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Gender issues and concerns in local agrobiodiversity

The coincidence between the centres of diversity and great civilizations means that the conservation of bio-resources is part of the culture and ethos of past civilizations. Since the advent of domestication some 12 000 years ago, women have performed a major role in plant selection, domestication, enhancement and conservation. In the process of agricultural evolution, women have played a distinct role in planting, weeding and in post-harvest operations such as harvesting, threshing, seed selection and storage. However, gender roles are changing as a consequence of farm mechanization and changing cropping patterns in many societies. Nonetheless, even in shifting cropping patterns, women maintain their traditional role in seed management (Swaminathan 2000). A global survey conducted by FAO shows that women account for 50 percent of overall food production in Asia. An FAO study on the role of rural women and food security in South Asian countries recognizes the women’s key role in post-harvest operations, seed management and maintenance of biodiversity. In addition, women are keen to transmit their complex knowledge to the youngsters in the family by involving them in the process (Choudhury 2000).

The central role of women in agrobiodiversity management and the associated knowledge, particularly in seed selection, production and seed exchange (supply), has been vital for resource enhancement. Seed and grain storage practices and techniques have evolved over a period thanks to their innovative practices. A shift in cropping pattern in many cases does not marginalize the role of women in seed management, particularly in storage activities, except in areas where hybrids are cultivated. But the practice of storing seed in traditional storage structures and the related knowledge have been vanishing at the individual and communal levels.

Gender division of labour in farming systems

Sex-based division of labour prevails in all social systems and in most cases it is very rigid. In such systems, traditionally women are allotted most of the jobs in the domestic sphere and time-consuming drudgery tasks in the fields. They spend long hours in the fields and their participation and close observation give them a deep and comprehensive knowledge of farming systems.

In all three studied areas, even though agriculture is a household enterprise, social norms demarcate the division of labour based on sex and age. Generally land preparation and ploughing are men’s jobs. But in the case of the Kolli hills, women also take part in them if there are not enough hands. In steep and very steep lands, bushes are cut and burnt for cultivation of minor millets. While the man cuts plants and bushes, the woman cleans the place by removing the cut plants. Sometimes, women jointly work with men in cutting the bushes and heaping them here and there for drying and burning before the onset of the rains. The other activities like transplanting and weeding are jobs undertaken by women only. Harvesting and post-harvesting activities are jointly taken care of by both men and women. In Jeypore and the Kolli hills, women play an inevitable role in conserving, enhancing and utilizing the agrobiodiversity. Their role in seed management, which includes selection, cleaning and storage, is highly significant.

In Wayanad, selection of paddy fields and land preparation for seed production are men’s jobs. Occasionally, elderly women are also involved in the selection of paddy seeds. Kurichiya farmers select and harvest separately only those crop plants that have fully developed and mature grains for their seed stock. Women in general are not involved in seed selection and storage (Annex 5). This is mainly because the concepts of purity and pollution dominate the minds of the people. Men select the seed in the threshing yard (elder women support the activity). Traditional institutional mechanisms, such as the custom of exchanging seed when the community members gather for weddings or cultural festivals, exist among men within the village.

In the case of little-millet cultivation in the Kolli hills, women are responsible for most of the agronomic practices and post-harvest operations, including seed storage and seed supply (exchange). Even though some of the activities are shared by men and women among the Malayalis, by being in charge of caring and watching over the crop the women are in a position to take almost all decisions regarding minor-millet cultivation (Annex 4). They are the most knowledgeable about the crop. Because they take care of the household food and nutritional security, they prefer to grow minor millets as they have more subsistence value.

Women’s skills and knowledge lie in managing the resources, particularly selection (Box 1), enhancement (Box 2) and storage. In the Kolli hills, women farmers follow various selection strategies to select the seed from different crops based on phenotypic characters at either pre- or post-harvest stage, and the storage mechanism varies accordingly. They apply criteria such as uniform, well-filled seeds in post-harvest selection and seed density in the ear head/panicle from the vigorous plants before harvest. They have developed simple methods of selecting seeds and protecting them from insects and pests. Sometimes when the harvested grains come from healthy crops, they set apart the quantity of seed material required for planting or sowing in the following season. Seeds are cleaned carefully by winnowing. During the process, off-colour, undersized and chaffy grains are segregated and removed. In the Kolli hills, women play a key role in seed exchange. They sometimes reserve grain from local or more distant farmers who are known for obtaining good harvests.

Box 1. Malayali women’s expertise in seed selection, enhancement, storage and management

Women collect seed after harvesting from the threshing floor for crops like little millet, kodo millet and paddy whose loose and drooping panicles will fall before the first threshing operation. Thus they are assured of getting good, well-filled seeds that are managed separately. Crops like Italian millet and finger millet are selected in the field itself for good, disease-free, well-developed, fully filled ear heads. The selected panicles are dried separately then tied together and further dried on the roof. In the case of pulses and oil seeds, during threshing the best seeds are selected; before harvesting, elite, vigorous plants are identified and harvested and threshed separately. The active role of women in seed management, particularly in the selection of elite plants, helps them acquire breeding knowledge and consequently taxonomic/classification perspectives based on the practical motive of utilizing the resources. Thus the process of knowledge acquisition is dynamic and continuous in response to the evolutionary changes and adaptations as a result of natural and conscious selection (Annex 1).

Source: MSSRF, Kolli Hills

Seed thus selected are sun dried for two or three days. When their moisture content has reduced to a sufficient level (roughly 10-13 percent), the seeds are stored in mud containers. Before sowing they are once again sun dried. Seed viability will not be affected for two to three years if they are well dried and kept in airtight containers. Seeds of vegetables are mixed with burnt ash and then sun dried. The fruits of a few vegetables during the third or fourth harvest cycle are left on the plant to ripen. The seeds of certain vegetables are left on rooftops to dry. Thus, women perform the role of seed selector and preserver, using traditional wisdom and knowledge. Apart from their own field experience, mothers, elders and older siblings are the sources of knowledge.

Gender differential preferences in crop selection

Women do not only have different expertise, they also have different opinions from their counterparts on the value of land races. In crop development and quality seed production programmes, little millet land races were selected by a set of men and women. Their selection criteria varied greatly. The men selected the early maturing variety i.e. malliasamai while the women preferred vellaperumsamai and karumperumsamai because of their yield and nutritious quality. The women, being responsible for the cooking, explained that they valued vellaperumsamai and karumperumsamai because of their taste and consistency. While selecting the plants for their seed, men used good panicle as the main variable and the women considered the vigour of the whole plant in the marginal agro-ecosystem along with well-filled grains in the panicle.

Box 2: Women’s contribution to genetic enhancement of cultivars

Knowingly or unknowingly, women are responsible for widening the genetic base by their innovative practice of cropping systems. They deliberate mix various kinds of land races, with different quantitative characters in a single field, as a strategy against risk. In addition, such a practice allows introgression of genes into the crop, which may give rise to new, valuable genotypes. In the Kolli hills, farmers mix two land races of Italian millet and little millet in a single field or in a mixed cropping system. In Jeypore, under wet sowing they mix seeds of short- and long-duration cultivars (locally called myda cultivation). The early paddy matures in July and is harvested along with green leaves of the second variety. The late cultivar comes to maturity in December and is harvested in early January.

Source: MSSRF, Kolli Hills and Jeypore

According to existing social norms, women are responsible for the nutrition, health and food security of the family. They prefer to cultivate food crops in their fields at least for their own needs. In fact, they take a leading role in the cultivation of paddy and minor millets, even though these are economically less beneficial than other cash crops. A close scrutiny of work patterns reveals that work done exclusively by women involves drudgery and physical strain. The categorization of many tasks as being performed jointly by both male and female does not mean that there is equal sharing of work. This categorization itself shows the tendency to distribute monotonous, time-consuming activities among the females within a particular activity.

Access and control over resources

Access to resources and ownership rights are assumed to be the paramount factors in bringing equity and conservation and sustainable use of bio-resources. The prevailing system of land ownership has an implication on women’s position, power and status within the household and community. Land ownership is one of the most important criteria that influence the negotiating and decision-making capacity of women within the household. Availability of the seeds of traditional cultivars is one of the main issues in on-farm conservation in addition to storage facilities. Poverty and household-level seed security are strongly related. In Jeypore, poor households have less capacity to store seeds and need to consume them during lean periods. Thus poverty is one of the prime factors that limit access to local seed resources (Balasubramanian 2000). The availability and access to the preferred traditional cultivars was taken care of by the Community Seed Bank (referred to as "the seed bank").

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