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Making mountain communities nutritonally secure

INHERE works with agricultural communities to promote agricultural biodiversity (© INHERE)
INHERE works with agricultural communities to promote agricultural biodiversity
© INHERE

For rural communities in India's central Himalayan mountain region, nutrition is dependent on local production and incomes. In Garhwal and Kumaon Himalayas, smallholders working on terraced farms cut into mountainsides, have traditionally grown a wide range of produce for household consumption with small surpluses for sale. While isolated in the daunting mountain topography, with poor access to roads and transport, mountain farmers do benefit from varying altitudes and aspects with different soils, sunlight received and water availability, which allows them to grow a diverse selection of crops such as rice, wheat, millet, spices, amaranth, medicinal herbs and tropical and temperate fruit.

Specialisation and economies of scale are often stressed in modern agriculture. Scientists in research stations focus their efforts on one or a few crops identified as 'important', having commercial or consumption value. Farmers in the Himalayas are caught between the attraction of using results of new research to increase their productivity and incomes, and the need to provide varied nutritional diets for their families while preserving the fertility of their soil. Uncertain weather is another dimension, adding further confusion. To help smallholders attain food and nutrition security and increase their net incomes from sustainable livelihoods, the Institute of Himalayan Environmental Research and Education (INHERE) works with agricultural communities to promote agricultural biodiversity, and add value to and provide markets for smallholder produce.

In harmony with nature

INHERE has been collecting good quality traditional seeds for multiplication, encouraging and facilitating farmers in different villages to exchange seed and promote local crops which have often been marginalised in favour of hybrid seeds. Crops such as jhungra or foxtail millet, red rice and groundnuts - which had been abandoned by farmers but are now being recognised as drought resistant - have been reintroduced. New pigeonpea, millet and maize seeds, recommended by research organisations, have also been distributed for testing by farmers.

Women carry out most agricultural activities (© INHERE)
Women carry out most agricultural activities
© INHERE

INHERE also reaches out to mobilise and organise farming communities. Women carry out most agricultural activities, with men largely responsible for ploughing and marketing of produce. INHERE, therefore, has identified better agricultural tools for women - including small handhoes, sickles and winnowers - which are in the process of being tested and improved. Women have also been supported in the marketing of their produce. To further reduce drudgery and increase net incomes, the NGO has also been working with communities to group-purchase threshing machines.

Adding value

Another way to boost incomes is through aggregating surplus production and adding value. The INHERE Aajeevika Utthan Samiti community-based organisation collects surpluses from smallholders for aggregation and processing. Three processing units have been established by Aajeevika Utthan Samiti: one unit takes care of cereals, pulses and spices, which are cleaned, sorted, graded, roasted and powdered, where required; the second unit processes fruits and vegetables into pickles, preserves, cooking pastes, fruit concentrates and ready-to-serve drinks; and the third processes medicinal herbs into local healthcare products. All of the produce is packaged and sold across the country under the brandname, Himalayan Fresh, and is certified as organic.

The units are now self-sustaining, generating local employment and income for over 3,000 mountain farmers from 120 villages. These units have provided farmers with a markets, but more importantly have given them bargaining power with traders who used to exploit the absence of local markets. This has enabled farmers to increase their price: in some cases (e.g. turmeric) by up to tenfold. Much of this additional income has gone directly to women. In addition, INHERE has organised farmer interest groups and has facilitated joint marketing of fresh vegetables in local markets through local retail groups.

Partnership

VPKAS examined the nutrient values of mountain crops and their importance in diets (© INHERE)
VPKAS examined the nutrient values of mountain crops and their importance in diets
© INHERE

To boost the impact of research for smallscale farmers, INHERE has been working to actively link research institutions and scientists to farmers. The Vivekananda Parvatiya Krishi Anusandhan Sansthan (VPKAS), an institution mandated to study mountain farming by the Indian Council of Agriculture Research, examined the nutrient values of mountain crops and their importance in diets. INHERE found that local knowledge, reinforced by science, gained more credence and was accepted more readily. More readily available knowledge about traditional varities is enabling revival for some crops such as foxtail millet and black sesame that had been lost, especially for those that are high yielding and have greater climate risk resilience.

INHERE, VPKAS and farmer groups are now working together to validate a range of traditional and improved seeds: differences in altitude, aspect and water availability makes site specific validation important. Farmers are also comparing the performance of their traditional seed with new seed. In some cases the traditional seeds have done better than newly released varieties, possibly because they are better adapted to the local climate and unpredictable weather.

The work of INHERE is now linked to the Prolinnova network, which promotes local innovation and farmer-led innovation. INHERE is working to promote local innovation and farmer-led experimentation, focusing on food and nutrition security. New crops, such as gram, pigeon pea and cluster beans have been identified for the area. INHERE is sharing its experiences with colleagues in Asia and Africa and would like to do so with colleagues around the world.

Written by: Sonali Bisht, Institute of Himalayan Environmental Research and Education

Date published: May 2013

 

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