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Biodiversity is an important property of ecosystems for sustained production of services and resources (Costanza & Folke 1996). The erosion of biodiversity weakens the ecosystem and pulls down its capacity for consistent renewal of natural resources as well as its economic value. Since the Rio Convention on Biological Diversity, the concept of biodiversity in agriculture has been referred to as agrobiodiversity. Agrobiodiversity includes all crops and livestock and their wild relatives, and all interacting species of pollinators, symbionts, pests, parasites, predators and competitors (Qualset et al. 1995). In agriculture, the influence of human beings in the domestication of biological resources has shaped the diversity of living forms. In the process there is continuous gain and loss. However, in the last century the balance turned to loss. This irreversible loss of genes is of major concern for global food security. The role of farmers in the development of diversity in agriculture is crucial. Not only have natural processes and conditions contributed to the creation of agrobiodiversity, but cultural and social diversity encountered in humankind has also had a guiding hand in its creation (De Boef 2000). The rate of agrobiodiversity loss was triggered after the rapid diffusion of semi-dwarf wheat and rice varieties along with several other factors. The most frequently cited evidence for genetic erosion is indirect: the diffusion of modern, high-yielding varieties into areas once known for crop diversity (Hawkes 1983).

Conservation needs to be promoted through the means of economic incentives. An incentive (direct, indirect or service oriented) for conservation is any inducement which is specifically intended to incite or motivate local people to conserve biodiversity. Involving the community and other actors in conservation programmes by providing new approaches to conservation which alter people’s perceptions is recognized as the critical factor. The current global view is that rural men and women are the managers of biodiversity and hold in-depth knowledge of local plants; they are thus the custodians of plant genetic resources, highlighting the key role of rural women in agrobiodiversity-based food production systems (Balakrishnan 2000).


The objectives of the report are:

Women - producers, providers and managers

Sustainability refers to how people living in a particular place manage resources in order to both maintain themselves on a daily basis and ensure that they have what they need as they move from one annual cycle to the next and from one generation to another. Women are the focal point of these activities (Collins 1991). Thomas and Slayter (1994) note that gender is a key factor in the division of labour, rights and responsibilities and thus is tightly tied to the management of local ecological systems. Women are traditional caretakers of crop genetic diversity in agriculture. Their knowledge of the growing conditions and nutritional characteristics of various species gives them a vital fund of experience in seed selection and plant breeding. This enables them to maintain the genetic diversity required to adapt to fluctuating weather patterns and biotic pressures and ensure the survival of traditional crops adapted to local conditions and tastes. Women’s contribution in resource management has not been widely used and the lack of documentation on such fund of knowledge bars access to it and has resulted in inequality in sharing the benefits. The understanding and appreciation of gender roles in the conservation and enhancement of genetic resources guarantee gender justice in sharing the benefits.


The approach adopted while implementing the project was to adapt initiatives to changing situations, with a time frame driven largely by local requirements. The process involved information exchange, problem analysis, joint planning, building trust between the partners, consistent capacity building and negotiation, grass-roots institution building, benefit sharing mechanisms and institutionalization. The project sites were selected on the basis of the prevailing crop genetic diversity, distribution pattern and genetic erosion in varied agro-ecological situations based on the explorative field visits.

Study area: land and people

The study area covers three ecologically distinct and fragile regions: Jeypore, the Kolli hills and Wayanad. The first two areas are located in the Eastern Ghats: Jeypore is at the northern end and the Kolli hills are at the southern end of the Eastern Ghats. Wayanad is in the southern part of the Western Ghats. The focus differed at each site: the traditional paddy varieties in Jeypore and Wayanad and minor millets in the Kolli hills were the focused crops.


The southern part of Orissa, known as the "Jeypore tract" in Koraput district, lies in the northern part of the Eastern Ghats, with a gently undulating plateau and residual hills. The geology of the region is a series of metamorphosed sediment formed into different kinds of rock. The subtropical evergreen type of forest (sal forest) has largely been replaced by a species of typical drier zones. Jeypore receives an annual rainfall of 1800 mm and the southwest monsoon delivers more than 70 percent of the rain. The agricultural season starts with the summer showers of April and May. Nearly 45 percent of the land is under cultivation. Out of 19 985 ha, nearly 17 000 ha is under paddy. Paddy is the predominant crop cultivated in the upland, medium and lowland ecosystems during khariff season, mostly under rain-fed conditions. The other main crops are pulses, oilseeds, sugarcane and minor millets grown in rotation at higher altitudes. The soil texture varies from coarse sandy loam, alluvial, red laterite to clay. In rice literature, the tract has drawn the attention of rice bio-systematists, geneticists and conservationists since the first half of the last century when traditional varieties of rice dominated. Jeypore is considered to be a secondary centre of origin of cultivated rice, particularly the "aus" ecotype. The Central Rice Research Institute at Cuttack collected nearly 1 750 varieties of rice from this region between 1955 and 1960. An exploratory survey carried out by the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) in 1995/96 managed to collect only 324 varieties. An in-depth study in 1998 showed that only 83 varieties were under cultivation (Annex 1). The introduction of high-yielding varieties along with canal irrigation facilities and the lower productivity of the traditional land races are the main causes of genetic erosion of the traditional cultivars. Of the 514 000 workers registered in the district, nearly 336 000 are cultivators and agricultural labourers. The district has a low literacy rate of 24.6 percent. The Kandha, Langia Saora, Paroja, Bhatara, Gadaba, Amanatya, Halva, Bonda, Koya and Didayi tribes are the original inhabitants of the forest and hills. The Bonda, Paroja and Langia Saora tribes still practise shifting cultivation along with settled agriculture.

Kolli hills

The Kolli hills are situated at the tail end of the Eastern Ghats in the state of Tamil Nadu. They are part of the Talaghat stretch. The hills have deep ravines and high peaks. On the western, eastern and southern sides they rise abruptly from the plain and on the northern side ascend to it by numerous long and gently sloping spurs. They spread over an area of 28 293 ha and agricultural activities take place in 51.6 percent of the total area; the forest occupies 44 percent; and other activities concern less than five percent of the territory. The area receives an average of 1440 mm annual rainfall distributed fairly over the two seasons. The elevation ranges between 1 000 and 1 350 metres. Irrigation facilities are available to less than 15 percent of the area through springs and wells. The remainder is under rain-fed farming. The agricultural season starts with the onset of the southwest monsoon in June-July.

The Kolli hills are known for their crop genetic diversity, especially in minor millets. The intra-specific phenotypic variability is enormous; the populations are highly heterogeneous in morphological and agronomic character. The heterogeneity within the races and the microclimatic variations in the fields at different altitudes help them to reduce the risk of crop loss due to various biotic and non-biotic stresses. The diversity of species of minor millets in the farmers’ fields shows in the varied space and time dimensions in which each species and its race are distributed across the geographical area of the Kolli hills at varied altitudes, forming what can be called a dynamic mosaic system (Annex 2).

In the Kolli hills, the agrobiodiversity has been declining and there has been a rapid shrinkage in the area under minor millet cultivation in the last three decades. The introduction of cash crops, declining soil fertility, drudgery involved in processing, lack of market channels, increasing transport facilities, availability of cheap rice under the public distribution system, rice as a symbol of social mobility - all these are factors which have affected the cultivation and consumption of minor millets in the Kolli hills. Although the drastic changes in cropping patterns have taken place in the last three decades only, the region seems to have undergone a major change in crops over the last one hundred years. Secondary statistical data show that in 1883 in the Nammakal region nearly 1 113 ha was under minor millet cultivation as against 967 ha in 1996/97. Similarly in 1883 tapioca was not listed as a cultivated crop in the Kolli hills, whereas in 1996/97 the area under the crop was 5 000 ha. The 1991 census gives the total population at 33 888 living in 6 840 households. More than 95 percent of the inhabitants are tribal people belonging to the Malayali community. The population density is 119 per km2. In 1991 farmers numbered 4 200, 1 500 of them small farmers and 2 200 marginal farmers, and agricultural labourers numbered about 10 600.


Wayanad is a hilly district (2 126 km2) situated in the southern region of the Western Ghats in the state of Kerala. Its ecosystem is highly disturbed and considered one of the hottest of the 29 ecological "hot spots" in the country. The hill of the district is lofty and has deep valleys. The region is bio-geographically rich with significant landscape complexity and biological diversity in both flora and fauna, with an impressive rate of threatening factors. The elevation is 700 m to 2 100 m. Forty-one percent of the area is under natural forest, ranging from tropical wet evergreen to tropical dry deciduous types. The district has a total population of 700 000, 15 percent of whom are tribal communities.

Wayanad, once the nadu (territory) of vayal (paddy field) endowed with many land races of rice, is experiencing a fast depletion of paddy fields. Paddy fields girdle the base of biodiversity-rich hillocks. It has been reported that there were 73 varieties of paddy grown in Wayanad, each with unique qualities. The present study shows, however, that only 18 varieties are left and their very existence is under threat (Annex 3). In 1985, paddy fields covered 20 000 ha but only 16 000 ha by 1998/99. At present, banana, ginger, areca and tapioca occupy 60 percent of the existing paddy fields, and mountains have been converted to tea and coffee estates, which replace forest trees. Intensive commercial agricultural activities, developmental schemes and population pressure are the main factors of degradation of habitats and the associated biological diversity.

The area is ethnically very diverse. The tribes which have been living there for generations are the Panians, Kurichians, Adiyas, Uraalikurumas and Kattunayakans. The Paniyas are the demographically dominant group; they work as wage labourers in the fields and plantations. The Adiyas also earn their livelihood through wage labour. The Kuruchiyas are an agricultural tribal community. The Kattunayakans or Jenukurumas are basically a foraging group, known for their expertise in wild-bee honey collection, and so are the Uraalikurumas. The other immigrants belong to a mixed socio-cultural group of non-tribal origins.

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