Cultivating biodiversity

In the Deccan region of India, over 60,000 women peasants are feeding their families, their culture and their pride with biodiverse farming practices. Their knowledge and successes have reached across national and institutional borders, giving them world wide recognition.

Hothi B Rajamma in her biodiverse field with red amaranthus. Photo: DDS

Hothi B Rajamma in her biodiverse field with red amaranthus. Photo: DDS

It is the year 2003 in Andhra Pradesh, India. A group of more than 50 peasant women gathered in a thatch roofed hall in Didgi village, engaged in a video interface with a group of senior agricultural scientists.

Sammamma, who owns three acres of rainfed farmland and grows more than 18 varieties of crops, stands up and starts explaining why she values biodiversity in her farming practices. Quickly a scientist on the other side of the video camera stops her and says “No, no, please do not worry about biodiversity. It is we, the scientists, who should think of biodiversity, and we will recommend a seed for you to use.”

Still, too often scientists believe that agricultural science and knowledge are exclusively their domain while peasant farmers, especially the women among them, are not to be included at all when discussing farming approaches. However, the women in the Deccan region proved them wrong in many ways.

Biodiverse farming systems

The peasant women in Didgi village have developed highly biodiverse farming systems with common characteristics: they all farm on non-irrigated, not very fertile fields of less than two acres; they are all non-chemical farmers; all of them grow 12-23 varieties of crops on their small plot; and none of them need to purchase any of their food from markets. The women of the Deccan region are the seed keepers. They not only conserve seeds, but also decide on the mix and quantity of seeds to be planted at planting time. This is a win-win system: the women’s way of farming supports biodiversity, and biodiversity supports their way of farming.

Why is biodiversity so important for these women? Why are they not content with growing just one or two commercial crops as advised by the Department of Agriculture? They have a clear preference for food crops such as Yellow Sorghum, which are totally discarded and discouraged by agricultural scientists for its low price in the market. But for the dalit women Yellow Sorghum means nutritious food, good fodder, crop which grows in dry soil, can be used in fencing and thatching, and many other qualities. All these factors, in addition, can be completely controlled by the women in spite of their low income levels. The reverence that peasant women show for such “orphaned crops” illustrates their special vision on food and farming.

More than food

Especially for women from vulnerable communities, sticking to peasant values and biodiversity in farming has made all the difference between death and life. Whereas famer suicides have been prevalent among Indian farmers who suffered from debts as a result of their expensive and risky commodity- and chemicals based farming systems, peasant women farmers who continued to use low cost biodiverse farming principles have not seen a single suicide among them.

Agro biodiversity is a strong part of these communities’ traditions, but it is also the only logical way for them to farm. They clearly understand that a bio diverse system is the best security they have against climate vagaries. Moreover, the crops they grow are indicative of their food culture, and the relationships between foods in the kitchen reflect relationships in the field. For instance, food made from sorghum is accompanied by food made from pigeon peas, and in the field sorghum and pigeon pea grow as companion crops. This unique “farm-to-kitchen” model is what has kept agro biodiversity alive on their farms for centuries. Since women are the most important torchbearers of this food tradition, they are also the carriers of the agro biodiversity tradition.

Biodiverse farms not only nurture physical life, but also moral, ecological and spiritual life.

People in this region celebrate biodiversity through several religious festivals where heroes symbolise and bless biodiversity.Englagatte Punnam, for instance, is celebrated when the winter crops mature, by tying diverse crops on the door of every home – as if they declare, “look at the diversity in my field!” Women treasure these crops more than monetary wealth. Consequently, seeds are neither bought nor sold, but always exchanged.

Proud to share

Reshaping food policy

In India, a select few species are promoted and supported as food crops by governmental institutions. A wide range of millet varieties, which traditionally have nutritiously fed many rural communities, are not among them.

In 2013, for the first time in our history the government recognised millets as food security grains of the country by including them in the brand new National Food Security Act. After a decade long struggle by dalit peasant women, the Deccan Development Society and the Millet Network of India, millets are now put firmly in India’s public food system. Not only for us, but also for the women this was a great moment to rejoice. They used radio and made short films to share their toils and successes. With grit and determination they overcame their social, economic and gender marginalisation and reshaped a national policy. Also, in 2013 we as milleteers were able to take the message of millets back to their African birthplace by initiating the Africa-India Millet Network and creating a new solidarity between two continents.

The Deccan Development Society (DDS), a grassroots NGO working with peasant women from socially and economically marginalised dalit communities, has facilitated the sharing of farmer knowledge for 25 years.

The women from this region, especially those from lower socio-economic classes, have travelled at least 100 times – from Peru to Cambodia – to share their experience and their perspectives on farming with farmers, scientists and policy makers. They have met receptive audiences, among male and female peasants and in international conference rooms alike. In 2003 they addressed the World Organic Congress in Victoria, Canada, where various people in the audience said they felt humbled by the women’s experiences.

Brimming with confidence, these women have started celebrating the Mobile Biodiversity Festival. Every year since 1998, they travel to over 50 villages during one month, discussing and celebrating ecological agriculture, control over seeds and organic markets in a way that expresses the deep relationships between the farmer and soil, agriculture and environment. They reached over 150,000 farmers in the region, showing them the richness of the traditional seeds and crops from the area. The Indian government has recognised these Biodiversity Festivals as the most important community cultural campaign on the issue.

Worldwide recognition

The Deccan peasant women, who were so easily dismissed by the scientists in 2003, are now receiving national and international recognition for their work on biodiversity. Anjamma for instance, a 55 year old peasant woman who has never gone to a school and cannot read and write, is now a member of the expert panel on agro biodiversity in the state of Andhra Pradesh. Government officers, scientists, civil society activists and media come to the region regularly to look at the women’s farms and seeds. Their stories regularly appear in newspapers and on television channels.

Today, the region comprising of about 50,000 hectares of land is about to be recognised as an Agricultural Biodiversity Heritage Site by the Indian National Biodiversity Board – the first in the country. The international Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) developed the concept to honour the sites where biodiversity is practiced. The Heritage label would place the area and its biodiversity at the same level of protection as national parks and offers special status, privileges and incentives to the farmers and communities.

The label would convey a strong message that the Indian government supports marginalised family farmers and recognises their contribution to protecting biodiversity. When asked what the Heritage label means to them, the peasant woman Mahbatpur Swaroopa answers, “We are totally disinterested in any monetary benefits. It is the recognition that we cherish.

The power of women

The selection of seeds requires complex knowledge that is held by women like Basantppur Narsamma. Photo: DDS
The selection of seeds requires complex knowledge that is held by women like Basantppur Narsamma. Photo: DDS

The attention for their farms and perspectives has added tremendously to the women’s self esteem. Paramma, a farmerseed keeper in Khasimput village, once demonstrated this confidence as she confronted the government officials who came to visit her: “Every month you get your salaries and fill your pockets with currency notes. But come to my home. I have filled it with seeds. Can you match me?

Given their marginalisation in other spheres of life, the women feel that their practice and conservation of agro biodiversity has bestowed them with a new stature in the country, in their communities and in their homes. Most of the peasant women in this area say that more often than not, they are consulted and play a key role in making choices for their family farm.

Cheelamamidi Laxmamma cultivates her three-acre farm with dozens of food crops along with her husband. When her husband was counselled that he should become progressive and plant some hybrid crops on the land, he – completely against the grain of his social milieu – first wanted to consult his wife. When he did, she burst out: “Have you gone mad? Why do we need hybrid seeds and a monoculture? Are we not happy with what we are growing?” And he gave in. Sharp and alert women such as Laxmamma enjoy far more respect from their husbands for the recognition they have gained in the community and beyond.

P V Satheesh

P V Satheesh is one of the founders of DDS and its General Secretary. For more information: visit or e-mail:

Recently Published Articles

Women-led farm initiatives

Women-led farm initiatives

By using organic farming methods, developing connections with markets, generating income, and enhancing their own...


Call for articles

Share your valuable experience too

Share This