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‘Traditional Natural Farming' would provide better food security to poor and tribal Farmers

"With series of farmers’ suicide in Orissa, the question has been how the farmers can be allowed to live on farming and how they can survive on farming. Since farming, specifically crop farming, has been considered a loss making venture even in the tribal populated areas of Orissa, it’s time for the government and the experts to rely on traditional natural farming knowledge of the tribal farmers and allow them to continue with it."

Achyut Das & Vidhya Das : October 30, 2009

‘Podu Chaso’ as slash and burn cultivation is called in the tribal regions of Orissa is significant for the  bio-diversity of crops it has helped to sustain, as also the diversity of cultivation practices it  has generated. Crop rotations, inter-cropping, and other sustainable agricultural practices are a part of the inherited knowledge system of the Podu farmer.

It is really amazing the varieties of rice that have been preserved by the tribal farmers in the undivided Koraput region of Orissa. They have several varieties of short duration and long duration upland paddy that grows on the middle region slopes. They also grow some of the most exquisite varieties of scented rice, the most famous amongst them being ‘Kala Jeera’ because the paddy is black in colour before being de-husked. Apart from this, they have short and long duration varieties of Ragi, and the less common millets, including fox tail millet, pearl millet, sorghum, and others. Amongst pulses, they grow several varieties of broad bean, arhar, cow pea, rice bean, urad and a local variety commonly called 'Baeil'.

Now, not all of this is grown on hill or mountain slopes, the typical shifting cultivation or swidden land. For example, most of the scented varieties of paddy are low land varieties. Not all of the land under shifting cultivation is mountain land either. But, it is the entire system of agriculture practised by the tribal communities that has helped preserve this rich bio-diversity of crops, as also the diversity of cultivation, as different systems of cultivation are practised on different types of land and different types of soil. This knowledge system is of high value in this day and age, when the genetic wealth of plant resources is being usurped by multi-national corporations and their aggressive market strategies.

But the greater threat to this bio-diversity which has been a part of the unique ecology of the tribal regions, and has in fact helped to preserve it, is commercial felling which has destroyed the forests, which thrived side by side with podu patches, and climate change which is changing rainfall patterns drastically.

The traditional 'swidden' patches of the tribal communities were clearings in the middle of forests, which in fact were primarily taken up to supplement the roots, tubers, and other foods that the tribal communities got from the forest. Tubers from the forest formed a staple of several months every year, for tribal communities. What a rich and varied diet! A variety of tubers, a range of  fruits (including the most delicately flavoured mangoes, kendu and wild figs), mushrooms, supplemented by a variety of cereals and a choice of pulses! There is a wide range of other foods, which included a huge range of edible greens, and vegetables, wild and semi-wild.

Alas 'modern' man far from trying to learn about these life styles, and knowledge systems chose to commercialise these regions. Deforestation and its ill-effects have been further aggravated by big dam projects, mines and industries, which not only acquired and destroyed forests that tribal communities had preserved for centuries but also displaced the communities themselves, destroying their culture, society and livelihoods.

Dams have taken up lakhs of hectares of forests and tribal lands in the four districts of Rayagada, Koraput, Malkangiri and Nawrangpur, that formed the undivided Koraput district till 1992. This land acquisition has forced the indigenous populations to take up cultivation on steeper and steeper hills slopes and hill tops causing huge amounts of soil erosion, and further deforestation.

In addition, climate change has also changed the rainfall patterns of the region, affecting cultivation practices, and the fragile geo-physiology of these regions. The podu system has developed in tune with the climatic conditions of the Southern Orissa districts.

Here monsoon is the main agricultural season. It is characterised by a thin continuous drizzle for four to five months of the year as indicated in the district gazeteers. It provides the continuous moisture necessary for hill slope cultivation, without washing away the soil to any significant extent. The mean Minimum Temperature used to be 16 degree Celcius and mean Maximum Temperature 20 degree Celsius.  The shifting cultivation crops are completely tuned to this. Their shallow root zones thrive on the thin soil layers of shifting cultivation, while their moisture tolerance enables them to survive and produce a bountiful harvest. The burning enriches the potassium content of the soil, while also controlling pests, and weeds.

Tribal knowledge systems also have a deep understanding of the crop rotation practices required to maintain the shifting cultivation cycles at the optimal level. In the lowland paddy areas tribal communities have developed indigenous systems of water management and crop optimisation, combining long duration and short duration varieties that enables the crops to withstand the high water currents of the monsoons in the valley bottom land, while optimising land use.

In recent years, this pattern of gentle rain for long periods has been replaced by cloud bursts and cyclonic weather that cause huge soil wash outs, destroying upland crops, and inundating valley bottom fields as well. 

All this has brought the tribal communities, to the brink of starvation. In fact hunger stares them in the face for several months in a year, their rich forests have disappeared, their luxurious hill slopes on which they could grow unto 10 different crops in one place in one season have turned to barren patches of rock, and rubble, on which they keep trying their 'Podu', in desperationtrying to relive the memories of those bountiful days, in not such a distant past.

What is the way out? Permanent tree crops substituting 'Podu'  is an option which only underlines the failure of modern science, and present day government and multi-lateral programmes in addressing the problem. It has been tried time and again, and lead to little change.

On the other hand, if the plantation economy is established in regions like Koraput, then we are in grave danger of loosing the tribal communities, who will be replaced by rich business men, who can easily afford to wait out the period required for plantations to become productive. This business class can also respond to the other dynamics of a commercial plantation economy, unlike the local tribal farmers. Along with the tribal communities, we will also loose the rich plant genetic diversity so carefully preserved by these conscientious and responsible ecosystem people. The proliferation of Eucalyptus groves already bears silent testimony to this in Koraput. The many orchards of spices and coffee coming up are almost all owned by people who are not even from this state.

>>> Scroll down to read rest of the Story


In the 1990s, the International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD) implemented a project for tribal development in Kashipur Block of Orissa - Orissa Tribal Development Project - the objective was to improve tribal livelihoods through agricultural and market development. A major thrust of the programme was Agro-forestry, wherein the hill-slopes under shifting cultivation were divided into three zones based on gradient, 0-10 degree, 10-30 degree and 30 degree and above. The 0-10 degree slope was earmarked for annual cropping with soil and water conservation measures being undertaken; 10-30 degree slope was earmarked for agro-forestry and slope above 30 degree were earmarked for plantation. The entire hill slope was divided into stripes of one hectare and was distributed to the tribal families with priority being given to the landless. The zone of 0-10 degree slopes was surveyed and settled with ownership rights given to the tillers.  

Soil conservation measures like constructing contour stone and vegetative bunds on the hill slopes checking gully and ravine formation through appropriate drainage treatment and other erosions control measures, etc. Fruit-bearing trees like mango, litchi, guava, cashew etc. were introduced as part of agro-forestry.

Miscellaneous plantation was taken up on the slopes above 30 degree. Using sophisticated equipments, land survey and settlement processes was completed in 400 villages of Kashipur and pattas were distributed in more than 150 villages. Local NGOs and Tribal Leadership were engaged in the decision making process. Thus, the conflict was minimized.

Initially, this model was adopted by the tribals with a lot of enthusiasm. The land was settled and pattas were issued after the government  passed an order that this kind of agriculture should be applicable to all tribal areas. However, the impact of these measures had poor sustainability, and now the agro-forestry slopes bear mute testimony to the inadequacy of present day know-how to reclaim wastelands in high relief shifting cultivation areas.

Several watershed projects have also been taken up under different government programmes in the tribal regions. These projects with substantial investments for earthworks, water resource development, manpower, etc. have had hardly any impact as also done very little to establish the viability of the soil conservation and erosion treatment model for environmentally degraded upland tribal areas. A few watersheds have helped a fraction of the tribal community to improve their livelihoods, but by and large, these fractions do not include the poorer sections. On the other hand the land development measures have done little or nothing to improve soil fertility, decrease top soil loss, or to help establish a healthy vegetative cover.

According to a Planning Commission Report, the 16.5 million hectares treated under the micro-watershed approach; do not get reflected in net sown area, which has stagnated at around 142 million hectares for the last 20 years. According to the Planning Commission, “Although the Ministries of Agriculture and Rural Development have implemented watershed projects for more than a decade, evaluation reports have shown that most projects have failed to generate sustainability because of the failure of government agencies to involve the people. ………….Most government watershed development investments have yielded disappointing results given the vast resources allocated…….”

Several reports indicate the multi-level failure of the watershed programme. Many of the causes of failure are attributed to poor people’s participation. However, there is little review of the techniques and technology used for the treatment of watersheds, and to link the interventions to livelihood needs of the poorer sections of the community.

Thus while NGOs do better with their increased sensitivity towards the needs of the more marginalised sections, the cost-benefit ratios for watersheds, still raise a huge amount of questions.

This is especially unfortunate in the upland tribal areas, where the pace of environmental degradation is accelerating, with accompanying impoverishment of and distress of the local communities. The poor results of the watershed approach does little to build up the faith of the tribal people who respond in but a superficial manner, in anticipation of the wage payment as some succour to their poverty stricken lives. Watersheds also fail to recognise the traditional knowledge systems, and do little to promote indigenous varieties and crops. There is an imperative need to address all this, for any level of people’s involvement and sustainability.

One option for tribal communities could be conservation agriculture. In Brazil as also other Latin American countries, a concerted effort for Conservation Agriculture has helped shifting cultivation farmers to improve production, check soil erosion, and improve the overall ecology. These efforts have gone to show that “Where new conservation-effective technologies or practices have met farmer requirements for risk aversion, create no major conflicts and have an assured beneficial effect, adoption has been shown to be very rapid, e.g. zero tillage in the Brazilian credo, use of shade trees for coffee production in parts of Costa Rica, agro-forestry in Kenya and Nepal.” (FAO Case Study). Conservation agriculture is being actively promoted as it is now known that this technology mitigates, and in fact counters climate change by sequestering atmospheric carbon into the soil.

The European Parliament in its final wrap up conference of a project initiated by European Parliament under initiative of Member of Parliament M. Stephane Le Foll, and run by the Joint Research Center of European Union under the leadership of Directorate of Agriculture and Rural Development of the Commission recognized that Conservation Agriculture, with “No-Till in continuous soil coverage, should be retained as the main way to maintain a productive agriculture, to meet the challenge of food security, but also to assume its place on global agricultural markets by producing more, and respecting the resources, and being competitive.”
The Commission further recognized “Conservation Agriculture, because of its proven results, [as] has been confirmed by the studies and during the feed-back sessions by nearly all speakers, as the form of agriculture the more able to meet the missions of the future European agricultural policy.”

As conservation agriculture allows farmers to cultivate the crops of their choice and preference, we have found a high level of acceptance of CA and especially OCA (Organic Conservation agriculture) practices amongst farmers in the tribal areas. The acceptance and readiness to give land for OCA experiments was beyond all our expectations in the districts of Koraput and Rayagada .

In India, many farmers have established OCA farms following in the foot-steps of the great Japanese Philosopher-farmer: Masanobu Fukuoka. Their natural farming efforts have visibly better results than the farms of their neighbours who insist on sticking to traditional practices. One such farmer in Madhya Pradesh is Mr.  Raju Titus. His example in his own farm, as also his efforts to upscale it, in farms of some of the retired bureaucrats of MP Government have had their effect, with the State Government now planning to bring the whole state under CA, and Natural Farming.

In India, the state as well as the NGO sector must necessarily begin efforts in this direction; otherwise, we shall loose a wealth of genetic resources, along with the local knowledge systems of indigenous communities, whose value cannot be calculated in dollar or rupee terms!

Now coming to the issue of distress migration, many tribals in South Orissa and Landless and small farmers in West Orissa are facing distress migration. It is noticed that despite a plethora of government schemes and programmes, the number of migrants are increasing alarmingly every year.

The media is also bringing out pathetic stories of these migrants languishing in the most inhuman manner away from their home. The most practical strategy to combat this migration is to promote Family Farms with application of Conservation Agriculture.  The Family Farms can be established in the land of small and marginal farmers. The Landless can be settled in family farms giving them 1 Ha of government wasteland and providing them with back-up support. The success of Family Farms depend on three things – a) Good Fencing to protect from cattle menace , b) Second crop with residual moisture and c) Application of organic manures and composts to increase soil fertility.  If irrigation is provided, it is a plus point. We have several case-studies where the tribal farmers are earning substantial income by taking three crops of different combination. Organising these small-land holders into a Network will be the next stage of support to facilitate transfer of technology, marketing and value addition. The village commons can also be transformed to Family Farms by Mahila Mandals which can be integrated as a family or Kutumb. If the whole village converts all the arable land into Family Farms with application of Conservation of Agriculture, then it will be converted into an Eco-village. The concept and practice of Eco-village is a global phenomenon. Some so called scientists are talking of soil-less agriculture, water-less agriculture, human-less and machine-driven agriculture. Everything is perhaps possible in this crazy world but without going in the natural and cultural way of farming, the poor will go hungry.


(Both of the authors are well known Social Activists and works for the Tribal development in Orissa. This piece of article has been distributed by Janata Vikash Manch as a part of its campaign for people's empowerment and development of Orissa





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