Magic Seeds

Countercurrents.org 11 July, 2007

While the government is trying its best to make us believe that the patent regime will begin another boom in agricultural, a solid mass of protest by NGOs and civil society groups is highlighting the cruelty and negative impacts on farm sector and bio-diversity. In this backdrop, Harsh Dobhal explains, how an unassuming farmer inspired a movement to revive traditional agriculture practices and eroding biodiversity, quietly sowing the seeds of revolution. Chipko movement hit the headlines in the 1970s and now it is written in golden letters of ecological movements across the globe. For the world it is part of memory and nostalgia, but not for the people of Garhwal. They still derive lessons from it and continue to better their lives by adding to the prevailing ecological wisdom by the day.

Chipko lives on – thriving and pulsating, challenging and sustaining. The men and women who once hugged trees to save them from commercial felling, continue their struggle to save nature and its children, local diversity and culture.

“Kya hain jangal ke upkar:
pani, mitti aur bayar,
ye hain jeene ke aadhar

What do forests bear:
water, soil and air;
these are the basis for life

The slogan, that reverberated in the valleys of Garhwal Himalayas for the world to take notice in the 1970s, is still echoing 30 years on, in the Hewalghati valley of Tehri Garhwal. This time in the form of the Beej Bachao Andolan (Save the Seeds Movement).

After the so-called success of the green revolution, High Yielding Variety (HYV) seeds were being introduced all over the country and cash-crop driven agriculture was destroying traditional farming.

Crop yields of the HYV started becoming less in Garhwal, while soil fertility was declining and dependence on toxic chemicals was increasing. The ecosystem was also severely damaged. As a result, Chipko activist and a local farmer, Vijay Jardhari, and other activists from Jardhargaon and nearby areas of Tehri Garhwal, formed the Beej Bachao Abhiyan, later re-named as Beej Bachao Andolan (BBA), to revive traditional farming methods and rejuvenate agriculture diversity. The aim was to create awareness about ‘modern but destructive’ agricultural practices, search and conserve indigenous seeds and promote traditional and sustainable farming.

In the beginning, like others, former Chipko activists from Henwalghati also used high yielding seeds in the eighties. Having reaped bumper crops in the beginning, they soon realised that productivity was declining and more and more chemicals and fertilizers were needed to sustain the yield. “As we understood the problem with the HYV crops, we wondered where the traditional seeds had vanished? We realised that what we had achieved through Chipko, was going down the drain through new technologies in agriculture. This realisation led to the birth of BBA,” says Jardhari. “It was an easy choice to discontinue the cultivation of chemical-dependent seeds, but the challenge was to convince other farmers. We had several meetings to explain to the people that these new agricultural techniques were harmful,” Jardari says. “As we learnt more, we were shocked. I could find only two varieties of local paddy available in my village.”

This shocking realisation was followed by long arduous treks or food marches to distant villages to look for local, traditional, and diverse seeds. To the far-flung areas where HYV seeds were yet to reach. The activists collected different kinds of seeds. They also asked people to conserve rare seeds. These yatras also became occasions for cultural re-assertion, reciting folk stories, re-thinking oral traditions, poems, songs and reviving collective wisdom.

Now BBA, a non-formal collective of farmers and activists, is spread all over Uttarakhand. From the villages of Jardhargaon, Nagni, Paturi and Rampur in Henwalghati, it has spread to other areas of Uttarakhand among non-ngo organisations like Adhar in Almora, Samudayik Chetna Kendra in Nainital and Vividhara in Nahikalan in Dehradun. The andolan is responsible for producing over 200 varieties of rajma, over 350 varieties of rice — thapchini, jhumkiya, rikhwa, ramjawan, bangoi, hansraj and lal basmati — about 30-35 varieties of wheat, 12 varieties of mandua (finger millet), eight varieties of jhangora (bharmyard millet), eight varieties of bhatt (local soyabeen), 12 varieties of makka (corn), five varieties of gahat (horsegram), eight varieties of lobia, apart from cheena (hong millet), kauni (foxtail millet), junyali (pearl millet), rayaance (adjuki bean), til (seasame), bhangir (perilla), among other local produce. Most of these seed varieties were going extinct very fast.

The movement has also promoted the use of traditional farming method called ‘baranaja’ whereby 12 crops are grown simultaneously in the same field. This unique method provides a security against drought and crop failure. The practice ensures supply of food round the year as different crops are harvested at different times.

A humble initiative like BBA, which is not a part of the multi-billion dollar NGO industry, has proved that even without funds and resources, those on the fringes of society can take on the onslaught of globalisation.

[original article]