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Friday, October 29, 2010

A crusade for protection of indigenous seeds

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“Beej Bachao” has been an Andolan initiated in the late 1980s by farmers and Social Activists to promote conservation and use of indigenous seeds in Tehri district of the newly constituted state Uttaranchal in India. The Beej Bachao Andolan, which means- “Save the Seeds Movement” is not only a crusade to conserve traditional seeds but also to promote agricultural biodiversity, sustainable agriculture, and local traditions.

1.Beej Bachao Andolan is a peoples’ campaign;

2.It is flourishing without any financial assistance from the government;

3.It focuses on traditional farming and emphasizes on avoidance of hybrid seeds, synthetic pesticides, and chemical fertilizers as against the tradition established during the Green Revolution;

4.This revolution was started as an Awareness Campaign in 1989 for farmers to discontinue growing cash crops, and to promote indigenous practices;

5.About 200 varieties of Kidney Beans, 100 varieties of Paddy, 7 varieties of wheat have been collected and stored so far by Andolan workers;

6. The collection of seeds by the Andolan workers is being done in view of protection and propagation,

7.Preparing a comprehensive chart of High Yielding Varieties of seeds and traditional seeds to show a comparative account to farmers and to remove their confusion,

8.Doing a village wise documentation of seeds and maintaining a seed- bank.

The Andolan received Rs. 1.5 lakh as a token appreciation from the Booker-Prize Winner Arundhati Roy in 2002.The Andolan Workers are planning to establish a farm in Tehri to grow traditional crops.Dr. Trent Brown, a researcher in Austrelianotes that -Uttarakhand was the last stage my journey. My research had already taken me to Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Punjab. I had been trying to learn more about the potential of people’s initiatives for sustainable agriculture to make a difference for rural development – about how a small number of committed people can make big changes to their regions and to popular consciousness. In Uttarakhand, I would be learning about the Beej Bachao Andolan(BBA), a twenty-five year old movement to conserve traditional seeds and agriculture. Spending some time with BBA was an exciting prospect for me. It was an opportunity to meet with the surviving members of the Chipko Andolan, India’s most famous movement for social and environmental justice, and to learn more about the work that they are doing today.

I travelled to the Henwalghati Valley, the base of BBA, from Dehra Dun, after spending a few days with Biju Negi’s family, who are long-time supporters of the BBA cause. I was dropped off at the taxi stand in the early morning. My bags were stacked on top of a jeep, and we waited about an hour for enough passengers to climb inside as to make the journey financially viable for the driver. Thirteen people were squeezed into the ten-seat vehicle (admittedly, a modest achievement by Indian standards), and we set off along the road to Rishikesh. I felt a giddy excitement stirring in my chest as we travelled through the monkey-populated forests and began our ascent into the Himalayan foothills.

The Henwalghati Valley is about half way between Rishikesh and New Tehri, in the district of Tehri-Garhwal. The dominant source of livelihood is agriculture and most of the work in the field is done by village women. Farming is done on terraces carved into the sides of the mountains and is mostly unirrigated. The majority of families only have access to a few terraces each, meaning that they generally pursue agriculture for domestic consumption only, rather than sale on the market. Notably, agriculture in this region is highly dependent upon surrounding forests. Farmers depend upon the forest not only as a source of firewood and fruits for their families, but also as a source of food for livestock and of green manure for the fields. The people also assert that where forests are conserved, there tends to be more rain throughout the year.

Dr. Trentbrown further writes - …BBA has also inspired several local NGO workers to take up their vision of sustainable, village-level development. Mr Sanjay Maithani from Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (Sanskrit: ‘The Whole World is One Family’), has been supporting small scale local industries to add value to the high quality locally grown food of the Himalayas. It is promising to see some small businesses developing for these purposes, as they provide employment for the youth, thereby putting a slight break on the flood of young people leaving the region.The unfortunate reality is that despite these initiatives, life for the people in the valley remains difficult. Though the spirit of the people and of the people’s movements is strong, there is a need for a broader paradigm shift in the way governments think about development, and in the value that Indian society places on its villages and rural communities. The outlook of the people of Henwalghati is largely pessimistic. The older people lament the lack of company since their families have departed. When asked where they see their villages being in ten years time, the most common response is “Empty – everyone will have left”. Others, feeling even more dejected, suggest that with climate change occurring and no support coming from government, starvation remains a possibility, albeit a remote one.

At another place, Dr. Trentbrown says - Traditional seeds are also incredibly important to the challenge of climate change. BBA asserts that since the traditional seeds have survived long droughts in the past, they are in a better position to survive in a changing climate. This is a stark contrast to the hybrid seeds, which have not withstood the test of time in the same manner. Indeed, hybrid seeds require far greater quantities of water to thrive than their traditional counterparts, and water is a resource that the people of Garhwal can hardly afford to spare. They also require the application of chemical fertilisers, which most Garhwali farmers cannot afford. Nonetheless, the seed companies, hungry to make profits even from the poor farmers of this remote part of the world, have tried to make in-roads in the region, encouraging farmers to sow hybrid and the so-called HYV seeds and apply chemicals to their fields. Fortunately, due to the awareness that BBA has built, the majority of the farmers in Henwalghati regard these salesmen with great suspicion, recognising the devastation that would come with these laboratory seeds at this critical point in their history.

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