Heritage and diversity hold many answers for climate change resilience

When tropical cyclone Fani made landfall on India’s east coast at the start of May this year, the authorities had moved over a million people from their homes in order to keep the toll on human life to a minimum. Nonetheless, Fani killed 64 people in the state of Orissa alone and caused an estimated $2.46 billion worth of damage. For many, though, Fani wasn’t even the worst of it, coming as it did after severe summer hail storms that destroyed food crops across the state.

Three months on and 24 of the 30 districts in Orissa are affected by drought, which is already impacting on crop production and leading to ‘distress’ migration.

These events, these ‘phenomena’ are not unique to Orissa and they are not unique to now. But they are turning into the new ‘normal’ and as a result, people across the state, the nation – the globe, even – are having to learn to adapt, to build their resilience to this changing climate.

Indigenous cultures hold many answers

At the start of July, when the rains are expected to start and rice transplanting will begin for the kharif (or monsoon) season, members of the Kandha tribe in Ganjam district, Orissa, come together to celebrate the diversity of rice varieties they have in their stores. It is this store that is their weapon in the fight against climate change, this store of diversity.

There were once many thousands – some say around 200,000 – of rice varieties in India. Thanks to traditional cultures, there are still many hundreds of varieties available, many of which can grow in stressed conditions.

Seed preservation is very much the women’s domain and they use this ritual to share with other women the seeds they have so carefully preserved and the prized properties each variety possesses.

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In 2018, organic farmer and social activist, Sabarmatee, received India’s highest civilian award for women’s empowerment, the Nari Shakti Puraskar . She works with these local women and has helped with organising their ceremony.

“In 2013,” she says, “we had another serious cyclone, called Phailin. The wind speed reached 150km per hour. At that time, we had 350 varieties, and out of those, 37 varieties could withstand that wind speed. They were just half bent over – they were not completely lost.”

Sabarmatee is very interested in the potential of this traditional biodiversity because she grows what is probably the world’s biggest collection of indigenous seed varieties under what is known as the System of Rice Intensification, or SRI.

What is SRI?

SABARMATEE SEED FESTIVAL 2019 15SRI is a way of growing rice that is quite different to the conventional method. Normally, people will plant older (45-day) seedlings in tight clumps and in flooded fields. SRI requires that seedlings are just 8-10 days old and are planted singly, wide apart in a grid and in drained soil.

SRI works best under an alternate wet and dry system of water management. It requires less water, up to 90% fewer seeds, less labour and it yields more than conventionally-grown rice. And with particular reference to climate change, SRI plants produce stronger root systems which means they can withstand strong winds, flooding and very dry conditions. “Growth is so vigorous with SRI.  We first learnt about it in 2006 in March, when it was not a rice-growing time so we just planted a few seedlings to practice, to see how to do it. And you won’t believe me, the temperature went up to 35+. We didn’t even have water to irrigate those few plants. And for 15 days, they withstood that.”

For Sabarmatee, as well as offering a way to build resilience to extreme weather, SRI is also a means of preserving multiple rice varieties in a very small plot of land. “We have just 2 acres of land here. The question for me was: how can I collect more and more indigenous varieties, conserve them here and be able to share with people? SRI showed us the way to conserve indigenous varieties.” Sabarmatee goes on to describe how with just 200 10-15-day old seedlings spaced 10 inches x 10 inches apart, it is possible to produce enough seeds for 1 acre next year.

The wonder of indigenous seeds

“You know,” continues Sabarmatee, “the indigenous varieties have been knocked down, they became the ‘bad boys’ for scientists, mostly rice scientists, who said that they don’t produce so much. And this has been the idea floating around, injected into the minds of people over the many years of the green revolution, which started in India. So, research was more and more concentrated on rice breeding.” But having grown so many varieties now and having seen the high yields and resilience many of these have to severe weather, she has become more convinced of nature’s own capacity to breed resilient rice. And this isn’t just a way of fighting severe weather. Indigenous varieties grown under SRI conditions have also shown resilience to pest and disease.

“When you have so many varieties, you also have so many pests and diseases and we’ve studied that too. It’s very interesting. Like, if you have two varieties just next to each other, one variety can be affected by blast (fungus) and the other one doesn’t have anything. Absolutely nothing. Even as the neighbour of this diseased plant! And then we have learnt that OK, this means it tolerates blast, you know. It’s blast resistant. So we could now recognise all these properties and then if someone comes and says that in their area there is a big blast problem and ‘do you have a variety for that?’ ‘Yes, we do!'”

And so the 2019 rice season begins

The transplanting starts with a ceremony which opens with prayers to Mother Earth, to Devi Lakshmi and to the rice plants.

Sabarmatee now grows well in excess of 450 varieties and has the tiny seedlings ready and organised for transplanting.

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With the drought conditions that prevail right now, it is not going to be an easy season. There is a little water remaining in the ponds at Sabarmatee’s farm, Sambhav, which are fed by a canal. Enough, it is hoped, for these small plants to establish themselves. The SRI planting will hopefully give them the chance of surviving whatever the weather throws at them. It remains to be seen how many of the 450 varieties make it. But many will and Sabarmatee will have a good store of rice she knows will produce climate resilient crops, and that prized knowledge she will be able to share next year, with the women of the Kandha tribe.

Sabarmatee has a Facebook page for her farm, Sambhav
To learn more about SRI, visit the Cornell University SRI-Rice Center


Further reading

Odisha’s Sabarmatee Tiki receives ‘Nari Shakti Award’

Diversified Farming

Pests fail to attack traditional variety of paddy

The stooped labour of women rice farmers

From: Shiza Malik, Aug 10, 2017 in Dawn

It’s a sweltering June day in Muridke in Sheikhupura district in Punjab. The harsh summer sun glints off of the rice paddies which cover thousands of acres in this area. Some of the world’s finest Basmati rice is grown here. Dotting these paddies are the colourful figures of hundreds of women bent over the sodden earth, manually planting each seedling.

Razia Bibi and her daughters wade through the pesticide filled muddy sludge, which fills the field. They hold bunches of seedlings in one hand and use the other to swiftly place each plant into the earth at a specific distance. Doing this work for every summer of their lives has made their movements almost mechanical and working in large groups, they manage to transplant rice over large swathes of land each day. But, the land they work on is not theirs, neither is the rice they grow.

The working conditions are harsh; the water that fills the fields is full of leeches and corrosive chemicals. Each day someone in the group collapses from the heat. The wages are abysmal. But, Razia is a widow with six children, two of whom have polio. So in a place like Muridke, her options are limited.

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Srey Lak’s story

Srey Lak is a former rice worker. It’s three years since she was able to work in the fields though. The skin on her hands is now so fragile she cannot bear the pain of plunging them into the contaminated waters of the flooded paddy fields. Some of the women in nearby villages, though, have adopted SRI, a way if growing rice that can help avert these kinds of problems.

Scaling up the System of Rice Intensification in India

See the original article in Farming Matters here

Authors: BISWANATH SINHA & TUSHAR DASH

It is said that ‘rice is grown on women’s backs’. Globally, women provide between 50 and 90 percent of the labour in rice fields. They perform backbreaking tasks like seedling removal, transplanting and weeding in bent posture and under wet conditions for more than 1000-1500 hours per hectare. In addition, they are exposed to chemicals. Women working in flooded fields for long hours come into contact with various disease causing vectors exposing them to multiple health risks like intestinal to skin diseases and female urinary and genital ailments. This affects their ability to work and earn, and furthermore, it drains out their money on health care, sometimes making them indebted.

Read the whole article

Rampung’s Story

Rampung Sorathaworn is a farmer from Surin province, Thailand. She tried out SRI for the first time two years ago, transplanting very young single seedlings in a widely spaced grid, following advice provided by the EU-funded, region-wide SRI-LMB programme. But she wasn’t sure that she had made the right decision when she began to hear her neighbours’ comments: “When they saw my field, the villagers asked how I thought I was going to grow any rice,” she says. “They kept saying: ‘Seedlings can’t grow like that – you need to plant 3 or 4 together. The Golden Apple snails will eat it all up!’ I wasn’t too sure it would grow either, but I told them I would wait and see”. Sure enough, within a couple of weeks, the villagers changed their tune and started asking “Why is it growing like this? How is it you have so many tillers!” And she says after that they began to pay a lot more attention, even helping her to count the tillers on her crop.

Read more …