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Apr 27, 2012

Tribal Farmers in India's State of Odisha Return to Mixed Cropping in Search for Sustainability

Women exchanging heirloom seeds at
a seed exchange festival in Odisha, India
On 27 April 2012 IBSA News reported on the efforts of tribal farmers in the Indian state of Odisha (Orissa) to rediscover the traditional agricultural practice of mixed cropping.  According to one Kondh tribal farmer, Harish Saraka who is 38 years old, "we are returning to our grandfathers’ practices."   This focused on planting at least the three traditional crops in the same field - millet, legume, oilseed and maybe a creeper bean.

In the eastern hinterlands of Odisha, tribal farmers use to share their environment with encroaching forests that where home of fairly sizable tiger populations.  In addition to farming, they also harvested tubers and fruits in the forest.  Today, according to India's Minister of Agriculture Damodar Rout, Odisha's farmers are in a state of crisis caused by "climate change, erosion, dryness, soil acidity and falling ground water levels."

Tribal farmers have been combating changing conditions by reverting to their tribal customs of using organic fertilizer, heirloom seeds, and practicing mixed cropping.  Over the past decades they had moved away from these practices due to the introduction of the "commercial high-yielding rice paddy."  This style of farming was promoted by the national government, which distributed high-yielding paddy seeds and chemical fertilizers for free.  Before this, it had not been a traditional custom for the Kondh to grow or eat rice.

According to the Indian Institute of Soil Science based in Bhopal, India, millet cultivation in Odisha has dropped 500% over the past 40 years.  This trend is now beginning to change with support from a program supported by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).  Tribal leaders have started to rediscover the information passed down within their families about millet varieties and pulses that adapt to climate change.  They are also exploring near-extinct millet varieties such as ‘kodo’ which has medicinal properties to control diabetes.

Living Farms and ORRISSA are two non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working to promote traditional agriculture and the use of heirloom seeds.  In 2008 Living Farms provided seeds to poor families with the understanding that they would return 10% of their seeds back into a local seedbank.  This consisted of "simple woven bamboo baskets sealed with a clay-and cow dung daub and opened in times of need."

Renown Indian agro-scientist M.S. Swaminathan supports mixed cropping.  He notes that growing several cereals, pulses, oilseeds, vegetable and fodder crops helps with pest control.

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About Margaret

CEO and Curator (The Food Museum) | Managing Director and Chief Editor (GR2 Global LLC) | Educator (UCLA PhD) | Researching and writing on global food issues, nutrition and health, sustainability, history (preservation), conservation (natural resources), and design.
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