Jun 2, 2014

Southern Indian States show the way in conserving and preserving native rice. Perhaps the biggest living repository of traditional rice germplasm.

Thousands of farmers had assembled for the traditional rice seed exchange festival in Thiruvarur in Tamil Nadu/India May 30-31, 2014 

It was a hot afternoon. Even as temperature soared to 37 degrees I didn't see the enthusiasm draining among farmers wanting to exchange traditional seeds of rice. They pushed and jostled for space to make their presence felt. For two days (May 30-31 2014) they had camped in Athirengam village in Thiruturaipondi Taluk of Thiruvarur District of Tamil Nadu, and they didn't want to return without getting their share of native rice seed varieties.

This is the eight year of the traditional rice seed sharing festival. Beginning in 2007 with just 15 varieties that some farmers had conserved, this annual seed festival being organised under the auspices of Save our Rice Campaign, Thanal from Kerala, CREATE from Tamil Nadu and Sahaja Samrudha from Karnataka, has now become a keenly watched event. Last year, 4,600 farmers had participated in the rice seed exchange. Following the success, I am told some 13 NGOs/Civil society groups are now organising similar seed exchanges every year in Tamil Nadu.

What scientists call as in situ conservation, this must be the biggest living repository of traditional rice varieties in India. Sridhar R of the Save Rice Campaign claims that 151 rice varieties from Tamil Nadu; 200 from Karnataka and 140 from Kerala are now being exchanged between farmers.

At a time when the Central government and the agricultural universities are aggressively pushing hybrid rice varieties throughout the country in what appears to be a misguided effort to augment production, I am witnessing a silent revolution taking place right from Arunachal Pradesh to Gujarat, and from Himachal Pradesh to Kerala. More and more farmers are coming forward to not only take care of the traditional seeds but also cultivate these lost varieties. This is also happening at a time when India is more than keen to deposit 1,000 crop varieties in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the arctic region of Norway for ex situ conservation, farmers are now begging to realise that the best way to preserve these native strains is to cultivate and share the seed with fellow farmers.

Farmers waiting for the traditional rice seeds. 
The native seeds are stacked under the thatched roof.  

It all started in 2004 when I had gone to address a the launch of Save our Rice Campaign at Kumbalangi in Kerala. As Mr R Poonambalam, managing trustee of CREATE and one of the moving spirits behind the seed exchange event, narrated in his welcome address this year that they had merely followed what I had suggested ten years back, in 2004. In my inaugural talk at Kumbaangi I had narrated the little understood politics behind the 2004 International Year of the Rice wherein the international community actually applauded the control of rice seed going into the hands of the multinational seed giant Syngenta, I recall suggesting that the best way to thwart these global efforts to monopolise and control the seeds would be when farmers begun to exchange seed among themselves (Read my article: Rice is now Oryza syngentahttp://indiatogether.org/riceyear-op-ed).

"Ten year back, you gave us the idea, Mr Sharma. You are responsible for this," Mr Ponnambalam said, and added: "But we have gone a little beyond the regional seed exchange. Besides Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, we now have States like Chhatisgarh, Orissa, West Bengal and Arunachal Pradesh also joining the effort."

I still recall the State-level conference of farmers and traders at Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu in 2006 where I and the late G.Nammalwar were invited to speak.  It was here that I reiterated my suggestion of seed exchange by farmers which was launched the next year, in 2007 with 15 varieties. What made that event memorable was the presence of the late G Nammalwar, an ecologist, naturalist and a crusader for non-chemical farming. In fact, he remains the motivating factor behind the seed exchange.

The resurgence I see towards native seeds (and also native cattle breeds as I have been been writing continuously) is something amazing. More than 2,000 farmers had paid registration fees, made their own travel and stay arrangements, and attended the numerous workshops and interactive sessions at the two-day seed exchange festival. Each farmer is given 2 kg of traditional seed with the promise that they would return back at least 4 kg seed the next year. When the first batch of seed exchange farmers were presented before me I found some of them had brought in 10 kg of the same seed they got the previous year. This practice has helped the seed exchange to grow over the years. "This year, I am expecting more than 5,000 seed exchanges to take place," said Jayaraman, Save Rice Campaign coordinator for Tamil Nadu.

This farmer I am pointing towards is Mr Bhaskaran. 
He cultivates Mappilai Samba variety which he calls as "Rice Viagra".

What kind of rice varieties are being exchanged by farmers, I asked. "Farmers are looking for specific traits in these native varieties, mostly medicinal, "replied Jayaraman. "There are people who are looking for brown rice varieties, some looking for traditional scented varieties, some farmers are keen on drought-resistant varieties, and most are now hooked on to Mappilai Samba rice variety which has  medicinal properties that can enhance the libido," Sridhar explained. No wonder, Mappilai in Tamil means son-in-law. The usual practice in some parts of Tamil Nadu is to provide Mappilai rice variety to the bridegroom's family once a marriage is fixed. Bhaskaran, who has devoted some 57 acres to cultivating Mappilai Samba variety, calls it as a "Rice Viagra".

Interestingly, I found that Jayaraman was popularly addressed as Nellu Jayaraman. Nellu in Tamil means paddy. So in a way it was an honorary title the people had bestowed on Jayaraman for the exemplary work he was involved in promoting traditional rices as well as safe food. To my suggestion that every year the organisers should award the honorary Nellu title to a promising rice farmer, I must say the Save Rice Campaign/Create were quick to pick up. This year too, they have announced the name of a farmer who would get the honorary Nellu title. Great going.


Sridhar said...

With this article, you have done great justice to all our efforts for the last 10 years. Thanks a lot, Devinderji. Finally some one gives us the much necessary boost.

Devinder Sharma said...

You and your colleagues deserve all the compliments for the remarkable task that you have undertaken for the preservation and conservation of the traditional rice cultivars, many of which are already lost or on the way out.

May you get more strength as you go along.

Devinder Sharma

Anonymous said...

Good take on the Nel thiruvizha , here is the article Leisa published on the same in their biodiversity issue : http://leisaindia.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/LEISA-India-March-2014-Pages-1-36.pdf


milind soman said...

Fantastic and heartwarming :)

milind soman said...

Fantastic and heartwarming :)