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National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan

On January 14, 2000 the Deccan Development Society (DDS) embarked on a unique conservation and cultural campaign called the Mobile Biodiversity Festival. Beyond the specially decorated caravan of bullock carts, traditional musical bands, dancing, singing and exhibits of the nearly 75 varieties of traditional seeds, it could be said the most important part of the day was when villagers were given the opportunity to voice their personal concerns about the future of farming in India.

Four questions were posed at each of the (50) village meetings:

  1. Do you think traditional agriculture, marked by crop diversity and eco-friendly agronomical practices, is beneficial?
  2. If you think traditional agriculture is beneficial, what might have caused its disappearance from the region?
  3. Is it possible to find answers to these problems and retrieve these practices?
  4. What are the farmers willing to do, and, what role should the government play?

Perhaps the greatest consensus among villagers is that traditional crops have greater nutritional value than the crops more commonly cultivated today. Villagers agreed such traditional crops would not only be beneficial for peoples' health, but would also benefit livestock and soil health. Therefore, many of the discussions pertain to those obstacles preventing farmers from practicing cultivation of traditional crops on a large scale.

The villagers expressed their observations about the shift from traditional crops and varieties to modern agriculture and the problems and forces associated with the shift.

One of the biggest issues raised by farmers is the reduction in cattle population. Without cattle, the revitalization of the traditional agricultural practices and/or crops is practically impossible. Farmers interested in cultivating traditional crops and adopting the necessary traditional agricultural practices find they are immediately confronted with this dilemma. Without cattle, farmers cannot obtain the necessary farmyard manure needed to fertilize the land. Shortage of farmyard manure is a serious obstacle for most farmers. This concern was the single most commonly repeated comment by the villagers.

  1. The reduction of cattle population has wider implications. It has reduced the availability of farmyard manure (FYM) for the crops, and increased dependency on the chemical fertilizers, which has led to erosion of soil fertility, and damaged the soil structure. The scarcity of FYM is attracting some farmers to sell whatever little FYM they had and purchase chemical fertilizers instead.
  2. This hampered crucial practices like land preparation and other intercultural operations. This coupled with the non-availability of FYM has led to reduction in yields of the field crops.
  3. The reduction of cattle population has also minimized the availability of milk, curd and other products, which greatly influenced the human health.

It goes without saying economic factors have played a part in determining which crops farmers cultivate and which crops they do not. Relevant to this issue, the low market rate for traditional crops has had a direct impact.

  1. Farmers agreed that if the market were to support a fair return/profit on traditional crops, they would be more willing to cultivate them. Farmers cannot afford to cultivate traditional crops on a large scale because the market does not support them. Only a few farmers in each village cultivate such crops, but do it on a small plot of land for the sole purpose of home consumption, and not for sale in the marketplace. The suggestion was raised several times, that the government should set the market rate for such crops as it has done for others, based on the nutritive value of the crop. If the government will support farmers in this way, many agreed they would revert back to traditional agricultural farming practices and crops. Another suggestion raised was that the government should support crop insurance plans so if the traditional crops don't yield, farmers are not faced with an entire loss; they can redeem a portion of the expenses incurred in the cultivation.
  2. Cash crops like sugarcane have displaced many of the traditional crops. Because such crops guarantee farmers a good return in addition to institutional support, the cultivation of traditional crops has slowly dwindled while crops like paddy, bananas or sugarcane have increased. Farmers explained that cultivating traditional crops couldn't guarantee a large enough income to sustain family needs.
  3. The lack of consumer awareness about the nutritive value of the traditional crops led to reduction in market demand. Today's youth is not accustomed to eating crops such as foxtail millet, finger millet, black gram, green gram etc. their grandparents once ate. These farmers had great difficulty making the sale. The government should create effective demand for the traditional crops by campaigning about their nutritive and curative values.
  4. Laborer wages are steadily on the up-rise. Furthermore, there is a shortage of laborers which puts them in a position to choose where they want to work. As a result, laborers are choosing to work for farmers who cultivate cash crops rather than traditional crops because it is these farmers who can afford to pay the higher rates. Many farmers expressed the difficulty they face, or have faced, in finding laborers willing to work for them in the cultivation of traditional crops. Though some people said that laborers are not willing to accept produce as a wage, realizing the importance of traditional crops, most of the women were willing even to take 25 % less wages in cash or kind, than cash crops.
  5. Many farmers suggested the government supply traditional crop seeds if they want to encourage such cultivation. Not only are the seeds difficult to get, but they are an added expense for farmers.

Several ecological factors have caused villagers much concern in relation to obtaining good yields for their crops.

  1. In almost every village, a discussion about water shortage was brought to light. Reduction in amount of rainfall and its erratic distribution has resulted in the need to rely on more bore wells, which is depleting the groundwater resources. At one time, the water table, which was at 10 meters, today went down to as much as 30 to 35 meters. Many villagers suggested the government support more watershed programs to help farmers alleviate this problem.
  2. Deforestation has contributed to the problem of decreased rains. Many of these once diversely forested lands are now overgrown with eucalyptus. Several farmers have suggested the government support a forest diversity and/or reforestation plan not only to increase precipitation, but to improve soil fertility.
  3. The use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides has created several negative environmental effects. Many farmers expressed their experiences with the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Because the rainfall is unpredictable and short, the fertilizers applied have severely spoiled the lands. The damage is more severe in dryland areas. In several instances, this has resulted even in crop loss. Addiction to chemical fertilizers results in loss of the natural fertility and reviving the soils is a difficult process. While effective ness of chemical fertilizers last for one to two years at best, the use of farmyard manure can sustain soil fertility up to 10 years. Farmers want to be advised on viable alternatives available to them to continue producing organic produce. They are prepared to work hard, and are confident that by using farmyard manure, compost and vermiculture practices they will obtain good yields.
  4. The excessive use of chemical fertilizers has reduced the soil microbes resulting in micronutrient deficiencies. The excessive use of pesticides has dwindled the bird and natural predatory population. This has led to increase of pests and diseases.
  5. Monoculture farming has replaced crop diversity that once assured farmers minimal returns in unfavorable conditions. This interfered with the natural mechanism of replenishing soil nutrients. Farmers emphasized the need to return to traditional agricultural methods by diversifying their crops not only to ensure a favorable return, but also to enhance soil fertility.

Health issues were raised throughout the meetings as a major concern for villagers.

  1. Villagers are aware of the high nutritional value of traditional crops. Many villagers commented that they are not as strong or energetic as their forefathers were at their age. This comment has been attributed to the fact previous generations consumed a diverse diet of primarily highly nutritious traditional crops. They also perceived that there is effective reduction in life span in spite of the fact that government claims the contrary.
  2. Villagers have had to seek medical attention more frequently than ever before. This has been attributed to two predicaments: a) the inadequacy in the nutritional content of crops consumed today; and b) the increased consumption of chemically cultivated foods. Traditional crops and varieties in addition being nutritive were curative for a wide range of health problems, which even the modern medicine cannot provide.
  3. The cultivation of traditional crops encourages medicinal plant diversity. Many of the villagers discussed how age-old methods for healing illnesses have slowly disappeared along with the crops that provided such remedies.