With help of local organizations, the Panga Kodh have gone back to traditional, organic, mixed farming methods. Even the forests are benefitting.
“I’m born of this soil. Putting poison in the soil is like poisoning one’s parents. Why would I harm myself like this?”, says Adi Kumurka. Kumurka belongs to the Panga Kondh indigenous community in Odisha’s Rayagada district. His community is engaged in mixed organic farming from traditional seeds. This is the traditional way of farming that his community has practiced since untold times. But there was a long gap in between when malnourishment and farmer suicides compelled these traditional farmers to migrate to faraway places to look for jobs. What changed?
The ‘green revolution’ initiated in India in the 1960s was a shift in agricultural policies and incentives that pushed chemical fertilizers, pesticides and use of bio-engineered seeds. This was done to combat malnourishment. The thinking was that replacing the traditional heirloom seeds with high-yield varieties of staples would produce better, more bounteous crops. The farmers were now required to buy seeds from the government, giving up the age-old practice of saving seeds. Fertilizers, pesticides, tractors, electricity for irrigation as well as seeds continue to be subsidized by the government today, even though the original international backers behind the green revolution have completely changed their position. Today even United Nations reports testify that small-scale organic farming is the only way to combat hunger, climate change, and growing malnourishment. More than fifty years on, the promise of the green revolution has turned to ashes. India has documented the largest number of farmer suicides. Farmers are among the most indebted especially to unscrupulous private money lenders as all their inputs from seeds. And malnourishment and hunger are present more than ever.
It is only when the organization Living Farms entered the scene that the Panga Kondhs could go back to their traditional ways of farming. Adi Kumarka refused to migrate in search of work. Instead, he got heirloom seeds from Living Farms, an organization committed to reviving traditional farming knowledge to combat malnourishment and famine, with which he started his farm. He grows over a dozen varieties of crops, from vegetables to millets and grains. The method of mixed cropping ensures that losses are minimized even if one crop fails.
Debal Deb, a scientist turned farmer, has loaned land from the tribals in Rayagada to set up his farm, Basudha, and seed bank. He has preserved over 1000 varieties of rice from across India and today helps the locals preserve their traditional farming methods. The shortsighted government policy is still promoting and subsidizing non-organic farming, he says. “Organic farming needs no subsidies. But to recognize the important work the farmers are doing in saving the nation, the land, to give them incentives, is very important”, Deb adds. The government is busy promoting eucalyptus farms for the local JK Paper Mill, located in the same district, among the adivasi communities. The Kondhs are not having any of it. Says Hari Kumarka,“If we start eucalyptus farms it’s the same as selling the hills that Naveen Pattanayak [Chief Minister of Odisha] is doing. We had a meeting in our village and decided against it. It will destroy the forest and take away grazing land and our livelihoods.” In fact, large scale eucalyptus farms destroy soil fertility and deplete water tables.
The Panga Kondh are showing the way to a sustainable and food secure future. They are preserving the genetic diversity of crops, battling climate change and protecting forests from rapacious industrial profit motives. Not only do they deserve laurels for their efforts but the administration needs to promote their way of farming to stem the tide of farmer suicides that is currently shaking the foundations of the government.
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