Conserving Biodiversity to Ensure Food Security: An NGO Experience

Women and children are the worst affected section in the society during food shortage and poverty. Normally, in Indian households, the available food is first shared among the male counterparts, women are given last priority. Though women are interested in cultivating food-crops, especially local and under-utilized food-crops, traditionally men are dominant in agriculture and they prefer cash-crops to food-crops.

Women Self Help Groups (SHGs) have very strong presence in rural scenario, especially in South India. Involving women groups as target and medium in cultivation and conservation efforts has great impact from both food security angle and livelihood promotion. The involvement of women self help groups will facilitate the participation, the production process, and will help them to regain control over agriculture. 

Peermade Development Society (PDS) is a premiere voluntary organization working in South India which has taken initiative to conserve and promote local and farmer developed varieties for ensuring food and nutritional security through women self help groups. These local and farmer developed varieties are known for location-specific specialties, disease resistance and high productivity. But diffusion of these varieties is limited to certain geographic area only.

These conservation efforts are supported by ITPGRFA (International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture) through its benefit sharing fund. This short article describes the efforts and impacts of introduction of farmer-developed “Ambakkadan” variety of cassava by Peermade Development Society through women self help groups.  

Ambakkadan variety of cassava was spotted by a farmer Ambakkadan Thommi way back in 1964. This variety was quite popular during 1970s and 80s. Due to influx of hybrid and short-duration varieties, Ambakkadan variety had vanished from the field, and presently its cultivation is confined to a few individual isolated farmers in Kerala.

The cultivation pattern of cassava has undergone a major shift in Kerala during late 90s. In mid-lands of Kerala, paddy cultivation was a failure due to labor shortage and low price, and so farmers started cultivation of cassava in the paddy fields (wetlands). Farmers preferred short duration cassava crops in the paddy fields and this resulted in the negligence towards ‘Ambakkadan’ variety. Now-a-days, due to rising price of food-crops, farmers are starting cassava cultivation in high ranges of Kerala on wide scale and these short duration crops are not suitable for the conditions of hilly areas. Farmers are now realizing the importance of the Ambakkadan variety due to its high productivity and drought tolerance, but the planting materials (setts) are no longer available. Unfortunately, we have not been able to find a single cassava of this variety in the farmer breeders’ village.

Peermade Development Society has very strong presence through  Women self help groups (SHGs) in Idukki district and they have decided to revive the local varieties through these women self help groups, and so efforts initiated to conserve and promote sustainable use of plant genetic resources by involving women SHGs are yielding results.

Through farmers’ network, we identified isolated farmers who were cultivating Ambakkadan variety. We shared our objectives with them and they were happy to share their planting materials for wider diffusion and to cooperate with our efforts. They stressed the qualities of high production, drought and disease resistance of Ambakkadan variety, adaptabilities of this particular variety to high ranges, and the growing importance of this variety especially during the present crisis of food security and climate change.

With the collected planting materials of Ambakkadan variety from these farmers, we have introduced the cultivation in two remote villages of Idukki district – ‘Karunapuram’ and ‘Cumbummettu’ – through 60 women belonging to three self help groups. Planting materials and technical assistance were given to these groups for cultivation. Qualities and specialties of this variety were demonstrated during the training session. Fortunately, the availability of rain at right time has boosted the cultivation. The harvesting has just started and those who have started harvesting are getting 15 to 20 kg from a cassava plant as compared to 3 to 5 kg from other varieties. The market demand is also very high for this variety, and for one kilo of cassava, they are getting Rs. 12 to Rs. 15. Besides these advantages, this contributes to food security at house-hold level. Each woman is expected to get a profit of more than Rs. 15,000 to Rs. 20,000 from 100 setts supplied to them initially.

The success stories are slowly spreading in the village and demand for the setts is coming from farmers of every quarter now. Training has been given to selected beneficiaries on preparation of value-added products from cassava, and they will start their production units soon.

The efforts for conserving and reviving Ambakkadan variety of cassava through women groups made for a successful demonstration. More and more farmers are showing interest in the cultivation of this variety now. At present, more than hundred women are actively involved in the cultivation of this variety and this will be extended to several villages in the coming years. 

Introduction of cultivation of food-crops through women groups will help them gain control over the food production at their household level, which ultimately leads to food security at their household and also contribute to food security of the community. The income earned by them through selling the tubers will help them to attain social and economic status also. Since these traditional crops have contributed to their basic needs, they are giving more importance to conservation of these indigenous varieties.