Seeds of empowerment

Adivasi communities in India are collectively working towards bringing back biodiversity andlocal traditional food production systems. While farmers are recognised as repositories of local knowledge, people’s organisations are taking the lead in spreading sustainable development practices. ORRISSA, which has facilitated such a people-led development process, attributes the success to the opportunities created for knowledge exchanges, peer interactions and to the flexible support provided by MISEREOR.


Adivasi communities like those living in the districts of Malkangiri or Kandhamal, in the state of Orissa, depend on the forest for most of their needs. The rich biodiversity and abundance of natural resources support the livelihoods of local communities to this day. However, over the years, owing to the restrictions by the government, local communities lost free access to the forest resources.

Furthermore, the government had to clear portions of forest to establish more than 400 settlements to house the Bangladesh refugees. These resettlers looked at farming in a different way. They started following modern ways of agriculture and this did have influence on the farming practices being followed by adivasis in the region. Gradually, the traditional millet-centered mixed cropping systems, wherein up to twenty food species were grown, were largely replaced by paddy. All these practices had a serious effect on the availability of food.

Since 1987, the “Organisation for Rural Reconstruction and Integrated Social Service Activities” (ORRISSA) has been working with the tribal communities in Kondhamal, Malkangiri, and in the remote areas of the Ganjam, Khurda and Cuttack districts, covering around 200 villages. Its mission is to empower and enable the disadvantaged communities – whether these are adivasis, dalits, women, children or other vulnerable groups – to assert their rights over health, education and livelihoods. Over the years, the corporate access to forests, systematic marginalisation of traditional institutions and large scale corruption in the governance systems has seriously affected the livelihoods of the local population. In this context, ORRISSA’s efforts have been directed at strengthening the local organisations and, through them, at promoting and bringing legitimacy to the local traditional knowledge and practices.

Building on local knowledge systems

Even though we started our work with a clear interest in the empowerment of the local population, after several years, and in spite of the positive results we have seen, we felt that we were not really following the path that we had initially set out to do. In 2003, we realised the need to strengthen the local traditional institutions. In achieving this, what we did was linking these institutions to the government services and helping them to access the provisions earmarked for them. Also, working with women meant forming self help groups and linking them to the various government programmes. What we missed out was ”empowering” people, building on their knowledge and strengths. Our general approach of facilitating sustainable agriculture, for example, had not been an explorative process, and was not based on what was found in the field. We realised that, somewhere along the line, our programmes tended to introduce what we thought was the best option, instead of basing our work on people’s needs and priorities. There was a feeling that, as an organisation, ORRISSA was probably only replacing the government initiatives with a few alternatives.

Back in 2006 we started a reflection process which we hoped would help us change our general approach. This shift in approach was to help us support these communities in terms of food sovereignty and governance rights. More than just discussing with the local communities themselves, this meant focusing on their perspectives and priorities. We heard about the importance of traditional seeds, and also about land rights. We were told that as women manage most of the plant resources, they had to be directly involved in the process of ensuring household food security. There were also many voices calling for a stronger farmer-to-farmer network, and for promoting their own rights-based forums and organisations.

These concerns were shared in the workshop organised at Jashipur in Orissa in 2007, from which we drafted a plan of intervention for a people-led development process. In short, this meant taking different steps at the same time. We organised a reflection process within ORRISSA, by which our core group met twice a year. Teams at the district level had reflection meetings with all farmer leaders, while theme-specific workshops were organised by the local farmers’ organisations. We also organised a series of exchange visits.

Trying to change to a new approach was not easy. Owing to the charity-driven approach of many external agencies, farmers in this region had become increasingly dependant on outside support. Local communities developed a very low self esteem and lost the pride they used to have in their own knowledge and traditions. Enabling them to take responsibility and lead a development process meant that these barriers had to be broken. This required us to understand their conditions, their needs and priorities, and to give due respect to their knowledge.

Frequent interactions helped farmers to become confident and share their knowledge. We also organised visits to places where such people-led processes were already in place. Visits to the Deccan Development Society (DDS) in southern India and to Dindori and Beej Bacho Andolon in the north opened a Pandora box of examples, showing how a farmer-led process can enrich the biodiversity of the area and facilitate the creative pursuits of farmers to produce food with their own resources, knowledge and practices. The process helped farmers regain their lost self esteem. Also, the vast knowledge of the tribal women in selecting and breeding local seed varieties and their role in different stages of crop production started gaining due recognition. We understood that the local biodiversity and the local farming systems are inter-connected.


As a team, we started to explore the potential of local knowledge systems for sustaining farming and to address the food security concerns.

Exchanging seeds, exchanging knowledge

The process of strengthening farmer organisations has been based on a series of village meetings and the preparation of annual action plans. Organising farmers to take control of the local food production systems on the basis of their traditional wisdom was not easy. But the generous leadership of the older farmers kept the processes moving. Women also played an active role in all meetings, highlighting the need for food crops which can be stored for a longer period and repeating the importance of millets in providing nutritious food to children. They brought into focus the rising depletion of the traditional crops and plant diversity. Communities participated actively in identifying the seed diversity through seed mapping exercises (See Box). We also facilitated biodiversity mapping sessions to help farmers recognise the vast diversity of food and forest products available. These discussions motivated farmers to take the lead in multiplying the local seeds, exchange with fellow farmers and spread local food production systems. Additionally, food festivals were also celebrated to inculcate the interest in the younger generation on millet based foods. All these processes provided an opportunity for the communities to meet, discuss and exchange seeds and knowledge. More importantly, it helped in building solidarity among the tribal farmers.

Moving beyond food security issues, ORRISSA through its advocacy and networking programme, has helped farmer organisations to build linkages with other organisations and NGOs. Today, farmers are not only aware of the issues beyond their control which influences their livelihoods but are also raising their voice against such developments – for example, campaigning in favour of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), or campaigning against GM seeds.

Positive results

Looking back at our work during the past few years, we can see many positive results in the region. Overall, there are six farmer organisations established in the region, with more than 5000 farmers as members. All of them are busy promoting farming systems based on traditional agriculture, and are managing different community fairs themselves (see box on p.36). Farmers have started growing different crop varieties under mixed cropping systems. They cultivate pulses like black gram, arhar, kidney beans and runner beans with cereals like corn and paddy. Some farmers mix millets with vegetables and greens like bhendi. The revival of the millet-based farming systems enabled 739 small adivasi families (in 2008 in Malkangiri) to harvest at least two crops out of the 6 to 14 crops grown when most of the regular farms failed to produce any. The mix of crops helped in retaining soil moisture and yielded some returns even during the times of drought, thus emphasising the relevance of traditional systems of farming.


More seed diversity

Seed diversity maps – Our first step in promoting sustainable agriculture is in analysing the diverse seed stocks available with the farmers. Farmer groups took stock of the seeds available in their villages, describing their characteristics. Seeds were selected based on the household needs, land type and other farm realities. In the process we recognised that the tribal women had rich knowledge of local seeds. To enable this knowledge to reach the younger generations, the local organisations, or gram sanghatans, identified around 28 tribal women to play the role of Seed Mothers, also popularly known as Bihana Maa. The process yielded some interesting results. Even in villages where most of the millet varieties seemed to be lost, it was found that most women were still harvesting millet crops from small patches of land. In total, we were able to identify 102 varieties of traditional paddy, 18 varieties of pulses, 6 varieties of millet, 24 varieties of vegetables, 4 varieties of tuber crops, and 3 varieties of oil seeds.

Seed exchanges – Community seed fairs were organised to facilitate seed exchanges on a wider scale. These seed fairs were celebrated like the traditional festivals to attract as many farmers as possible. More than 20,000 farmers participated in the fair at Malkangiri, making it look like a state level event, where hundreds of traditional seeds were exchanged. Completely organised by the farmers themselves, the seed fairs of Malkangiri and Kandhamal were very successful. A total of 231 farmers, for example, exchanged local aromatic varieties of paddy seeds. These fairs were also used as a platform to sensitise people on the need to protect forests. About thirty adivasi women of Ranginiguda displayed 105 varieties of medicinal plant materials (crops, plants, leaves, roots, fruits, seeds, skin, wood & latex) along with 15 varieties of roots, 8 varieties of leaves, mushrooms, cashew, tamarind, mahua, and others.

Along with farming, women have taken up several other supplementary activities to protect the biodiversity. Traditionally, every adivasi household has its own backyard garden which hosts enormous crop diversity. Such “gharbadi” systems are being taken up again by these motivated women. Women have also raised nurseries of tree plants to promote plantations for checking soil erosion. In the nurseries, a variety of trees like fodder, fuel and fruit bearing trees are grown and distributed among the villagers who then actively participated in planting and protecting these trees.

With increased awareness on larger issues affecting their farming livelihoods, the farmer leaders are actively participating in campaigns. They participated in the state level campaigns as well as at the national level public hearing on Bt brinjal conducted at Bhubaneswar by the Minister of Environment and Forest, Government of India. To spread the awareness further, they have taken up campaigns at the village, gram panchayat and district level against GMO seeds and Bt crops. The farmers of Malkangiri have repeatedly asserted their traditional rights over the village forests, actively protesting against the presence of outside companies.

The process of exploring the knowledge on local seed is already expanding in to the neighbourhood of our operational area. In Malkangiri, the process of multiplying the local seeds with high productivity traits is being taken up by four more organisations. Around 1,500 farmers (from six blocks of Malkangiri and out side) have exchanged seeds during the 2009 community seed festival in Malkangiri. More than one hundred adivasi farmers (brought by 10 different NGOs) from six districts of the state of Orissa participated in the Malkangiri Seed Festival of 2009, together with a group from Madhya Pradesh. These are very encouraging signs.


The co-operation and support provided by the team and the farmer leaders in implementing the programme as well as sharing the results is gratefully acknowledged.

This article was first published in (Ed) T M Radha, Jorge, Chavez Tafur, Anja Mertineit and Emmanuel Yap, “Strengthening peopleled development – A joint effort of local communities, NGOs and donors to redefine participation”, 2010, MISEREOR. The soft copy can be downloaded from rengthening_people-led_development.pdf

40/570, Laxmi Vihar,
Po. Sainik School,
Bhubaneswar – 751 005
Orissa, India
Tel. 0674 – 2587 243, 3294620

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