Athirangam is a non-descript village in Thiruvaroor district of Tamil Nadu. Last week it hosted for the second time a traditional seed exchange festival. Thousands of people turned out from across the region, paying for their own travel. This year, 47 traditional rice varieties were distributed to 1600 farmers. In 2008, only three traditional rice varieties were given to farmers for cultivation and multiplication. It only shows that farmers are willing to go back to their lost heritage if there is an effort to revive it.
Former Union Minister Mrs Subbulakshmi Jagathessan inaugurating the seed exchange festival in Tamil Nadu. Along with her is G Nammalwar.
Says R Ponnambalam, managing trustee of CREATE, and one of the organisers of the seed exchange mela: "You will be surprised of the response from the farming community. Me and R Jayaraman, state Coordinator of the Save the Rice campaign were interviewed by the Tamil farm weekly 'Pasumai Viketan' some time back. The magazine published an article highlighting the efforts being made by CEATE and Thanal to revive traditional rice varieties and launching a seed distribution programme. We received some 700 phone calls from Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry requesting for their names to be included in the seed exchange register."
The overwhelming response encouraged CREATE and Thanal to launch an annual seed distribution exchange event. "Last year," says Usha from Thanal in Kerala, "we distribution 9 traditional varieties of rice to 1682 farmers of Tamil Nadu." What is unique about this seed exchange programme is that it simply does not end up as a seed distribution event where you do not know what the farmers eventually did with the seed they got.
Ponnambalam explains: "Last year, we signed a memorandum of understanding with the recipient farmers. The basic objective being that farmers will cultivate the seed, and return double the quantity to the organisers. In 2008, when we set up the seed centre, we distributed 2 kg of seed each to 187 farmers. They returned us 4 kg of seed after the next harvesting season. This was the year when CREATE set up a small centre for seed production."
In 2009, when the first seed exchange programme took place, nine rice varieties were distributed to 1,682 farmers. More than 70 per cent of these farmers have met the obligations of the MoU and returned back double the quantity of seed this year. In addition, they also brought seven new varieties for multiplication and distribution. They also shared their experiences in raising traditional rice varieties, and the organic farming systems associated with it. Many farmers recounted how in the last season when floods devastated the entire crop of paddy in this region, only traditional varieties survived.
While the government has only been according lip service to organic farming, and remains mum about reviving the lost seed heritage, the well-known mentor and guide, Mr G Nammalwar, who blessed the festival, said this is how the organic movement is spreading -- one person in one village does it, and others follow. Former Union Minister of State Mrs Subbulakshmi Jagathessan asked farmers to return to organic farming as it provides the only route to salvation.
Asks Usha: "A long queue of farmers waiting to get the seeds showed how much farmers appreciate their traditional seeds and how eager they are to get a handful of it . When will our government and agriculture institutions understand this? When are they going to give such seeds to farmers instead of hybrids and genetically modified seeds inserting alien genes?"