IDUKKI: In the tribal hamlet of Thayannankudy, tucked deep inside Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary (CWS), 60-year-old Kanthamma, wife of Chandran Kani (tribal chieftain), laid out a colourful array of seeds on her courtyard: Types of millet — finger, foxtail, pearl, barnyard and little — local varieties of sorghum, maize, cowpea, castor beans, cucumber, pumpkin, gourd and spinach, and tubers of tapioca and forest turmeric.
As abundant as Kanthamma’s collection is, the Muthuvans of Chinnar once possessed many more varieties of millet seeds. But their self-sufficient food system came under threat when the government started supplying them subsidised rice as a staple food. From a diverse indigenous farming system, the tribals gravitated towards other occupations, losing numerous traditional crops in the process.
The villagers’ consumption pattern also changed as rice gained prominence and disrupted the nutrient-dense practice of having traditional grains and legumes that once filled their plates. Many communities started facing food insecurity. However, with the district undergoing an agrarian crisis due to recurrent droughts and erratic rainfall, which affects water-intensive crops like vegetables and grains, the tribes are on a mission to return to their farming roots.
Renewed sense of rights, support from Forest Dept
With a renewed sense of their rights and wholehearted support from the Forest Department, which initiated a crop revival project named ‘Punarjeevanam’, the tribes have begun resuscitating lost seed varieties here. To bring back long-lost seeds, CWS officers set out on elaborate expeditions into remote hilltops. They were provided with a handful of foregone varieties.
“There are signs this seed collection system is working. Remote hamlets of the Muthuvans have reportedly rescued the hardy kodo millet, a variety high in fibre and energy content, after an absence of nearly 15 to 20 years,” said Chinnar assistant wildlife warden P M Prabhu.
The tribe’s practice of planting a wide variety of crops holds key to a strengthened and climate-resilient food system. Although crops failed in large parts of the state in 2018 due to a prolonged monsoon, pests and diseases, the tribal farmers of Chinnar took home a decent harvest. While farmer suicides were reported across the district following the deluge, following crop loss, the no such deaths were reported among Muthuvans. Most seeds the tribals plant, be it finger millet, pearl millet or sorghum, can withstand drought and heat.
“The farmers may not know big words such as ‘climate change’, but their symbiotic relationship with nature teaches them the science behind sustainable farming,” said Dhanushkodi, a social worker at Chinnar. The Forest Department also hopes renewing the culture of multiple crops will generate enough produce for every household. That would go a long way in alleviating health issues like malnutrition, anaemia and maternal mortality, which are prevalent among tribes here.
“When they eat a combination of millets, vegetables and lentils, they get more fibre, protein, antioxidants and minerals such as magnesium and potassium, compared to just rice,” Dhanushkodi said. “Just like their farms, good nutrition is all about how diverse their plate is” he added.
The tribal community was selected for the Plant Genome Saviour Community Award, instituted by the Union Government for protection of rare ethnic seed varieties and promotion of traditional cultivation. Besides the award, which includes a cash prize of Rs 10 lakh, Thayannankudy tribal farmers also received the state agricultural award in 2017 for being the best tribal colony in the state.