'Untouchable' Certified Organic Seed Bank: Combating Climate Change & Empowering Women

In rural areas, ownership of land is the main factor in determining an person's social status and standard of living. (via Fight Against Untouchability)

In India, while the growth of slicker, modernized supermarkets with standardized brands might be edging out the traditional open-air markets - at the same time, India's domestic certified organic food industry is also on the rise - sometimes in surprising ways.

One such example is the collective of 5,000 lower-caste Dalit (untouchable) women from the central state of Andhra Pradesh that is now offering chemical-free, non-irrigated, certified and organically-grown food. In a region best known for its aridity and less-than-optimal soils, their crop yields are impressive.

But for the women who originate from 75 villages across the region, switching to organic agriculture was the best logical choice to fight climate change (apparently they got the EU memo), discrimination, poverty AND globalization (take that, Monsanto!).Agriculture adapting to changing rainfall
With the dire IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) predictions of altering rainfall patterns in India due to climate change, agricultural productivity is expected to decline anywhere from 10 to 40 percent, thanks to a dropping water table and more frequent droughts.

In response, the women adopted a method of interspersing their crops so that they do not require extra water or chemicals. They grow as many as 19 indigenous crop varieties per acre, on arid, degraded lands that have been remediated by the Deccan Development Society (DDS).

"In the climate change framework, this system of dryland agriculture has the resilience to withstand all the fallouts of elevated temperatures", says P.V. Satheesh, director of DDS.

Membership: a fistful of grain
DDS also helped the women acquire land through the government, while encouraging them to form local self-help groups or 'sanghas'. The women themselves have developed their own unique 'crop financing' through a community seed bank, where membership is a fistful of grain. Those who borrow grains from the bank must then pay back five times the amount owing in grain.

The total amount of grain is sifted for good seeds and the rest is sold on the open market or back to members at lower rates, or distributed to poor families. Money earned at the market is deposited into a regular bank and the earned interest helps to finance future loans to members.

Preserving seed, culture; empowering women
But the scheme has not only helped the women earn extra income, it has also given them a sense of dignity and pride.

"I check the earheads of grain for good seed", says 55-year-old Akkama, the seed bank manager in Hulugera village. "It's a system handed down to me from my ancestors." Over 50 different varieties of seeds - millets, wheat, red gram, linseed and sorghum - are now stored at the bank.

The grains are certified by the third-party global Participatory Guarantee Scheme (PGS)'s Organic India Council, and are being sold with overwhelming success - a far cry from the low-paying, menial jobs that many of these women once held.

"Now, when landlords come to me for borrowing seed, now I can laugh," says Narsamma, 55, a dynamic woman who once worked as a labourer, but has now traveled to London, Peru, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, demonstrating their methods to local farmers.

InterPress Service
More on Women in India
India's Mining Boom: Tribal Groups, Poor & Environment Losing Out
India's Barefoot College Revolution: Hands-On, Bottom-Up & Community-Driven
Treehugging In India, The Chipko Embrace
Women of Zaheerabad take on Monsanto (The South Asian)
India's first female Dalit radio makes waves (Times of India)

More on Agriculture in the Developing World

Agriculture for Development: World Development Report Gets It Half Right
Homoeopathy... It Works For Plants Too
Use Organic Agriculture to Fight Climate Change, EU Official Says

Tags: Agriculture | India | Poverty