Seeds of the future

Celene BolanosUniversity of California, Berkeley

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Seeds of the future

I closed my eyes, trying to picture these hills as a forest. I couldn’t. The land was dry and full of skinny, leafless trees. Many decades ago, large tracts of the Satpura Range were deforested to supply timber for India’s expanding railroad lines. Tribal communities previously dependent on the forest have since resorted to agriculture as their main source of livelihood. This region however, remains as one of India’s most neglected in government development schemes.

As part of my internship, I had the opportunity to learn about the multi-sectoral initiatives set forth by the Collectives for Integrated Livelihood Initiatives, an associate organization of Tata Trusts. For two weeks, I traveled every day to the main office in Dhadgaon (a 1.5-hour car ride from where I was staying), and from there, to various villages that were beneficiaries of this initiative.

After interviewing over twenty families, participating in Village Institution (VI) meetings, and visiting farms and schools, I had the opportunity to learn about some of the real impacts of this organization. Some of these include increasing and diversifying their sources of income which in turn, have led to a greater investment in their children’s education, prevented seasonal migration to other cities and states in the country, and created spaces for women to more actively participate in decision-making processes, among others.

While most of the families I interviewed had long been using hybrid seeds, I was surprised to find some families who have preserved indigenous seeds which are naturally suited to the conditions of the region. Although these traditional varieties are considered economically inefficient (since they take longer to grow and produce a smaller yield in a given area), these seeds are more resilient to environmental changes, require fewer external inputs, are greater in nutritional value, and reproduce, thus ensuring food sovereignty. A family I interviewed explained that a large share of their neighbors’ crops had failed due to last years’ poor monsoon. Their cultivation of native varieties however, had withstood low levels of irrigation. Although these traditional varieties sell at a much higher rate than hybrids and are at a high demand across India, there are major challenges regarding market linkages. I am excited to spend the next month exploring this. While sustainability has long been a goal in development schemes, a component that is often overlooked is resiliency. Besides carrying history and culture, these seeds carry the hope for the future.