The practice of planting a wide variety of crops by Odisha’s Dongria Kondh tribe could hold the key to strengthen climate-smart agriculture in a state that has been buffeted by recurrent droughts and erratic rainfall
Although crops failed in large parts of Odisha in 2017 due to pest attacks, prolonged periods of dryness and untimely rainfall, farmers among the Dongria Kondh tribe in the south-western parts of the state brought home a rich harvest, primarily due to their traditional practice of diverse cropping to safeguard against nature’s vagaries.
“We hear about the stories of farmers committing suicide in different parts of the state. But we have never faced such a situation when all our crops are lost and there is no hope for our survival,” Raina Saraka, 55, a Dongria Kondh farmer of Leling Padar village in Rayagada district, told indiaclimatedialogue.net.
Last year, the famed rice fields of Odisha were hit by drought, pest attacks and untimely rain at the time of harvest. As per government estimates, crop loss was reported in half a million hectares while drought resulted in crop loss of 33% and above in 70 administrative blocks of 15 districts. Over 10 farmers in the state have committed suicide because of the current agrarian crisis.
In the past decade, the state has suffered one natural calamity after the other almost every year. Thousands of disaster-affected farmers have committed suicide. Experts say that the increasing frequency of natural calamities is a result of global warming and climate change.
“Delayed monsoon has become regular phenomenon, resulting in dry spells and drought-like situations during early kharif (summer cropping) season. Again, untimely rain during October-November disturbs the humid and temperature conditions, making it conducive for spreading of diseases and pests like the brown plant hopper that attacked paddy crop in parts of Odisha this year,” Mayabini Jena, Head of Agricultural Entomology at National Rice Research Institute in Cuttack, told indiaclimatedialogue.net.
Reality of climate change
Suggesting that climate change is a reality and the impacts of it are going to be worse in future, Bidyadhar Maharana, an expert in agriculture as well as a consultant to the Odisha government, warned: “Severe warming, floods, and drought may reduce crop yields. The ranges and distribution of weeds and pests are likely to increase and cause new problems for the crops previously unexposed to these species.”
The current state of agrarian crisis in Odisha is, however, one side of the story. Indigenous farmers who still rely on their traditional farming practices seem to be free from such distress that motivates many of the plain land farmers to sacrifice their lives.
The Dongria Kondhs, an agrarian tribal community inhabiting the forest villages of Koraput, Rayagada, Kandhamal and Kalahandi districts, raise their farms on lower hill slopes where they grow variety of crops ranging from rice, millets, sorghum, leaves, pulses, legumes, vegetables and tubers throughout the season and harvest them crop by crop from October till the end of February every year.
Growing over 50 varieties of crops is almost a standard with any single farm of a Kondh farmer. In her nearly five acre area farm, Sunamain Mambalaka, 50, a tribal woman farmer from Tada village of Rayagada, grows over 80 varieties of crops including one upland paddy, finger millet, foxtail millet, pearl millet, barnyard millet, little millet, sorghum, maize, edible leaves, black gram, hoarse gram, pigeon peas, cowpeas, varieties of beans and several types of vegetables. In tubers, she has grown arum, yam, sweet potato and tapioca.
“Our dongor (as the tribals name their farms) is influenced by the culture of the forest around us. As the forest is a diversity of plants, our dongor is diversity of crops. It gives us everything, including the seeds for the next year, which we would be using throughout the year. In case any single crop fail, we have many more to survive on,” Sunamain told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “But, so far, I haven’t seen any single year when any single crop grown in the dongor has failed completely.”
In order to grow so many crops in one dongor, the sowing period extends up to five months from April till the end of August, basing upon climatic suitability.
“We broadcast the millet seeds on hill slopes during summer months. Sowing of upland paddy seeds is usually done with arrival of monsoon. Simultaneously, we grow vegetables and other crops as well. While we get spinaches and vegetables from the dongor almost daily, paddy and millets are harvested over a period of five months (from October till February next year),” Kalia Mambalaka, 40, of Tada village told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “All the seeds we use are traditional seeds conserved by farmers of the community. The seeds are shared with farmers from the community.”
Resilient to natural calamities
Almost unaware of the scientific debate and discussion over climate change and its impact, the traditional agrarian practice of these tribal communities has evolved in sync with nature having climate resilience integrated with it naturally.
Genomic profiling of millets like finger millet, pearl millet and sorghum suggest that they are climate-smart grain crops ideal for environments prone to drought and extreme heat. Even the traditional upland paddy varieties they use are less water consuming, so are resilient to drought-like conditions, and are harvested between 60 and 90 days of sowing. As a result, the possibility of complete failure of a staple food crop like millets and upland paddy grown in a dongor is very low even in drought-like conditions.
The dongors can also survive extreme and untimely rain because of the traditional cropping pattern the indigenous farmers follow. “Rain water cannot flow in full speed to wash away the plants and damage the crop,” Gani Kumbaruka, 40, of Kandhaguda village in Rayagada district told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “The speed of the rain water flowing down the hill slope is broken by the thick shrubby black gram and groundnut plants to protect the millet and other crops.”
The tribal farmers don’t need to do anything for pest control but to raise the dongor as a food opportunity for 10 families (dus parivar) including that of the grower, pests, insects, ants, flies, spiders and birds.
“As we grow crops, pests and insects come,” Landi Sikoka of Khalpadar village told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “The ants, flies and spiders eat them. Birds, searching for food, also come to the dongors to eat the flies and insects.”
“This natural system works because they don’t use any kind of chemical fertiliser or pesticide. Rather, they allow pests and insects and their predators to visit the dongor freely,” said Debajeet Sarangi of Living Farms, a non-profit working in the KBK region (undivided Koraput-Balangir-Kalahandi districts) on traditional and sustainable agriculture by indigenous communities.
A lesson for others
For these indigenous farmers, agriculture is not just about the yield or producing more, but growing food without harming nature, the soil and the ecosystem, while creating food opportunities for many other co-existing species.
When the world advocates for sustainable and organic farming to achieve global food and nutritional security in the wake of climate change, the traditional agrarian practice by these indigenous farmers make it a case of success to be studied and followed.
A lesson from these tribal farmers would also strengthen climate change adaptability among distressed farmers and help the state and policy makers overcome the agrarian crisis Odisha is facing today.