerala Agricultural University. This includes the GI-tagged Gandhakasala and Jeerakasala –known to be as aromatic as Basmati – the versatile Veliyan that can thrive in the midst of both droughts and floods, as well as north Kerala’s Navara, which is known to have several medicinal benefits.

Just not worth it?

However, rice farming in Wayanad is in crisis. From covering 40,000 hectares in the 1960s, paddy fields today cover merely 8,000-13,000 hectares in the region. With this decline, many traditional rice varieties have already gone completely extinct while some are slowly on their way out.

The reason for this trend is common knowledge – rice cultivation is simply not profitable anymore. “The returns are low compared to cash crops and labour is a big problem,” says Prajeesh Parameswaran, a senior scientist at the Community Agro-Biodiversity Centre of the M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (CABC-MSSRF) in Wayanad.

A Nature India article quoted a local farmer from the Paniya tribe saying that while one acre of land can yield them 12 quintals of paddy, worth between Rs 1,400 and Rs. 1,800 per quintal in the markets, the same area of land can get them Rs 3 lakhs by growing banana.

Discouraging them even further is the difficulty of obtaining labour. Labourers are opting for less physically demanding jobs under the MNREGA scheme, which, according to Parameswaran does not include agricultural work on paddy fields.

Because of this, more and more traditional farmers, comprising, in the main, tribal communities like the Kurichya and the Kuruma, are abandoning the crop that they know inside-out through knowledge passed on over generations. Traditionally, most of these tribes consisted of joint families. “As the joint family system disintegrates, the fields get continually split up,” says Parameswaran. As a result, if some stretches are converted to banana, then neighbouring lands are also pressured into doing so. Naturally banana plantations are taking over.

The price of rice

As it is, most of the rice consumed in Kerala comes from Andhra Pradhesh and Tamil Nadu. “This dependency, and the accompanying extra costs, will only increase if fewer farmers are growing the crop in Kerala,” says Abraham. This is a shame, she says, because nobody knows the intricacies of farming Wayanad rice like these farmers do – “not even scientists and researchers.”

Conserving rice varieties is even more important in the light of climate change. “In Wayanad itself, rain patterns are changing,” said Parameswaran. “Depending on the conditions, farmers know just which variety to grow.” With both the number of rice varieties and the rice farmers dwindling, biodiversity conservers have their work cut out for them.

Cultivating rice is not just advantageous for the yield. It is crucial to preserving the unique features of the wetland, like water retention. “It’s not as if farmers are unaware of the benefits of conserving their paddy fields. The proof is in the decreasing well water levels,” said Parameswaran. “However, without incentives in place for rice conservators, they will continue to move on to other crops.”

Plant genome saviours

In spite of all this, there are still some farmers in Wayanad who are staying strong and doing everything they can to encourage their peers to do the same. Cheruvayal Raman is one of them. Raman,64, belongs to the Kurichya Adivasi community and has been a farmer for over 50 years.

In his own way, Raman is doing what he can to encourage his peers to grow rice. He gives away his paddy seeds to other farmers citing only one condition: they have to return to him the exact quantity – a clever tactic to ensure that the recipients cultivate the seeds they are given. In an effort to encourage agricultural stalwarts like Cheruvayal Raman, he has been given the title of ‘Plant Genome Saviour’ by the government.

Obviously, it will take more than awards to make paddy farming attractive again. A significant step to do so was taken by the Indian government in 2001, with the passing of the Plant Varieties Protection and Farmers’ Rights Act (PVPFRA). This act is known as being one of the most progressive farmers’ rights acts in the world, primarily because of its holistic view of the farmer as not just the cultivator, but also a breeder and a conserver.

Righting the wrongs

The PVPFRA came about in response to the urgent need to ensure that farmers were not left without a share of a profits made using their crops and varieties. Once a farmer has registered his or her variety under the act, he or she attains rights to produce or reproduce, offer for sale, distribute, import, export, stock and transfer the rights to any other persons.

Organisations like MSSRF-CABC and grass roots associations like Seed Care frequently conduct programmes to make sure farmers avail these rights. They also organise an annual function called “Seed Fest” which aims to “spread the message of conservation, cultivation and consumption of diverse, safe and healthy plant and animal genetic resources, and by arranging seed exchange, melas and sales”.

The second edition of the fest, which concluded on January 30th, was the fruit of two months of planning. “We held extensive discussions with farmers and panchayat members from all 23 local panchayats and three municipalities,” says Parameswaran. The potential role of the panchayat in biodiversity governance was the main topic of these discussions. It was agreed that an incentive policy to retain farmers needed to come from a local level.

At the inaugural function, district panchayat president T. Ushakumari acknowledged the vital service of traditional farmers and agreed that all governing bodies needed to support paddy farmers and foster paddy cultivation.