Policy Feature

Rice genome under threat in unique rice growing valley

S. Gopikrishna Warrier *

doi:10.1038/nindia.2016.9 Published online 23 January 2016

A unique rice growing plateau in the Western Ghats of India is facing a peculiar challenge – rice cultivation being increasingly replaced by the more economically lucrative banana, threatening to wipe off the gene pool of some traditional rice varieties endemic to the region.

Figure 1: Paddy-banana cultivation trends for Wayanad district in Kerala (in hectares).
Farmers in the Wayanad plateau in India’s southern state of Kerala have been slowly and steadily switching over from rice to banana and some other money making crops over the last 40 years. Interestingly, Wayanad comes from the Malayalam words vayal (valley-based paddy fields) and nad (country). “We should now call our district vazhanad (vazha is Malayalam for banana plant),” notes Palliyara Raman, the 71-year old head of the Kurichya tribal community in Kanniyambetta village of Wayanad.

Historically these valleys were mostly paddy fields, but now they compete with banana cultivation for space. According to agricultural statics reports of the Kerala government, paddy fields covered 40,000 hectares in the district in 1960 and but have shuttled between 8,000 and 13,000 hectares (the area varies annually) in the past decades. Banana cultivation, on the other hand, has covered around 13,000 hectares of what earlier were paddy fields (Figure 1).

Raman has clear memories from his childhood of the first monsoon rains of the season. The water flowing down the hill slopes into the paddy fields in the valleys brought with it rotting leaves and natural manure from the tropical forests. 

Raman grows traditional rice varieties in his paddy fields.

© S. Gopikrishna Warrier

“That was the nutrient for our paddy fields,” the patriarch recalls sitting in the verandah of his tharavad or family house. Raman’s memories are from before the Green Revolution in India when farming relied solely on organic nutrients from within the local ecosystem. He is also the link from a historical lineage of a unique agricultural system practised in the Wayanad plateau.

Kurichyas are one of the two tribal communities of Wayanad that have practised farming over the centuries, fine-tuning the practice for the mountain ecology. Wayanad has the highest tribal population in Kerala – 17.43% of the district’s entire population.

One way street

The conversion from rice to banana is usually a one-way street. According to Prajeesh Parameswaran, researcher at the Community Agro-Biodiversity Centre of the M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF-CABC), such conversion is mostly followed by cultivation of tapioca and other crops. In the process, the water that is held in the paddy fields is drained since other crops don’t need standing water.

Seetha Rajan (extreme right) with members of her farmers’ group cultivates banana in part of their land for better financial returns.

© S. Gopikrishna Warrier

The conversion is fuelled by higher monetary returns from banana and other crops. “From an acre of land we get 12 quintals of paddy, selling in the market for anywhere between Rs 1,400 and Rs. 1,800 per quintal. From banana cultivation, we earn up to Rs 3 lakhs per acre,” says Seetha Rajan from the Paniya tribal community in Plamoola village. Though the state government procurement agency  pays above Rs 2,000 per quintal, the farmers are reluctant to sell to them because of delayed payments.

The problem is compounded by severe fragmentation of land holdings. “A paddy farmer with a small parcel of land in the valley gets forced into converting since his field is hemmed in by that of his neighbours who have moved on to other crops,” Parameswaran says.

Conservation efforts

Raman has launched a significant effort to conserve the traditional rice varieties of Wayanad. He has been cultivating eight traditional varieties – Chennellu, Chomala, Ghandhakasala, Jeerakasala, Kalladiyaryan, Navara, Thondi and Veliyan – growing seeds for anybody who wants to conserve their paddy fields. Raman maintains a register where he records the quantity of seeds distributed – 525 kg in 2014 and 2015.

Since 1997, the MSSRF-CABC has been working to support the work of rice farmers like Raman. “The aim is to support conservation, cultivation, consumption and commercialisation of traditional rice varieties,” says N. Anil Kumar, Director of MSSRF-CABC. Since these varieties were conserved and grown by Wayanad farmers, MSSRF-CABC helped a grass-roots institution called Seed Care to file for farmers’ rights under the Plant Varieties Protection and Farmers’ Rights Act of 2001 (PVPFRA).

Of the 27 applications filed, Seed Care got farmers’ rights registration for 16 traditional varieties. They are Chennellu, Chenthadi, Chomala, Gandhakasala, Jeerakasala, Koduveliyan, Kunjoottimatta, Kurumottan, Marathondi, Mullankayama, Onavattan, Thondi, Thonnooran Thondi, Thuroodi, Valichoori and Veliyan.

The registration gives legal right to the farmer-conservationists to sow, exchange, share or sell the produce and seeds from these varieties. Further, they also get paid by the National Gene Fund and other funds received as part of the benefit sharing for these varieties. The rights recognise that on the farm (in situ) conservation is as important as seed conservation in gene banks (ex situ) of national and international agricultural research institutions.

The farmers’ rights registration is protection for the traditional varieties and its associated knowledge. It has been envisaged in the interface of two international agreements – the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) under the World Trade Organisation Agreement.

For the traditional rice varieties of Wayanad, the farmers’ rights certification comes at the right time since this conserved genetic material holds the key for protection of rice crops in case a climate change event strikes in the future.

Experts and farmer-conservationists working to preserve traditional rice varieties and knowledge feel that the national agricultural policy should go beyond production figures to lay emphasis on conservation of such unique ecosystems, landscapes, livelihoods and agricultural biodiversity.

*The author is an environment journalist and blogger.