Biodiversity and Food: Pithorabad Gram Panchayat

A situation where 110 indigenous varieties of paddy are on the verge of extinction can only be described as alarming. That’s what the Pithorabad Biodiversity Management Committee (BMC) fought against when it was set up in 2013. Many strains had already been lost. Hybrid varieties were taking over the fields. Along with the disappearing traditional varieties, their intrinsic medicinal value, and even the knowledge of these values, was being lost. Appreciating the seriousness of the issue, the seven-member Committee swung into action. Today, in-situ conservation of all 110 threatened traditional varieties of paddy has been achieved. And that’s not all. Farmers are being encouraged to cultivate the traditional varieties, and are being helped to market their produce.

The BMC, in Satna District of Madhya Pradesh, has initiated the process of registering 86 traditional varieties grown by farmers under the PPVFRA (Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers Rights Authority) New Delhi through the MP State Biodiversity Board. A seed bank has been set up for the community, where seeds are kept viable for up to four years.As many as 150 medicinal plants, herbs and tuber species have also been conserved.

But before embarking on the campaign to preserve the natural resources, the BMC had to meet the challenge of educating the community and making the people aware of the importance of biodiversity. The merits of various species had to be popularized, exploitation and unsustainable practices had to be rooted out and the sustainable use of these resources had to be ensured. Farmers had to be trained in changing crop patterns, and educated about the consequences of the loss of traditional medicines.

Starting from scratch, the BMC worked consistently towards overall betterment. The compilation of an exhaustive People’s Biodiversity Register (PBR) was a major step in the struggle. It resulted in highlighting the importance of traditional varieties which naturally adapted to local climatic conditions and had the ability to survive climate change.

The Committee –  and how it works

The BMC, constituted under Sec. 41 of the Biodiversity Act, is headed by Babulal Dahiya, a farmer. The others are a medicinal plant specialist, a forest produce collector, a social worker, a teacher, a woman member and a representative of the fishing community. BMC members are nominated by the Panchayat. The Committee also has six special invitees from the Forest, Agriculture, Veterinary, Health, Fisheries and School Education Departments. They participate in the meetings of the BMC and give technical inputs on various issues. If a particular activity needs expertise not readily available, external consultants are called in. For example, the seed bank was set up with advice from an external source.

Participation of women is encouraged in meetings and events of the BMC. They have been engaged in various activities and the BMC plans to involve more women’s Self Help Groups in future activities related to value addition and marketing.

Funding is sourced from the MP State Biodiversity Board. Individuals also make contributions.

The Panchayat has given additional support by developing a biodiversity garden on community land near a temple in the village. The name Dev Bhoomi (God’s land) endows it with religious as well as traditional significance.

Listing the assets

The PBR has been compiled with the help of villagers, farmers, Non-Timber Forest Product collectors, local traditional knowledge holders, traditional healers and fisher folk. It records traditional knowledge in terms of medicinal use, agricultural practices, folklore and idioms related to bio-resources. The support of school students and a local NGO, Sarjana Samajik Sanskratik Evam Sahityak Manch, has also been crucial.

Surveys done by the locals and members have resulted in the listing of various species of flora and fauna in the PBR, including 100 floral species, traditional grains and vegetables, domestic and wild animals and breeds of fowl.

Being practical

Not only are conservation and sustainable use kept in mind but also the livelihood of the local people. Conservation of traditional and organic varieties has been linked with livelihood-enhancing steps. Here are some measures:

•       The BMC has promoted cultivation of select traditional paddy varieties among farmers and established marketing links

•       It has facilitated the marketing of organic wheat in Chennai and Bengaluru

•       It has facilitated sale of local paddy varieties

·       Shyamjeer, Kargi and Sariyya (red rice) – at the Dilli Haat (New Delhi)

•       It supported the sale of organic and traditional varieties like Kodo, Kutki and Sawa at the Bhopal Haat

•       e-marketing efforts are under consideration

The BMC is in the process of framing rules and regulations for protecting the natural resources. For instance, a lot of medicinal plants are collected from Parasmaniya Pathar, a hill near the village. The BMC is putting in place a mechanism to ensure sustainable harvesting. It is undertaking a similar exercise regarding extraction of Khus roots.

Babulal Dahiya Babulal won Padma Shri in 2019 for his efforts on conservation of indigenous crop. He is a writer and award-winning poet on agricultural practices. He is training his grandson to be a farmer and take his conservation efforts forward.

Looking ahead

Research projects have been undertaken to identify potential growth. A project for briquetting of lantana weed for use as bio-fuel has been sanctioned by the MP State Biodiversity Board to an NGO, the Covenant Centre for Development (CCD). Under the project, supported by the BMC, a biomass briquetting unit (char kiln) will be set up in the village. This assumes significance because fuel wood is still used in most homes for cooking.

A project on conservation of medicinal plants and cultivation of traditional paddy varieties through local farmers has also been sanctioned to the BMC. Some paddy varieties and medicinal plants have been identified as having potential for future Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) agreements. Meanwhile, the BMC is considering value addition in regard to certain varieties. The BMC is optimistic about the future. The members feel sure that with constant effort and the diligence of the community, the goal of a better life is within reach.

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