India originally possessed some 110,000 landraces of rice with diverse and valuable properties. These include enrichment in vital nutrients and the ability to withstand flood, drought, salinity or pest infestations. The Green Revolution covered fields with a few high-yielding varieties, so that roughly 90 percent of the landraces vanished from farmers’ collections.
High-yielding varieties require expensive inputs. They perform abysmally on marginal farms or in adverse environmental conditions, forcing poor farmers into debt.
Collecting, regenerating, documenting the traits of and sharing with farmers the remaining landraces, to restore some of the lost biodiversity of rice, is the author’s life mission.
One scorching summer day in 1991, having spent hours surveying the biodiversity of sacred groves in southern West Bengal, India, I approached Raghu Murmu’s hut to rest. Raghu, a young man of the Santal tribe, sat me under the shade of a huge mango tree while his daughter fetched me cold water and sweets made from rice. As I was relishing these, I noticed that Raghu’s pregnant wife was drinking a reddish liquid. Raghu explained that it was the starch drained from cooked Bhutmuri rice—meaning “ghost’s head” rice, perhaps because of its dark hull. It “restores blood in women who become deficient in blood during pregnancy and after childbirth,” he said. I gathered that this starch is believed to cure peripartum anemia in women. Another rice variety, Paramai-sal, meaning “longevity rice,” promotes healthy growth in children, Raghu added.
As I would subsequently establish, Bhutmuri is one of several varieties of indigenous rice in South Asia that are rich in iron, and it also contains certain B vitamins. And Paramaisal rice has high levels of antioxidants, micronutrients and labile starch, which can be converted rapidly to energy. At the time, however, such uncommon rice varieties, with their evocative names and folk medicinal uses, were new to me. When I returned home to Kolkata, I conducted a literature survey on the genetic diversity of Indian rice and realized that I had been lucky to encounter Raghu. Farmers like him, who grow indigenous rice and appreciate its value, are as endangered as the varieties themselves.
In the years since, I have become familiar with a cornucopia of native rice varieties (also called landraces) that possess astonishingly useful and diverse properties. Some can withstand flood, drought, salinity or pest attacks; others are enriched in valuable vitamins or minerals; and yet others are endowed with an enticing color, taste or aroma that has given them special roles in religious ceremonies. Collecting, regenerating and sharing with farmers these exceedingly rare but valuable varieties has become my life’s mission. […]
Given the failure of modern agricultural research to provide marginal farmers with any reliable germ lines of rice, a large collection of folk rice varieties, with their fine-tuned adaptations to adverse conditions, is our best bet. Convinced by the superior yield stability of the landraces, more than 2,000 farmers in Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Karnataka, Kerala and Maharashtra have adopted several folk rice varieties from Vrihi and abandoned cultivation of HYVs.
When Cyclone Aila hit the Sundarbans coast of West Bengal and Bangladesh in May 2009, it killed almost 350 people and destroyed the homes of more than a million. A storm surge inundated fields with seawater and left them salinated—which meant that quite apart from the immediate devastation, the food security of the region was likely to suffer long-term damage. We distributed a small amount of seeds from the Vrihi seed bank’s repertoire of traditional salinity-tolerant landraces, such as Lal Getu, Nona bokra and Talmugur, among a few farmers on island villages of the Sundarbans. These were the only rice varieties that yielded a sizable amount of grain on the salinated farms in that disastrous season. Similarly, in 1999 several folk varieties such as Jabra, Rani kajal and Lakshmi dighal ensured rice production for southern Bengal farmers after a flash flood of the Hugli River. In 2010 Bhutmuri, Kalo gorah, Kelas and Rangi rescued many indigenous farmers in the western district of Puruliya when delayed arrival of monsoon rains caused a severe drought.
Such disasters prove, time and again, that the long-term sustainability of rice farming depends crucially on the restoration of traditional farming practices based on biodiversity and use of the full diversity of crop varieties that have survived the onslaught of industrial farming.Debal Deb is founder of the Basudha rice conservation farm and Vrihi seed distribution center in Kerandiguda and founder and chair of the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Barrackpore, all in India.
Source: Debal Deb: “Restoring Rice Biodiversity”, Scientific American, October 2019
Date visited: 3 December 2019
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Basudha Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies
Explore the Link between Biological and Cultural Diversity
Basudha (= ‘Earth Mother’ in Bengali) is a 1.7 acre farmland, on rent in a tribal village, surrounded by forests and hills in Bissam Cuttack block, Rayagada district of southern Odisha. A small farm house can accommodate visiting activists, research students and farmers.
Basudha farm was established in early 2001 in Bankura district of West Bengal initially as a field station of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies, and registered as an independent Trust body, which is currently comprised by Dr. Debal Deb, Mr. Avik Saha, Mr. Tathagata Banerjee, Dr. Mita Dutta and Mr. Debdulal Bhattacharjee, and as Trustees.
Date visited: 3 December 2019
“The notion of ‘mainstreaming’ needs to be challenged not just because Adivasi culture is being crushed, but also because Adivasi values and ways of life offer insights that the ‘mainstream’ needs. If we are to halt the destruction of ecosystems, we need to understand how closely biodiversity and cultural diversity are intertwined. Perhaps it is time to reverse the gaze and begin to learn afresh from Adivasis.” – Felix Padel & Malvika Gupta in “Are mega residential schools wiping out India’s Adivasi culture?” (The Hindu, 13 February 2021) | More about the role of tribal communities in preserving India’s biodiversity and ethnobotany >>
Photo and video recommendation: a voice from rural India worth being heard
Whether you plan a visit or seek to learn more about India’s rural life – perhaps inspired by the Gandhian social movement or Rabindranath Tagore – explore “a living journal, a breathing archive” in the Adivasi category of PARI: the People’s Archive of Rural India initiated by distinguished photo journalist-turned-activist P. Sainath, continually enriched by stories from all over India.
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