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Kaliamma Nanjan, 70, sings as she cuts through her farm in Kerala’s Western Ghats. She deftly navigates the slopes of Attappady in Palakkad district with the gravity-defying dexterity of a mountain goat. Her silver-grey hair and bright saree vanish as she enters her mosaic-like 3.5-acre farm – her own agrobiodiversity haven.
There is one acre each of paddy, little millet and finger millet, and the remaining area is divided between vegetables for daily use, hyacinth beans, corn, and pulses.
Kaliamma is part of a unique project as a “Master Farmer” with the Kudumbashree Mission to promote and mainstream agrobiodiversity by reviving traditional and sustainable farming practices called panchakrishi.
Agrobiodiversity is the sustained management of various biological resources including multi-cropping, trees, herbs, spices, livestock, fish species and non-domesticated resources within fields and forests.
By breaking away from the silo of limiting agrobiodiversity to conservation, the Kudumbashree project integrates increasing farm productivity, boosting nutritional security, and providing market access to tribal communities in remote areas.
Kudumbashree, Kerala’s programme and network for women’s empowerment and poverty eradication with over 4.3 million members, has its hands in many pies. It has floated special projects for tribal women living in the 745 sq km Attappady block in Palakkad in 2017.
The Western Ghats is an agrobiodiversity hotspot, and in Attappady indigenous methods like panchakrishi protect it.
Over 10,000 tribals live in Attappady, with a majority displaced from the farm sector over the years. Land conflict, intensive farming, and marginalisation have resulted in worsening socio-economic indicators including malnutrition, child deaths and food crisis linked to land alienation and the loss of their traditional agriculture in tribal communities, the government has noted. Kudumbashree entered Attappady with a host of projects after malnutrition claimed 58 lives in 2012-2014.
“For this project, Kudumbashree has mobilised its community-based networks and aligned with the Mahila Kisan Sashakthikarana Pariyojana, under the National Rural Livelihoods Mission,” said Sai Dalvi, District Mission Coordinator in Palakkad.
There are 192 hamlets and over 840 ha under panchakrishi farming, producing pulses, tubers, paddy, millets, and vegetables. “Government and farmers’ organisations need to be the base, but the farmers should have the autonomy,” explained Ramanatha Rao, a geneticist f policy and think-tank Biodiversity International.