Reviving crop biodiversity, restoring food sovereignty

The indigenous Kutia Kondh community in Odisha has a rich knowledge and experience of millets-based, mixed farming systems. By reviving the community based seed banks and cultural seed festivals, these tribal communities have regained their lost food diversity and sovereignty.

Until a couple of decades ago, the indigenous Kutia Kondh community of Kandhamal district in the eastern Indian state of Odisha, cultivated at least 40-50 different types of crops on the same piece of land. Things however changed with the advent of green revolution. With massive government promotion of the green revolution technologies through subsidies, monocultures of high yielding varieties (HYVs) replaced the indigenous mixed farming systems – “millets-maize-legumes-tubers”. By 2011, the diversity of indigenous crops cultivated by the Kutia Kondh community had been reduced to 12-13 varieties. The Kutia Kondhs have also been compelled to adopt the alien HYV monocultures and alien farming practices. With declining crop diversity, the average per capita intake of vital nutrients also declined.

NIRMAN, an non-for-profit organization, started working with the indigenous communities in Kandhamal district, to help restore the crop biodiversity in the region and help women gain recognition in agriculture.

Smt. Yashoda Majhi and her husband Sri. Ashok Majhi, are residents of Dupi village in Tummidibandha block of Kandhamal district. Smt. Majhi, is an elected ward member of the gram panchayat. The family owns three acres of land and major crops cultivated include indigenous varieties of millets, paddy, pulses, tubers, and oilseeds. The family used to practice shifting agriculture along the hill slopes. In addition, the family also collects uncultivated non-timber forest products (NTFPs) such as wild tubers, mushrooms, edible leaves and fruits. Owing to restrictions of the forest department and erratic rainfall patterns, the area under shifting cultivation has ceased and crop diversity has decreased resulting in decline in household agriculture productivity and loss of the indigenous seed varieties.

In 2012, with NIRMAN’s intervention, Smt. Majhi’s family resumed shifting cultivation. The crop and seed diversity increased gradually. The millet types cultivated by Smt. Majhi’s family increased from 7 to 25; oil seeds from 2 to 7 species and legumes/pulses from 5 to 12 species.

Smt Majhi learnt how to adjust the crop sowing time thereby saving the crop from climate vagaries. Her pulses crop remained unaffected by escaping the unpredicted showers during flowering period, owing to delayed sowing of the crop. She harvested 7 quintals of pulses compared to 3 quintals by the rest of the village. The shortage of pulse production resulted in increased market price from Rs 40/kg to Rs 65/kg favoring Smt. Majhi’s family to earn better incomes. The family earned about Rs 42,250/- by selling the surplus pulses harvest. The family could clear the loan of Rs 10,000/- which they borrowed from the local money lender to pay for their kid’s education and cover the family medical bills. The family saved the remaining amount of INR 32,250/- to spend for their kid’s education and decided not to borrow money from the local money lenders. The family also received funds under the Indira Awas Yojana for building a house and the family has decided to spend a fraction of the savings from the sale of pigeon pea on house construction.

Household food security and living standard has improved and the household income has increased gradually. Smt. Majhi, says: “Annu nu a jela aatae a, ina ga e na, reda aatae c, pone, main ijjo ho jela ti, manna mu, aaja silla tesse dukhoti rahi anamu ma” (Smt. Majhi, expressed her happiness for overcoming drought which otherwise would have wrecked havoc on the family’s economy, food and livelihood security).

In 2011, a study was conducted by NIRMAN to evaluate the status of the indigenous millets-based mixed farming system and food and nutritional security of Kutia Kondhs of the region. A survey was conducted in 10 villages spread over 3 Gram Panchayats of Kandhamal district, covering 350 households belonging to Kutia Kondh community.

Understanding the communities

The Kondh community depended on agriculture (mostly rain fed), shifting cultivation (locally known as podu chasa) along the hill slopes, collection and sale of non-timber forest products (NTFPs), and wage labour, for their livelihoods. Dongar cultivation (dongar is a small hillock near the community settlement/habitat), over the hill slopes and valleys is central to tribal economy. Despite crop diversity, abundant natural resources and rich indigenous knowledge, poverty is acute in the tribal dominated areas. Around 80% of the Kutia Kondh households in the study area are marginal farmers and rest are small farmers. Most of the soils are red-loamy soils with low water retention capacity, subject to heavy runoff and soil erosion during the kharif season.

It was observed that millets grow successfully in uplands of the study area. It was perhaps for this reason millets have been nurtured for ages by some of the poorest and marginalized communities. In addition, cultivation of millets is also deeply rooted in the ethos of indigenous communities, being one with the nature. Kutia Kondh community considers eco-friendly millet cultivation as a way of living in harmony with nature. It was found that Kutia Kondhs still practice their indigenous millets-based mixed farming systems and maintain some amount of indigenous crop diversity on their farms. Presently, only 12 varieties of indigenous crops are being cultivated.

Consumption of millets among the community has decreased. Though they have three meals a day, the intake of millets has decreased significantly. Millets have been replaced by rice supplied through the PDS or purchased from the market. Consumption of edible tubers has been reduced considerably, either due to unavailability or sold as it is in the market, to purchase rice. Similar trends are observed with regard to consumption of pulses. Significant amount of pulses is sold for cash, to purchase rice, goods, liquor etc. Also, the average family expenditure for health care among the Kutia Kondh community has increased three and a half times in recent years.

The three major findings of NIRMAN’s study revealed the following: Women in the community play a major role in the indigenous agriculture systems but lack recognition; community-based activities like the seed banks and seed festivals have almost disappeared; and, women lack tenure security and rights over dongar lands and customary lands. Based on these study findings, NIRMAN developed strategies to bring recognition to the role of indigenous women farmers; to restore community-based activities like seed banks and seed festivals, and to facilitate legal recognition of local communities’ rights (especially women) over dongar lands and customary lands, as a means to ensure food sovereignty of the Kutia Kondh community, belonging to the region.

Reviving indigenous farming practices

In the year 2012, NIRMAN started working with the communities promoting mixed, biodiverse and sustainable agriculture practices. As a first step, Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) exercise was conducted in all the villages to collect baseline information. Information on various aspects like household income, status of indigenous agriculture practices followed, extent of seed diversity etc. To motivate the communities to revive their indigenous agricultural practices, a village level meeting was organised to discuss issues related to erosion of the indigenous crop diversity, indigenous agriculture practices and sustainable agriculture. Training on millet-based mixed farming was conducted during the first year of project intervention and in the second year, training on sustainable agricultural practices was conducted at the village level. Women were encouraged to practice mixed farming in an effort to revive the indigenous mixed and biodiverse farming system.

Restoring seed diversity

The major strategy of our intervention was to promote women led approaches, to assert their control over food production system and to conserve indigenous agro-biodiversity. Village meetings were conducted with women and Village Level Institutions (VLIs) were promoted. Around 21 VLIs were formed and the members were trained on millet-based community seed banks and their management. The community-based seed banks are expected to fulfill the seed requirement of the community. Currently around 27 community-based seed banks have been formed, supporting around 600 farmers in 27 villages.

Heirloom seed requirement for the community was assessed. Heirloom seeds of 12 indigenous crops of local choice were supplied to local communities as one-time seed-capital, for conservation. These 12 crop varieties were revived within one cropping season. Presently, the community-based seed banks have been maintaining heirloom seeds of 55 indigenous crops, which include millets, maize, pulses, vegetables and edible tubers. Communities now cultivate 7 varieties of indigenous paddy, 6 varieties of indigenous maize, 3 varieties of finger millet, 3 varieties of little millet, 2 varieties of barnyard millet, 2 varieties of pearl millet, 3 varieties of foxtail millet, 2 varieties of sorghum, 4 varieties of pigeon pea, 2 varieties of cow pea, 3 varieties of rice bean, 4 varieties of country bean, 2 varieties of black gram, horse gram and 17 types of edible tubers, under millets-based mixed farming system. Communities also cultivate 3 varieties of castor, 2 varieties of mustard, along with niger and sesame, 7 types of vegetables, 17 types of edible tubers, 2 varieties of turmeric, ginger, garlic, chilly peppers, onions and few other locally known coarse grains and pulses. Women farmers have been playing a major role in the revival of indigenous crops, management of the community-based seed banks and conservation of the indigenous agro-biodiversity.

Community seed festivals facilitate seed exchange

Kutia Kondh community celebrates Bio-diversity Festival locally known as Burlang Yatra, after the crop harvest. The festival is celebrated to offer gratitude to the mother earth and seeds which is the basis of their farming. The seed festivals not only serve as a platform to exchange indigenous heirloom seeds but also serve as a repository to conserve and increase the indigenous heirloom seed diversity. NIRMAN had been facilitating celebration of the Burlang Yatra for the past four years. In the year 2016 alone, more than 700 farmers participated in the community-based seed festivals. More than 60 indigenous heirloom seeds were on display and were exchanged among the farmers. Once again, women farmers played a major role in the biodiversity festival.

Gaining rights over land 

Another challenging issue plaguing the Kutia Kondh community is non-recognition of rights over part of customarily used cultivated land and entire community resources. Since women are key to farming, efforts have been made to facilitate legal recognition of local communities’ rights over the customarily used individual lands. These lands are also suitable for millets-based farming systems. Village level meetings were conducted for the local communities on provisions of the Forest Right Act (FRA), and procedures for filing claims over the lands. The entire process was initiated with the support of the community volunteers. A total of 89 households received individual land rights over customarily used land. Women were given joint ownership of the individual land titles. Around 15 Kutia Kondh villages have been issued community rights over community forest resources. Recognition of right in individual and community land/ resources is expected to strengthen their stake over resources, necessary for food production and food sovereignty.

Seeds of freedom echoed at Burlang Yatra in Kandhamal

The Kutia Kondh communities in Kandhamal district of Odisha, usually celebrate a week long annual indigenous traditional community seed festival at village level during February-March every year. This year the community seed festival was held on 5, March, 2017 at Tuakala village in Belgarh Grampanchayat, in Tumudibandha block in Kandhamal district of Odisha. Local communities from 5 grampanchayts participated. More than 600 adivasi farmers participated in the festival.

The festival started with Kutia Kondh women carrying seeds on their heads followed by exhibition of their rich seeds on the festival ground. More than 90 types seeds of millets, pulses and oil seeds were exhibited by the farmers.

It was a platform for adivasi farmers to come together to share their indigenous knowledge, exchange their ideas and culture. Adivasi women farmers talked about their self –reliance through their conservation initiatives of indigenous varieties of seeds of millets, pulses, oilseeds and vegetables.  Kutia farmers spoke about the rich traditional knowledge and understanding of bio-diverse farming system evolved over millennia, passed on from generation to generation, along with a spirit of respect and gratitude.

NIRMAN, facilitated celebrations at cluster level to spread the conservation initiative by Kutia kondh by providing platform for sharing traditional knowldege. Shri Prasant Mohanty, Director of NIRMAN, Shri Hemant Das, Depty Project Director, ATMA, Shri Dillip Subudi, Freelance Journalist, Shri  Basant Nayak,  Pramod Dash social activist and Bijay Nayak of State Coordinator of Dhan Foundation participated and deliberated in the festival. To encourage farmers in conserving agro-biodiversity, Ms. Rashmita Majhi of village Sanatuakela, Ms. Sushanti Majhi of village Pukur, Ms. Buduli Patmajhi of village Saradhapur  and Monali Patajoshi of village Betabadi and 2 villages i,e, Deogada and Kalamguda, were honoured during the celebration.

The community seed festival concluded with traditional dance of Kutia kondh and sharing of indigenous seeds among Kutia kondha and kondh communities in Kandhamal.


The communities have experienced not only rise in the yield but also increase in duration of the yield for the same piece of land. It was noticed that availability of seeds of the lost indigenous crop varieties has increased the length of cropping calendar by 45-60 days. The Kutia Kondh community have become very close to food sufficiency, since the intervention. Empowering community with special focus on women through revival of millet based bio-diverse farming system offers solutions for the present day crises in farming.


NIRMAN acknowledges the Millets Network of India (MINI) and Actionaid for this initiative in Kandhamal and inputs from Dr. Nigamananda Swain, Farming System Expert).

Prasant Mohanty

Executive Director


S-3/751- Niladri Vihar, 

P.O.- Sailashree Vihar, 

Bhubaneswar – 751021, India.






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