By Gratia E. Dkhar, Naphishisha Nongsiej and Bhogtoram Mawroh

In an interview with the Hindu (April 6, 2012), Dr. Debal Deb, a rice conservationist, revealed that India had more than 100,000 varieties of Rice until as recently as 1970. However, as green revolution became an entrenched part of the agriculture policy of the State, this diversity came under tremendous attack due to emphasis on monoculture and hybrid crops. At present only 6000 varieties survive. This is very distressing especially considering that rice had its origins in India 14,000 years ago. Initially, it was only a single variety with farmers experimenting and gradually expanding the genetic diversity of the crops over time. There is a fear that if the assault continues this diversity which has taken more than 10,000 years to come into being could disappear entirely.

Dr Deb is trying to prevent that by creating a seed bank for more than 700 local rice varieties. Conserving these varieties is not only just a naive sentimental value, but many of these have high stress resilience in terms of pests and climate change. During the recent Biodiversity Festival organised by North East Network in Chizami, 7th-8th March 2019, Dr Deb shared that the nutritional content of  many of these local varieties are incomparably higher than that of the hybrid varieties which  are touted to have been developed for the same purpose.

At the same time, the process of developing newer varieties is ongoing with many new varieties being added to the list. These are seeds developed by agribusinesses by spending enormous sum of money. The monopoly power of these enterprises has reduced regional seed diversities. Their profit is maximised as the costs is recuperated (and much more) by ensuring that the farmers continually return to them for fresh supplies. A consequence of all this is engendering of dependency and heightened vulnerability of the farmers. However, there is another story which needs to be told: the effort of indigenous farmers in not just conserving traditional seeds but developing and propagating newer ones. These indigenous farmers, with no connection to the corporations or harbouring the ulterior motive of profiting from their discovery, are developing still newer varieties and sharing them with the community. Bah Kolishon Barim from Liarsluid village is one such farmer. The NESFAS team came across this story during the Rice Festival organised by NESFAS on the 13th March 2019 in Liarsluid where Bah Kolishon was one of the main speakers.

Bah Kolishon Barim is a 57 year old farmer from Liarsluid, a village associated with much local folklores. This particular village is under the Bhoirymbong CD Block of Ri Bhoi but within the traditional Khasi-Jaintia polity, it falls under the Raid Iapngar Khyrim Syiemship. Raid is a traditional political unit consisting of a collection of villages which together with other Raids constitute a Hima (tribal principality) under a Syiem (a Khasi King). Within the Raid, Bah Kolishon is recognised as the farmer who discovered the rice variety called “Khaw Jwain”.

In 2008 while gathering the harvest that Bah Kolishon noticed two panicles of paddy with traits different from the rice variety, Kba Lakang that was cultivated. This new variety had longer stalks, broader leaves with shiny husk and bigger sized grains. Intrigued by this discovery, he showed his wife Kong Houstina Jalong, and decided to collect the seeds and keep them safely on the rynsan by the fireplace. In the following planting season, he sowed the new variety in a small plot of land. From the two panicles of paddy that he had saved, he harvested a can full of grains which is equivalent to a kilogram. Having noticed its immense potential, he decided to propagate it further.

The next year, i.e., 2010, Bah Kolishon was able to harvest one and half sacks (around 80 kilograms) of paddy. He saved four cans of paddy for sowing in the next season while the rest was cooked and served with meat and other dishes at “bam ja thymmai” (an annual feast of the first harvest). Many who attended the feast which included the church and village elders complimented on the taste and aroma of this variety. Apart from being consumed as a staple food, local snacks can also be made from this variety.

Word of this new rice variety spread across the Raid, and it was nicknamed “Kba u kpa u heh” (Heh’ being the nickname of Kolishon’s eldest son). People started visiting his home asking for the seeds. In 2011, he harvested 50 sacks of rice, a yield above the average of 42 sacks obtained from other varieties. Almost half of the total produce was given as rent to the landlady (Bah Kolishon had leased the paddy field from her) hailing from Mawlang, East Jaintia Hills. The land owner was delighted with the taste, texture and aroma of this rice and requested him to continue cultivating this variety. He saved four cans for himself and gave some to his brother-in-law, residing in the neighbouring village of Thadnongiaw (located within a travel distance of 20 minutes), for propagating the variety. In 2012, out of the 30 sacks, more than half was distributed to the other farmers from Liarsluid, Khweng, Pynthor and distant regions like Nongstoin and Marmain. In 2013, Bah Kolishon named the variety as “Kba Jwain” on account of its unique appearance.

Through experience Bah Kolishon learnt that the variety should be sowed in the second week of May and transplanted in June with harvesting beginning in November. The variety has the ability to withstand strong winds, is resilient to blight and can grow in fields with poor irrigation. Unlike the 3-4 year period of rotation for other varieties Kba Jwain does not need rotation for seven years. This practise of rotation is explained as “u kba u thait ban shong ha juh ka jaka. Da ngi pynpher ka jakathung jong ka u kyndit noh” (the yield of a rice variety gets diminished when planted in the same plot. For it to be rejuvenated it has to be rotated with other varieties). The entire process does not use any external input and is completely organic. Interestingly, ten years after he discovered the Jwain variety, Bah Kolishon has noticed yet another panicle different from the Kba Lakang, possibly another new variety. He has currently saved it for propagation in the next growing season.

Article 9 titled in the Farmers’ Rights in the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture mentions that there should be recognition of “the enormous contribution that the local and indigenous communities and farmers of all regions of the world, particularly those in the centres of origin and crop diversity, have made and will continue to make for the conservation and development of plant genetic resources which constitute the basis of food and agriculture production throughout the world”. But it is only the physical contribution to food production and agricultural which needs to be recognized. The values that underlie indigenous farming systems and the goals that it aspire to need to be promoted as well.

The values system followed by indigenous farmers is in complete opposition to those of modern industrial farming which is based on debt creation through its emphasis on external inputs (seeds, soil improvement and plant protection technologies) and rent extraction (emphasis on intellectual property rights). The result of such tendencies is increasing marginalisation of farmers and decimation of the agrobiodiversity developed by countless farmers over long periods of human history.  In contrast to all this, indigenous farmers like Bah Kolishon use not only the methods of experience and learning to add to the existing knowledge but also follow the indigenous values of sharing and concern for the common good to stave off exploitation of those who are vulnerable. The goal that indigenous farmers like Bah Kolishon aspire for, not just for their community but the world at large, is not just food security but food sovereignty. An important step in achieving this is achieving seed sovereignty i.e., the farmer’s rights to breed and exchange diverse seeds which can be saved and which are not patented, genetically modified, owned or controlled by emerging seed corporations and giants, something indigenous farmers like Bah Kolishon have been doing for generations.

 “Seed Sovereignty reclaims seeds and Biodiversity as commons and public good” (Lexicon of Food).

About the authors:

Gratia E. Dkhar is working as an Associate in North East Slow and Agrobiodiversity Society and can be reached at [email protected]

Naphishisha Nongsiej is working as a Field Coordinator in North East Slow and Agrobiodiversity Society and can be reached at [email protected]

Bhogtoram Mawroh is working as a Senior Associate in North East Slow and Agrobiodiversity Society and can be reached at [email protected]