Indigenous Seed Conservation By Tribal Women Farmers: Spearheading Sustainability And Financial Independence

Many women-led groups exist within the villages and tribes of Rajasthan, that work towards the preservation and conservation of indigenous seed variables, protection of forests, communication, and education. Indigenous seed supremacy is being brought to attention by various women, who are carrying on the preservation of seeds through their traditions and culture that have been passed on from their ancestors.

The green revolution that was initiated around the 1960s in India, made high-yielding crops a priority at the cost of biodiversity. This resulted in the government and corporate firms pushing genetically-modified seeds into the market. So, many farmers shifted their focus away from traditional seed varieties, which is why many of them are now on the verge of extinction.

The problem with these traditional seeds being on the verge of extinction is that these seeds are more compatible with local farming conditions and techniques. They are also more economically viable. Women like Anita Damor in the tribal-dominated Banswara district of Rajasthan have been preserving indigenous seeds for years. Anita became a member of the non-government association (NGO) Vaagdhara and learned about organic farming and the process of storing seeds of native plants, many of which are on the brink of extinction.She has now been preserving seeds for about four years.

Tribal women farmers in West Bengal treating the stored seeds before sowing. Pic: Pradan 30stades
ribal women farmers in West Bengal treating the stored native seeds before sowing Image: 30 Stades

Anita was previously performing chemical-based farming on her 0.625 acres of land. She used to spend almost 16,000 rupees on seeds, fertilisers, and pesticides during the Kharif and Rabi seasons. These sorts of expenses forced Anita as well as many other farmers to seek loans from money lenders, and this was their admission into a spiral of debt. Anita reveals how she saves money after beginning to preserve native seeds, “​​I save 16,000 rupees annually after breaking my dependence on the market.”

Parul Mahata from Rakhalbon village in Jhargram district says, “The input cost per acre of paddy with chemical farming was Rs.3,000 to Rs.4,000, which is now down to only Rs. 800 per acre with native seeds.” The lack of use of pesticides and fertilisers also makes the use of indigenous seeds comparatively more environmentally sustainable. 

During the Covid-19 pandemic, big farmers faced barriers regarding seed procurement due to the travel restrictions that were in place. But these women farmers are said to have had enough surplus seeds that they could even share with others. Many farmers can also refrain from buying seeds in the market through seed preservation, as over time, they can build their seed bank at home 

A women group known as ‘Saksham Samuh’ of Sangela village, Garhi Tehsil, Banswara district of Rajasthan, focuses on preserving native seeds. One of their members Kanti Devi says, “What do men know, we women have been preserving seeds, we have taken it up as our responsibility. Preserving seeds have been a part of our culture and tradition from time immemorial and we are just taking it forward.” She seems to express the view that women are more heavily involved in the preservation of seeds and therefore, have acquired and possess more information about the same.

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Another member, Kukundevi notes that most people residing in the tribal belt of Rajasthan mainly practice rain-fed cultivation of paddy, maize, moong, wheat, and more. However, the women are not restricted to only these crops as they can grow the preserved seeds and can do a variety of horticulture to meet the needs of their family and the market.

Also read: Mechanisation Of Farming: Gender Roles, Caste, And Loss Of Employment For Women

Tribal women farmers at a meeting of Saksham Samuh. Pic: Vaagdhara 30stades
ribal women farmers at a meeting of Saksham Samuh Image: 30 Stades

As mentioned before, the processes of preserving and conserving seeds are native to many tribes and have been passed down between generations, as Kukundevi shares that preserving seeds was a part of her childhood, a skill that she acquired from her mother. Another benefit of preserving seeds is that they can be stored and used in future periods.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, big farmers faced barriers regarding seed procurement due to the travel restrictions that were in place. But these women farmers are said to have had enough surplus seeds that they could even share with others. Many farmers can also refrain from buying seeds in the market through seed preservation, as over time, they can build their seed bank at home. 

Sharing the same sentiment as Kanti Devi, Suphia Shakeel, the team coordinator for Pradan (Professional Assistance for Development Action), says that they place a heavy focus on women as, “Women have more knowledge of traditional farming methods and regenerative practices including indigenous seeds conservation. They know what should be cultivated where and when.”

As we have seen, there are many environmental, financial, and food security benefits to the usage of indigenous seeds. The reduction in costs faced by farmers, the elimination of the usage and dependence on pesticides and other chemicals, and importantly, nutritious crops being produced, are some of these benefits

Paraswada’s Lotmara village, with a population whose majority (about 75 percent) belongs to the Gond and Baiga Schedules Tribes, has a community seed bank that is run by tribal women self-help groups, where farmers can barter native seeds. Something we have not yet addressed is how farmers conserve these native seeds.

Dwarka Bai Uyke explains the traditional procedure of seed conservation using a bottle gourd, “The softer inner parts of the gourd are removed and it is thoroughly cleaned and sundried. The gourd is ready for use when it sounds hollow when tapped,” she explains.

The dried seeds can be stored for up to two to three years, when dried seeds are placed inside the gourd and covered with ash, this is both antibacterial and antiviral. Seeds for paddy and lentils were stored using earthen, mud, or clay pots. Before using the seeds, they have to be washed with salt and water as this helps distinguish unhealthy seeds from healthy seeds. The unhealthy ones tend to float to the surface, while the healthy ones sink to the bottom. 

Indigenous seed storage structures. Dried bottle gourd, clay storage tank and a seed storage structure smeared with clay and cow dung. Pic: PRADAN and Vaagdhara 30stades
Indigenous seed storage units Image: 30 Stades

As we have seen, there are many environmental, financial, and food security benefits to the usage of indigenous seeds. The reduction in costs faced by farmers, the elimination of the usage and dependence on pesticides and other chemicals, and importantly, nutritious crops being produced, are some of these benefits.

As Dwarka joyfully proclaims, “We will leave behind a legacy of good health and financial stability for our children,” such movements that are spearheaded by women also enhance their income and living standards, as regenerative agriculture has led to a threefold increase in women’s income. 

Also read: With Farmers Protests And Covid Crisis, Did Budget 2021 Effectively Address The Agricultural Sector?


Featured Image Source: Vikalp Sangam

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