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Approaches used in enhancing local agrobiodiversity

A multidimensional approach is necessary to promote agrobiodiversity conservation. A range of activities and a combination of approaches have been integrated by MSSRF to promote conservation, viz. creating an economic stake in conservation, crop development through participatory productivity enhancement activities, seed supply through network and institutionalization, recognizing, rewarding and supporting women’s contribution through appropriate documentation and polices, capacity building and enhancing farmers’ skills based on need are some of the important approaches tried to enhance agrobiodiversity conservation.

The economic stake in conservation

The Convention on Biological Diversity emphasizes the link between conservation and commercialization. Conservation of biodiversity becomes a lost cause unless the local people develop a tangible economic stake in conservation to improve their economic status. Sustainability can be ensured only by empowering the workers in the field, especially rural and tribal women. Creating an economic stake in conservation by linking the primary conservers with the market reinforces conservation.

Through several ways, local, national and international markets for land races may be developed to increase the value of genetic resources. The identification of "niche markets" where land races are in demand and information on the marketing channels that bring land-race produce to the market can suggest market bottlenecks and constraints. The lack of adequate storage mechanisms and of transportation facilities from field to market, and inadequate supplies of land races are some of the constraints.

Introducing credit and other facilities could increase supplies and improve the infrastructure. Market constraints might be overcome through promotional campaigns for land-race products and by helping to increase production of land races. Food industry firms should be encouraged to incorporate land races and promote the products.

Minor millets in the Kolli hills are grown on a subsistence scale and never enter the market. The prevailing community’s perception is that the lack of market channels is one of the main causes of reduction in the area under cultivation. Marketing channels were explored both at the local and regional levels. The issue was addressed through mobilizing women and men self-help groups to institutionalize the marketing activities. Self-help groups are primarily credit-based institutions that have recognition from the formal banking sector. The Tribal Cooperative Marketing Development Federation of India Ltd (TRIFED), a central government marketing agency committed to the multidimensional transformation of the tribal society by generating and establishing proper marketing channels for tribal produce, was identified at the regional level. For the first time, TRIFED decided to procure minor millet for marketing and to involve self-help groups in its marketing strategy; thus a direct market channel was created in the Kolli hills between producers and consumers through a marketing agency (Box 3). Further efforts were made to create a demand for minor millet by using it in the preparation of bread and of poultry feed. Appropriate agencies were approached and since TRIFED is tied up with the minor millets cultivators, discussions are underway to link TRIFED with bread and poultry-feed manufacturing companies.

Moreover, local markets were used to sell minor millet to revive and enhance traditional food habits. For example, the annual Adi 18, a locally famous festival which attracts about 100 000 devotees of the Arappaleswarar temple located at Valappur Nadu, was used for this purpose. The first two years, MSSRF acted as an active partner along with self-help groups but the third year, the groups handled everything themselves. Both men and women members of self-help groups equally participated in the whole process, from listing the food products and planning to sharing the profits equally. The efforts resulted in encouraging the use of minor-millet food items in the region and also in increasing the area under minor millet cultivation.

Box 3. Establishing market linkages with the organized sector

Minor millets have been cultivated on a subsistence scale and marketing is the main constraint for scaling up production. Market linkages were established at local and regional levels: people were mobilized and formed into self-help groups to institutionalize marketing operations. The various self-help groups were brought under a single system, evolved into a federation then linked with TRIFED. Prices, marketing mechanisms and other modalities were negotiated and a memorandum of understanding was signed stating the rules and procedures to be followed in marketing. The federation members signed the agreement on behalf of their group members. MSSRF played the role of facilitator in the process.

At the village level self-help group members organized an explorative survey to estimate the quantity of millet available all over the Kolli hills. Women members identified and procured the minor millets within the hamlet, whereas men procured them from the nearby villages. The commission given to self-help groups by TRIFED is shared equally. In 1999/2000 and 2000/01 the group members procured nearly 25 tonnes of minor millets and marketed them to TRIFED. The linkage has revived the interest among the local people to cultivate minor millets.

Source: MSSRF, Kolli Hills

In Wayanad, traditional rice varieties having medicinal qualities have been cultivated on a minimum scale because of market constraints and poor productivity. Among the 18 medicinal varieties, njavara has high medicinal qualities. Women are more responsible in the cultivation (sowing, hoeing, crop maintenance, harvesting, food processing) and use of medicinal njavara rice (Annex 5). However, their involvement in value addition and quality improvement for marketing of such resources is not prevailing. The stake in cultivation of medicinal rice varieties was created by linking the conservers with the market and enhancing their capacity in value addition. Like in the Kolli hills, women members were mobilized and formed into self-help groups. The potential buyers were identified and linkages have been established between pharmaceutical companies and self-help groups (Box 4). Apart from this the members of women self-help groups have been emerging as conservation entrepreneurs; they do manual processing and sell the rice in the local markets as a group activity.

Box 4. Women conservation enterprises

Two women self-help groups at Chooralmala in the Meppady village are involved in the cultivation of njavara rice. MSSRF facilitated the process by giving technical support for the conservation enterprises. An informal link was established with a leading raw drug merchant in nearby towns for the sale of njavara rice and grains. Such became the demand for njavara rice that they were not able to meet it satisfactorily. The women self-help group of Chooralmala was able to sell two quintals of rice in the last season, resulting in extra income for a group of ten people. Another group is engaged in producing and marketing a protein-rich powder called Navadhanyappodi, flour and pappads, which are rich in proteins, starch and minerals.

Source: MSSRF, Wayanad

Though the market linkages encourage local people to grow minor millets and paddy, practical constraints discourage them from expanding their activity. In the Kolli hills, minor millets are scattered all over 250 hamlets in 16 revenue villages in undulating terrain. The tribes grow different land races of minor millets in different agro-climatic zones. So, procuring them and selling them in one place is a difficult task. Moreover the available surplus is very low, as pooling is a laborious, time-consuming affair. The financial constraint is another obstacle which prevents tribal farmers from taking the initiative. Organizing venture capital or a revolving fund could help to solve the problem. A compensatory mechanism for the loss through risk cover could encourage some more farmers to venture into the activity. The other hurdles identified are the lack of reliable market information, of market channels, of market access and of the relevant expertise to negotiate and ensure a fair deal. In Wayanad, the negative relationship of yield and medicinal quality results in lower yields and economic benefits, which discourage the farmers. The assured market channels and value addition are the positive factors for the cultivation.

Industrial links, e.g. niche marketing

Another noteworthy feature of cultivation in marginal environments in developing countries is that much of the production is organic. Organic certification could add value to the products of these regions. Urban consumers looking for dioxin-free organic products and capable of paying premium prices would be the target. Identifying reliable partners/collaborators and developing the capacity for negotiation would be essential. A group-based approach could solve practical issues such as scale of production, transportation and storage. It also would instil and develop collective rationale and foster collective ownership.

In the Kolli hills pineapple and minor millets have been produced without application of chemicals for nutrients or pest management. Given the current shift in consumer behaviour towards organic foods in the context of increasing globalization, marketing of organic products was identified as a strategy. By taking advantage of the prevailing organic production system in the Kolli hills, a niche market for organic pineapple was explored among European and other western countries. A certifying agency and other stakeholders in market linkages were identified and linked with self-help groups for marketing (Box 6). MSSRF facilitated the process by organizing a training programme on quality enhancement, procedures related to organic marketing and documentation of the farming practices and by preparing a business plan for the group members.

Box 5: Organic markets for pineapple and minor millets

In the Kolli hills, five villages with a large area under pineapple production were identified. The pineapple farmers were mobilized into self-help groups (three women, one men and one mixed groups). Their capacity to negotiate was developed through group discussions and training programmes with external agencies. MSSRF brought together the pineapple farmers and the Ion Exchange Enviro-Farms Pvt Ltd (IEEFL), a marketing agency. ECOCERT International, a Germany-based organic certifying agency, was approached for certification. A group of multidisciplinary experts inspected the site and certified the entire area as an organic production zone for pineapple cultivation (232 acres). Men and women members of the self-help groups pooled the produce coming from the various localities to ensure quality while marketing it at the collection centres. The process instilled a feeling of collective ownership and enhanced the business skills of the self-help members. The collection was done under the supervision of IEEFL. Nearly 40 tonnes have been marketed, out of an estimated potential of 400 tonnes. The increase in profit through organic marketing is estimated at about 40 percent. The International Life and Food Association, a Japan-based NGO working primarily to revive the millet diet in Japan, is negotiating with the self-help groups of the Kolli hills to procure minor millet.

Source: MSSRF, Kolli Hills

The high cost of certification could be overcome by scaling up the area under certification. The important agronomical constraint in pineapple growing in a marginal environment is low productivity and brix content (one of the fruit quality traits) due to the fact that natural and continuous cultivation results in poor soil fertility.

Ensuring the value of agrobiodiversity

Documentation of traditional knowledge: local institutions and biodiversity register

The Convention on Biological Diversity recognized that biodiversity occurring within a country is the sovereign property of that country. Thus a sense of community ownership needs to be fostered by involving the local communities in chronicling the recognizable biological resources (People’s Biodiversity Register), taking into account gender roles, responsibilities and knowledge. This activity will ensure scope for conservation, sustainable use and the equitable sharing of benefits. Also, it will record the conservation practices and underlying ethics prevailing in the region and safeguard the intellectual property rights of local communities. The local-level databases could serve as benchmarks to monitor periodically the impact of biodiversity conservation measures on genetic erosion. Individual and collective creativity should be acknowledged by grant entitlements to the local individuals or communities sharing their wisdom, innovation and practices for commercialization.

In the MSSRF study areas of Wayanad and the Koli hills, a core of village volunteers was selected, formed as a committee and trained in preparation of inventories. The management of such chronicled documents as the People’s Biodiversity Register was discussed with the stakeholders and institutionalized with the help of formal or informal institutions at the village level. Gender perspectives were internalized in the process of forming groups, in the documentation of species and their associated knowledge, and in the management.

Box 6. People’s biodiversity register

In the Kolli hills, biodiversity-rich areas were prioritized and the local people were formed into a biodiversity management committee with equal representation of men and women. Apart from registering the common knowledge of men and women, the register recorded women’s exclusive knowledge on agrobiodiversity. In addition, plant and animal genetic resources, use patterns and the eco-system in which they were found were also recorded. The management process was institutionalized with the help of the local panchayat (oor gounder) and members’ mobilized resources to update and maintain the inventory.

In Wayanad, a panchayat-level community biodiversity conservation committee was formed with the panchayat leader as chairperson and local villagers, including women and youth, as members. The committee coordinated the preparation of gender-sensitive biodiversity registers, which created a sense of community ownership of the resources. A training manual in Malayalam was issued to enable the local people to prepare the register. A model People’s Biodiversity Register for a small village was published by the panchayat presenting people’s knowledge of ethno-botanical details and use value of biological resources. A detailed documentation of traditional paddy cultivation in the district was also made in the register.

Source: MSSRF, Kolli Hills and Wayanad

Collaborative preparation of biodiversity registers through participatory methods enhanced the awareness among stakeholders of the significance of their agrobiodiversity resources. Awareness creation, education and capacity building are vital in preparing the inventories. The replication of such activity to other parts has to be internalized in formal systems and recognized politically.

Community gene bank and community herbarium

Conservation of plant genetic material in gene banks (ex situ) is a widely accepted practice in view of increasing habitat destruction and depletion of natural resources. Local communities all over the world are known for their creative agriculture and are responsible for the conservation of genetic resource material. A facility was established by MSSRF at Chennai to conserve farmer-developed and -conserved plant genetic resources. This community gene bank has medium-term storage capacity and is linked with the long-term storage facility of the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources. It provides easy access to tribal and rural farm families only with prior informed consent of the farm families, serves as a backup storehouse linked with community seed banks operating at the village level, and acts as a reference centre to recognize the farmers’ contributions while implementing the Farmer’s Rights bill by documenting gender-specific contributions of materials and their associated knowledge.

Box 7. Documentary evidence

The community gene bank at MSSRF holds nearly 1 000 accessions of different crop germplasm. To provide a linkage between ex situ and in situ conservation, the community gene bank is linked with community seed banks. Such a mutually reinforcing linkage ensures the sustainable use of plant genetic materials.

The community herbarium has a collection of dried, preserved plants/parts of rare, endangered, medicinal and traditional cultivars serving as references and it holds 277 voucher specimens.

The seeds, herbarium specimen, and database (Farmers Rights Information Service) will help to ensure the intellectual property rights on contributions of tribal and rural families so that they are recognized under the relevant provisions of the Plant Variety Protection and Farmer’s Rights Act 2000 and the proposed Biodiversity Act of the Government of India.

Source: MSSRF, Chennai

Appropriating value to genetic resources

Appropriating value to a species encourages its conservation in a social system for a variety of reasons. Local people have been maintaining and cultivating the genetic resources primarily for their nutritional and medicinal values and out of certain beliefs and faiths and religious rituals, apart from their economic value. Such practices are disappearing among the villagers due to the changing lifestyle. Their timely promotion at the local level could, however, help in conservation. Women’s preferences in crops and varieties are based on their use value such as seasonal food security, culinary tradition and dietary diversity.

Box 8. Valuable crops and cultivars preserved by tribal women and men

Many crops have been conserved on the basis of their value in rituals and their medicinal and nutritional qualities.

Ritual: In the Kolli hills, a special preparation of a particular variety of rice, karunellu, and a banana variety called karuvazhai are important offerings to local deities. These varieties are specially conserved and cultivated for the purpose of offering to the local deity. In Orissa, several rice land races have been conserved on the basis of their value in their religious functions such as kalakrishan, tulsi, haladichudi, machakanda, mer and deulabhoga.

Nutrition: In the Kolli hills, women and men prefer little millet for their diet because it takes longer to digest, thus giving a feeling of fullness that allows them to work longer periods in the field. Women deliberately mix seeds of kullakadugu - a variant of the Brassica species - in the finger millet mixed cropping systems. They collect tender leaves of the plant used as greens when other vegetable sources are scarce during the early period of the planting season.

Medicinal quality: In Wayanad, the rice variety that holds a high significance is Njavara, which is used in the Ayurvedic medicinal system for treating circulatory, respiratory and digestive ailments (Annex 5). This grain is widely known as medicinal rice for treating rheumatic ailments and for boosting the health of weak persons.

Source: MSSRF, Kolli Hills, Wayanad and Orissa

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