Today, much of this biodiversity is irretrievably lost, forced out by the quest for high-yield hybrids and varieties. Nevertheless, a significant number of traditional varieties of rice are still grown by small and marginal farmers across India, where they cater local consumers’ quality preferences and market niches.
In 2005, a group of 20 tribal women farmers from six villages in Surguja district in India’s central-eastern state of Chhattisgarh, realized the threats to the survival of a traditional rice variety called JeeraPhool, and formed a self-help group to protect and promote it.
JeeraPhool, is an indigenous, superfine, aromatic variety of rice. The cumin-like grain is very soft in the mouth and remains flaky even after cooling.
One of main aims of the project is to make communities in seven states (Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Assam) and the Union Territory of Ladakh, more resilient to climate variation as well as food secure by getting them to grow a greater variety of crops.
“Under the project, farmers are being empowered to exercise control over their plant genetic resources—expressed as local crop varieties—as a major asset, and to use this to improve their livelihoods through better farming practices, and aligning market, societal and conservation goals in product value chains,” says UNEP biodiversity expert Max Zieren.
Project features, achievements
The project conducted “focal group discussions” and a thorough baseline survey on the present and past existence of 20 crops. It found that several hundred named landraces and farmers’ varieties of the 20 target crops were still being maintained by some farmers.
To help conserve these varieties, 19 community seed banks have been initiated. They currently maintain over 2,000 traditional varieties of different crops. This will provide easier farmer access to a wider variety of seeds.
“Another unique feature of this project is that ex situ collections conserved in India’s National Gene Bank are being repatriated to farmers’ fields,” says Jai. “These include many of the varieties found to have been lost or discontinued in the surveyed communities.”
Under the project over 8,000 farmers have taken part in 43 capacity-building programmes.
“I am very happy that through this project our old rice varieties, such as Moochwali Bajri,Pili Bajri and Sulkhaniya Bajri,are coming back,” says Punja Ram, 55, from Jodhpur, Rajasthan.
“We lost them because we started growing improved varieties, but their taste is not good and they require heavy inputs which we often cannot afford. Our old varieties are very good in cooking and taste. Also, some varieties, such as Moochwali Bajri, arenot damaged by birds. And that saves us a lot of time and effort scaring birds away.”
The project also uses sophisticated laboratory analysis for nutrition profiling. This has been done for 205 landraces of rice, 23 of soybean and 26 of millet.
“The cultivation and use of indigenous nutrient-rich varieties will help in addressing the challenges of micronutrient malnutrition at household level,” says Jai.
Nature-based solutions offer the best way to achieve human well-being, tackle climate change and protect our living planet. Yet nature is in crisis, as we are losing species at a rate 1,000 times greater than at any other time in recorded human history and one million species face extinction. In addition to important moments for decision makers, including the COP 15 on Biodiversity, the 2020 “super year” is a major opportunity to bring nature back from the brink. The future of humanity depends on action now.