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
[Bold typeface added above for emphasis]
Find up-to-date information provided by, for and about Indian authors, researchers, officials, and educators | More search options >>
Search tips: in the search field seen below, combine the name of any particular state, language or region with that of any tribal (Adivasi) community; add keywords of special interest (health, nutrition endangered language, illegal mining, sacred grove); learn about the rights of Scheduled Tribes such as the Forest Rights Act (FRA); and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, women’s rights, and children’s right to education; specify any other issue or news item you want to learn more about (biodiversity, bonded labour and human trafficking, climate change, ecology, economic development, ethnobotany, ethnomedicine, global warming, Himalayan tribe, hunter-gatherers in a particular region or state, prevention of rural poverty, water access).
For a list of websites included in a single search, click here. To search Indian periodicals, magazines, web portals and other sources safely, click here. To find an Indian PhD thesis on a particular tribal community, region and related issues, click here >>
“Together, we must endeavour to strengthen tribal communities which are the role model in preservation of water, forest and land, and learn from their connection with nature and the surrounding environment for the sake of the entire human race.” – journalist and tribal rights activist Dayamani Barla in The Wire >>
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
“Tribal languages are a treasure trove of knowledge about a region’s flora, fauna and medicinal plants. Usually, this information is passed from generation to generation. However, when a language declines, that knowledge system is completely gone.” – Ayesha Kidwai (Centre for Linguistics, School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi) quoted by Abhijit Mohanty in “Seven decades after independence, many tribal languages in India face extinction threat” | Learn more about the work done by the People’s Linguistic Survey of India and endangered languages worldwide >>
“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 (The Hindu) | Learn more about the role of tribal communities in fostering biodiversity, ethnobotany and cultural diversity | Success stories | Tribal identity >>
“I think that by retaining one’s childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies and … toads, one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable, and that by preaching the doctrine that nothing is to be admired except steel and concrete, one merely makes it a little surer that human beings will have no outlet for their surplus energy except in hatred and leader worship.” – George Orwell | Learn more: Childhood | Customs | Games and leisure time | Literature – fiction | Storytelling >>
“The theoretical debate on caste among social scientists has receded into the background in recent years. [C]aste is in no sense disappearing: indeed, the present wave of neo-liberal policies in India, with privatisation of enterprises and education, has strengthened the importance of caste ties, as selection to posts and educational institutions is less based on merit through examinations, and increasingly on social contact as also on corruption.” – Harald Tambs-Lyche (Professor Emeritus, Université de Picardie, Amiens) in “Caste: History and the Present” (Academia Letters) | Learn more: Accountability | Democracy | Education and literacy >>
“If we take action, the right action – as the report [on Biological Diversity] proposes – we can transition to a sustainable planet.” […] Many good things are happening around the world and these should be celebrated and encouraged […] We have to act now. It is not too late. Otherwise, our children and grandchildren will curse us because we will leave behind a polluted, degraded and unhealthy planet.” – Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, executive secretary, UN Convention on Biological Diversity – “Extinction: Urgent change needed to save species, says UN”, BBC News, 15 September 2020 >>
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.
“In less than 200 years, photography has gone from an expensive, complex process to an ordinary part of everyday life. From selfies to satellites, most of the technology we use and spaces we inhabit rely on cameras. […] While photographic documentation can aid in shaping history, it can also be a window into the horrors of the past.” – Read more or listen to Butterfly Effect 9 – The Camera on CBC Radio Spark 26 May 2023 >>
- Atree.org | Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology & the Environment (posts)
- Biodiversity | Hyderabad biodiversity pledge | Nilgiri Biosphere
- Climate change | United Nations on climate change
- eBook | Background guide for education
- eJournals, eBooks & reports
- eLearning: Center for World Indigenous Studies
- Ethnobotany & ethnomedicine
- Gandhian social movement
- Health and nutrition | Recommendations by the Expert Committee
- Rural poverty
- Sacred grove | Illegal mining
- Shola Trust
- Success story
- M S Swaminathan
- Tagore and rural culture
- Western Ghats – tribal heritage & ecology