Attaining food sovereignty by building access to local seeds

The process of participatory revival, conservation and replication of traditional landraces is helping farmers from the tribal belt in Maharashtra regain their food sovereignty.  Farmers now have the knowledge on local seeds and access to seeds of their choice.

The crop genetic diversity is a key element in sustainability of farmer’s livelihoods particularly in fragile areas which are under huge ecological, climatic and economic stress. It has taken hundreds of years of dedicated efforts of farmers to develop and conserve crop land races suitable to local agro-climatic conditions. However, local cultivars including cereals, pulses, oil seeds, wild edible foods and tubers and local herbs, which used to be a good source of nutrition and food security for tribal and rural communities, are getting eroded. Farmers are increasingly cultivating improved varieties of seeds for enhanced yield. This has led to growing dependency of farmers on outside agencies for supply of seeds. Also, high use of chemical fertilizers and insecticides has resulted in steep escalation in input cost, environmental degradation and rise in mono-cropping  affecting the biodiversity.

Nandurbar is a tribal dominated district in Maharashtra. The area, especially Dhadgaon and Akkalkuwa blocks in Satpuda hill ranges, are predominantly tribal and hilly.  The Bhill and Pawara are the major tribes in the block. Most of these tribal communities are poor agriculturists with small and marginal land holdings. However, due to low productivity agriculture, the tribal communities mostly continue to depend on forests for their subsistence. Nandurbar district was known for its exceptional traditional crop diversity which includes maize, sorghum, minor millets, pulses and wild edible species. However, there had been rapid erosion in the status of biodiversity over a period of time.

Realizing the importance of bio diversity in providing food security, livelihood security and reducing risks in farming for small farmers, BAIF, an NGO, initiated community led conservation management and revival of tribal food in 14 remote villages of Dhadgaon and Akkalkuwa blocks in Nandurbar district. The initiative was taken up with the objectives of documenting crop diversity and associated knowledge in the area and promoting participatory seed production and in situ conservation of traditional crop landraces with active involvement of local community.

Documenting landraces

Communities found that traditional landraces were hardy, resistant to drought condition with lesser attack by pests and diseases.

The initial data was collected through village level meetings and talking to aged men and women who are also key persons in the village. A series of focus group discussions were organised to validate the information recorded and also gather additional information.  The staff actively participated in traditional festivals of tribal community to understand and gather more information on seeds and their culture. Families interested in conserving traditional food crops were listed.

During these meetings, the staff also identified farm families who were still cultivating traditional landraces on small pieces of their land. BAIF arranged the village level seed fairs by involving these farmers. Around 19 village level seed exhibitions were organized where traditional landraces of different crops like millets, maize and sorghum diversity, along with wild edible plant species were displayed.

Five farmers who were already familiar with the conservation process were selected to form a seed savers group. This group was further involved in collection of all landraces. Initially 12 landraces of maize and 9 landraces of sorghum were collected. Later, land races of other crops were also collected. In total, around 258 landraces were collected. Table 1 indicates the number of landraces collected and their traits.

Table 1: Crop germplasm collected by seed saver committee

Crop name No of Land races Importance of land races
Finger millet 01 Bold grain size, sweet taste, non lodging, more tillers, tolerant to drought condition.
Foxtail millet 03 Easily grown on barren/slopy land, resistant to sucking pests, better keeping quality, more nutritious.
Barnyard millet 06 Easily grown on barren/slopy land, resistant to sucking pests, better keeping quality, more nutritious.
Maize 23 Drought resistant, non lodging, sweet taste, resistant to rust, good fodder quality.
Sorghum 21 All traditional landraces are resistant to black smut, sweet taste, drought tolerant and easily threshed, more sweetness in fodder.
Cowpea 6 More sweetness, tolerant to drought condition, better keeping quality, less attack of sucking pests.
Hyacinth bean 12 Long pod, bold grain size, sweet taste, less incidence of sucking pests.
Wild edible plant species 63 High medicinal value, some are perennial, easily cultivable, disease resistant, drought tolerant.
Total 135

In-situ conservation

The information collected for specific landraces during exhibition was validated during in situ conservation. After discussing with community for each landraces, 5 best landraces each of maize and sorghum were selected for further in situ conservation (Table 2).  Farmers fields served as in-situ conservation plots.  Ten in-situ conservation plots were identified for cultivating traditional landraces.

The community involved in the conservation process, also actively participated in varietal selection on the basis of their physical performance. The members of seed saver committee, knowledgeable farmers along with BAIF staff visited each and every in situ plot during growing stage and before harvesting. Members were trained on pure line selection using scientific methods. Also, farmers have their own ways of selecting a pure line. The members selected landraces based on certain characteristics – like grain size, grain color, plant height, lodging susceptibility, pest and disease resistance, drought tolerance, structure of panicle etc. For morphological characterization, the project staff collected scientific data as per DUS guidelines of ICAR, completed the morphological characterization of 21 landraces of maize and 18 landraces of sorghum.

Table 2: Details of selected landraces of Maize and Sorghum for multiplication

SN Crop Local name Important character
1 Maize Kukkud mukai Early maturity-90-95 days, tolerant to drought, resistant to rust disease. Specially used for making laddu owing to its sweetness.
2 Maize Kehari mukai  (red colour maize), Midlate maturity 95-100 days, resistance to sucking pests, non lodging, drought resistant.
3 Maize Pivala lal makai, and  pivada lahan makki. Lengthy cobs, shiny yellow colour seed, plant height up to 215 cm, resistant to drought condition.
4 Maize Pivala maka Lengthy cobs without husk, resistant to rust. Specially used for making bhakari and lahya.
5 Sorghum Chikani lal juwar (sail kanis) and chikani juwar ( Ghatt kanis) Resistant to black smut and tolerant to drought condition. Specially used for papad making.
6 Sorghum Lahan Mani Juwar and mothi mani juwar Late maturity 105-110 days, resistant to black smut, drought tolerant, non lodging, can be easily threshed, good fodder quality .
7 Sorghum Mothi safed juwar Tall plants up to 220-240 cm, plant becomes green at the time of harvesting so it is good for grain as well as fodder, more poppiness, sweet taste, bold grain size. Specially used for Bhakari and lahya.

Seed saver committee

The selected seed savers from different villages are the members of seed saver committee. They are actively involved and play an important role of executing the plan at the field level.  The committee conducts its monthly meeting in the field. The plan is discussed along with field visit to in-situ plots. The committee is responsible for storing the seed and exchanging with other farmers. Each group nominates its representatives for the block level seed saver committee named as “Yahamogi Mata seed saver committee”. The block level committee has 10 members. There are about 70 women farmers as seed savers, who have conserved seeds of various vegetable crops.

Three village level seed banks are established which are managed by farmers. The seed saver committee provides seed material to interested farmers on exchange. The farmer has to return double the quantity of seed procured from the seed bank. Recently seed saver committee has submitted 10 applications (5 maize and 5 sorghum local landraces) to PPV FRA (protection of plant varieties and farmers right acts) authority in New Delhi.


The initiative on conserving crop diversity and traditional knowledge associated with it has shown many positive results.

The community realised that they had immense knowledge within the communities and they were competent enough to conserve traditional landraces which had better qualities -like taste, flavour, better keeping quality, high in nutrition etc. They also found that traditional landraces were hardy, resistant to drought condition with lesser attack by pests and diseases. While the seed germination was high, the cost of cultivation was low. Having seen the merits of traditional land races, farmers started cultivating more of these landraces. There has been an increase in area under traditional varieties. During the kharif 2016-17, 120 seed saver farmers cultivated 120 acres of traditional landraces of Maize and Jowar. Earlier they were cultivating only 1/8 acre area each.    More number of farmers are showing interest in cultivating traditional races.

With a hold on seed production, farmers have now greater access to seed and lesser dependence on external sources. About 550 kg maize and 500 kg sorghum seed is available for cultivation during next Kharif season. Besides the cost incurred on seed has also lowered drastically.

The whole process of participatory revival, conservation and replication of traditional landraces is helping farmers from this tribal belt regain their food sovereignty.  Now they have the knowledge on local seeds and access to seeds of their choice.

Lilesh N Chavan, Hareshwar B Magare, Sudhir M Wagle

BAIF Institute of sustainable livelihoods and Development, Maharashtra

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