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المنتدى العالمي المعني بالأمن الغذائي والتغذية

Re: Innovations in agriculture to improve nutrition. Share your success stories

Vidhya  Das
Vidhya DasIndia

Dear Sir,

In response to your query, I am attaching an article by me, which was published in the farming matters journal, and can be accessed at: .

I do hope it will take the discussion forward



Over its years of work with tribal farmers, Agragamee has gained the understanding that the best innovations in agriculture for improving nutrition would be to help farmers reclaim their agricultural lands and improve and increase the cultivation of their traditional crops, which ensured a holistic and balanced nutrition of cereals, pulses, and oilseeds, supplemented by tubers, fruits, spinach, and other items from the forest. The following article describes our efforts to help tribal communities reclaim degraded lands for indigenous agricultural crops, and perennial plantations. It was published in farming matters, and can be accessed through . In the meanwhile, we have taken the processes described herein under further, experimenting with millets and pulses for settled upland cultivation. The processes involve minimum or no soil disturbance methods, and Masanobu Fukuoka’s principles of no tilling, no weeding, no chemicals, and no pesticides. Working closely with tribal farmers, we expect that in a few years time, these efforts will have spread amongst tribal farmers, helping them make a major shift away from slash and burn cultivation, and leading to a rejuvenation of tribal eco-systems, and improvement in quality of life within tribal communities.

Reclaiming Tribal Landscapes: Challenging the TINA Myth


Vidhya Das

‘Podu Chaso’ as slash and burn cultivation is called in the tribal regions of Orissa is significant for the  biodiversity of crops it has helped to sustain, as also the diversity of cultivation practices it has generated. Crop rotations, intercropping, and other sustainable agricultural practices are a part of the inherited knowledge system of the Podu farmer. More than 1000 varieties of rice ( ) are known to have been preserved by the tribal farmers in the undivided Koraput (now divided into 4 districts, and forming the entire southern tip of the Eastern Indian State of Odisha) region of Odisha. They have several varieties of short duration and long duration upland paddy that grows on the middle region slopes. They also grow some of the most exquisite varieties of scented rice, the most famous amongst them being ‘Kala Jeera’ so called because the paddy is black in colour before being de-husked. Apart from this, they have short and long duration varieties of Ragi, and the less common millets, including fox tail millet, pearl millet, sorghum, and others I have not been able ascertain the names for. Amongst pulses, they grow several varieties of broad bean, arhar, cow pea, rice bean, urad, and a local variety commonly called 'Bailo'.

Not all of this is grown on hill or mountain slopes, the typical shifting cultivation or swidden land. For example, most of the scented varieties of paddy are low land varieties. Not all of the land under shifting cultivation is mountain land either. But, it is the entire system of agriculture practised by the tribal communities that has helped preserve this rich bio-diversity of crops, as also the diversity of cultivation, as different systems of cultivation are practised on different types of land and different types of soil.

However, all of this is under increasing threat. Commercial felling has devastated thousands of acres of land of the tribal communities. In addition, the undivided Koraput District has long suffered from lopsided sided development with rail, road and water reservoirs being built to woo corporate investment at the cost of the tribal land and livelihoods. Studies estimate that just in the Koraput region, more than half a million people have been displaced due to big dams, and more than ten thousand hectares of forest land destroyed. Governments in India have adopted the TINA (There Is No Alternative) philosophy for addressing poverty, based on the claim that despite several efforts, programmes, schemes for land, village and community development, poverty persists in the tribal regions. They underline that the only solution to this is to invite corporate investment. However, most displacement due to multi-million dollar projects investments have only further impoverished tribal communities (

In addition, climate change has also affected the rainfall patterns of the region, affecting cultivation practices, and the fragile geo-physiology of these regions. The result of all this, is the near decimation of the 'Podu' system of cultivation, and the livelihoods of the tribal communities, which were in tandem with the local agro-climatic conditions, and the eco-niche of the eastern ghats.  All this has brought the tribal communities, to the brink of starvation. In fact hunger stares them in the face for several months in a year, their rich forests have disappeared, their luxurious hill slopes on which they could grow upto 10 different crops in one place in one season have turned to barren patches of rock, and rubble, on which they keep trying their 'Podu', in desparation trying to relive the memories of those bountiful days, in not such a distant past.

What is the way out? Seeking to address the situation with a people centred and holistic approach, Agragamee entered into dialogue with tribal farmers, on what could be the alternative that might be sustainable, and eco-friendly, while helping tribal communities preserve their cropping patterns and produce their own food. The dialogue lead to the idea of eco-villages. The best initiative came from farmers in Chandragiri Panchayat (Panchayat is a cluster of villages) Rayagada District, in Odisha. Here, farmers pointed out that there was a need for addressing the problem in a multi-pronged manner, whereby the multiple stress on the land and the hill slopes could be managed in a more organised manner. This included better governance of commons, improved land use and soil management, moving towards settled cultivation, and rejuvenating uplands with miscellaneous multi-tier plantations and permanent tree crops that could provide livelihood support as well as cash income. This was a huge task, and a challenge for tribal farmers who have little resources other than the land and their own labour. However the longest journey begins with one step. The first step then was to frame the rules for better governance of resources. Over a process of dialogue, and discussion, the rules emerged: controlled grazing of cattle; no intoxicants including alcohol, 'Gudaku' (A sticky paste made of tobaco and lime) or cigarettes; every child in school; protection of all forests, collective labour for village development; everybody to maintain compost pits for disposing waste.

This was followed by involved discussions on improved land use. Agragamee members provided inputs through their long experience on working with tribal communities and tribal lands. Support also came from organisations like IPAF (Indigenous People's Assistance Facility) NABARD (National Bank for Agricultural Development) and KKS (Karl Kubel Stifftung). The first task everybody agreed was to improve agricultural practices, and soil fertility. Through the practise of shifting cultivation, much of the agricultural lands were almost waste lands. They were being cultivated in rotations of 7 to 8 years, with the fallow period ranging from 3 to 6 years. Even then, the yield in these crops was erratic and uncertain. Often times, even the input costs were not recovered. This necessitated cultivation of hill-slopes, which were common lands, used for grazing, as also accessed for firewood by women. Gradually, women were loosing their firewood sources, and food gathering on the forested commons had almost completely disappeared.  

A series of consultations with 25 tribal villages was taken up, based on past experience with natural resources and agricultural development programmes. The details of a plan began to emerge. The community felt that they had been very short sighted, in the past, wherein they had neglected plantations, and orchards, and allowed them to die. The loss was underlined by the few, less than 5 % of tribal farmers, who had taken the trouble to maintain their plantations of cashew and mango. These people were getting significant returns today from the sale of cashew and mango, when others were in penury. The village community decided they would take up action at three levels. One at the level of governance, based on the rules formulated as mentioned above, the second would be collective effort to rejuvenate the commons, this was a prime need emphasised by women, and the third would be efforts to move away from shifting cultivation to settled plots, conserving energy and resources on cropped land, and allowing uncropped lands to rejuvenate.

The process was a challenge in the steep stony uplands, much of which was already denuded. However the farmers took it up with courage and determination. They decided to first address the problems of their agricultural uplands. Agragamee stepped in with support for fencing, and other land development works. farmers also wanted plant material for developing income generating plantations. So a common design for the farmers' lands was worked out which combined perennial plantations with rainfed cropping, and also included development of the hedgerow with fire-wood and timber trees for an integrated livelihood support to the family.

Women in the community felt that it was not enough to protect just the private lands, they pointed out that this would not provide them with firewood and fodder that was as essential as agriculture. Thus, it was decided to address the question of commons by initiating protection and rejuvenation. Women took the initiative in this, deciding what trees they would plant, and also taking up annual intercropping, which ensuring their commons was properly fenced in, and no cattle could come in.

In Kebedi Village, 35 farmers, which is almost the entire village decided to address the situation through collective effort. Realising that open grazing of cattle was doing much harm, they decided to fence in their areas, to protect and conserve it. Every farmer agreed to take up one acre of up land, and develop it for settled agriculture. Farmers with common borders decided to fence in their lands together. Within 2 years, farmers have been able to find the difference between fenced in lands, and those left for open grazing. Not only have the perennial tree plantations established, they have also been able to take annual crops of lentils and millets, without soil degradation. They are also gradually adopting zero tillage practices, which has improved soil fertility.

Women have come together as a group, for protecting common lands. as a first step, and an example, they have protected 25 acres of uplands through a combination of social fencing, and green and mechanical fencing. The green fencing will reach the stage of forming a complete protective barrier in another year's time. They have combined income generating trees like cashew with firewood trees, and also intercropped with annual legumes, the returns from which has been shared amongst all.

These efforts have inspired other villages also to take up similar effort. In many villages, people have begun to fence in their lands, and develop it with permanent tree cover combined with annual seasonal crops.

The more important effort is being taken up by women on common lands, which are being reclaimed with huge effort by women's collectives. In the village of Maligaon, women have fenced in 25 acres of land, and have intercropped seasonal legumes with Mango plants. While the mango takes time to mature, they have been taking legume crops from the land. These two villages have set an example for the entire regions, and inspired several other villages also to make similar effort.

Poverty and neglect by the government has set back the community of tribal people in southern Odisha significantly. Under these circumstances, their efforts for reclaiming lands in the hilly terrains of Koraput is a difficult challenge for the people, as also for Non-governmental organisations like Agragamee who are committed to tribal development and wellbeing and works in Koraput and other tribal districts of Odisha. A beginning has been made with the courage and determination of the tribal people, and specially the tribal women, who have bravely stepped out to save their commons. These are efforts which provide the alternatives to big dams and industry, which need to be recognised, supported and promoted. 

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