Resources Research

Culture and systems of knowledge, cultivation and food, population and consumption

Posts Tagged ‘cultivation

A lost vocabulary of cultivation

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Even until just about one hundred years ago – which is a trifling length of time for a civilisation such as ours whose record of cultivation goes back to some eight millennia before the Common Era – there was in the drier regions of Maharashtra a very vivid vocabulary to describe soils, and a very large glossary to describe the tools and implements required for agriculture. But modern India has caused a great portion of the vocabulary used in agriculture to be lost.

In the district of Ahmednagar, the three chief soils used to be called kali or black, tambat or red, and barad or gray including pandhri or white. The sub-types of these soils were numerous and the names used for the major divisions and their many sub-types differed from one taluka to another. There used to be known three divisions of the kali or black soil. There was black cotton soil but in Ahmadnagar this was more suited for wheat than for cotton. There was also a clayey loam soil called khalga, easier to work than the black soils and which was apt to cake in the rains and to crack in the hot weather. There was also a light soil or sandy loam called chopan, but which although light-coloured was not classified with the pandhri group.

A kind of soil very well suited for horticulture – which used to be commonly known as ‘garden crops’ during my grand-father’s generation – was called munjal, deep, rich, reddish and alluvial in some of the river basins. A friable soil, it wanted less moisture than others and could be more easily worked than others. Then there were the many tracts of poorer soil, flats of murum or gravelly land and khadkal or stony land. Bare ridges or water partings separating small streams were called mal, or upland.

Some of the late 10th century Bombay Presidency (British era) sub-divisions of Ahmednagar, such as Parner, Nagar, Shrigonda and Karjat, with cross-ranges of hills, were known for deep-soiled tablelands called pathar. The variety of landforms also hid, here and there, a few favoured plots of rich and moist alluvial soil called dheli. That we have such descriptions is due in no small part to the detail found in the district gazetteers, and I have been able to elaborate the names of soils and agricultural implements by referring to the 1884 Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency, volume XVII on Ahmednagar.

A detailed table from the 1884 Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency, volume XVII on Ahmednagar.

All cultivated land in Ahmadnagar used to be considered under the two great categories and they were jirayat which is dry crop and bagayat which is watered. The jirayat lands were either kharif (sown with early crops) or rabi (sown with late crops). Early crops were sown in June or July and reaped at the end of August, or in October or November. Late crops were sown in October and November and reaped in February and March.

The great variety of soils, the land forms in which they were found, determined the draught power and the kind of tilling, ploughing and levelling implements to be employed. Four or five generations ago, it required one to five pairs of bullocks – and sometimes in stiff soils as many as six and eight pairs – to drag a plough. Whereas in easier soils a pair of bullocks with a light plough would suffice, on stiff soils it used to be a common sight to see even 10 or 12 bullocks labouring heavily as they slowly dragged the big plough after them. Normally, a farming household kept one pair of bullocks, with the extra pairs as required borrowed and likewise their own lent out as needed.

The chief field-tools were the plough (nangar), the harrow (aut, vakhar, or kulav), the bullock-hoe (kulpa or joli), the drill (tiphan, moghad, or pabhar), the beam-harrow (phula or maing), the seed-harrow (rakhia or pharat), and the cart or gada. The plough or nangar used to be made from tough babul (acacia) wood. Naturally, the very large number of implements essential for cultivation kept busy an industry of village repairmen, as skilled with wood species as they were with metalcraft (the shoe of the plough was iron).

[Photograph: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London, ref PH.1269-1908]


Six out of 10 are farm households in rural India

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An agricultural year begins at the beginning of July and ends on the last day of June the following year. What we know now, thanks to the data provided by the Situation Assessment Survey of Agricultural Households, carried out by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) of the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MoSPI) is that in the agricultural year 2012-13, rural India had an estimated total of 90.2 million agricultural households.

RG_NSSO_agri_households_201412_1These agricultural households were about 57.8% of the total estimated rural households. Uttar Pradesh, with an estimate of 18.05 million agricultural households, accounted for about 20% of all agricultural households in the country. Among the major states, Rajasthan had the highest percentage of agricultural households (78.4%) among its rural households followed by Uttar Pradesh (74.8%) and Madhya Pradesh (70.8%). Kerala had the least percentage share of agricultural households (27.3%) in its rural households preceded by other southern states like Tamil Nadu (34.7%) and Andhra Pradesh (41.5%).

The NSSO’s previous such survey (the ‘Situation Assessment Survey of Farmers’) was conducted in 2003. The differences between the two, a decade apart, have been explained by the NSSO. First, such surveys aim to gather an assessment of the situation of our farmers and farming households.

RG_NSSO_agri_households_201412_2This assessment determines a standard of living as measured by consumer expenditure, income and productive assets, the indebtedness of farmers and farming households, farming practices and preferences, what resources are available to them, their awareness of technological developments and access to such technologies. The survey for the 2012-13 agricultural year also collected information on crop loss, crop insurance and awareness about the Minimum Support Price (MSP).

Second, the big difference between the two surveys is that the new survey has dropped the criterion of land possession for considering a household agricultural. “Recognising the fact that significant agricultural activity can be conducted without possessing any land, the definition of ‘farmer’ and ‘farmer household’ followed in NSS 59th Round was critically reviewed and the land possession as an eligibility criterion was dispensed with, replacing it with the concept of ‘agricultural production unit’ as one which produces field crops, horticultural crops, livestock and the products of any of the other specified agricultural activities,” is how the new survey (called the 70th Round) has explained its decision.

RG_NSSO_agri_households_201412_3I find this puzzling and an aspect that needs careful probing. We know, from a close scrutiny of the Census 2011 data at the district level, that the number of people and households engaged in cultivation and farming has dropped when compared to the last census, in 2001, and the previous census, in 1991 (as a percentage of the rural working population but in several cases as absolute population numbers too).

What reason could the NSSO have had to amend the definition it used ten years earlier? “With a view to keep the large number of households with insignificant agricultural activities out of survey coverage, it was decided to have a minimum value of agricultural produce for a household to qualify as an ‘agricultural production unit’,” the NSSO has explained. I cannot follow this reasoning. Are urban households which make negligible contributions to the local gross domestic product to be kept out of surveys that ought to assess their conditions – such as those with pensioners and informally employed people who get by on job work?

RG_NSSO_agri_households_201412_4If this is the basis for exclusion, what qualifies a household for inclusion in the survey? The NSSO has considered average Monthly Household Consumer Expenditure (MHCE) for “home grown consumption of some specific items” and adopted a cut-off value amount of 3,000 rupees worth of annual agricultural produce. The activities which provided such value are given as “cultivation of field crops, horticultural crops, fodder crops, plantation, animal husbandry, poultry, fishery, piggery, bee-keeping, vermiculture, sericulture etc” with such a household “having at least one member self-employed in agriculture either in the principal status or in subsidiary status during last 365 days”.

This cut-off value amount needs investigation. So does the idea of an ‘agricultural production unit’. And the NSSO for this survey has also excluded households which are entirely agricultural labour households, those households receiving income entirely from coastal fishing, as also the activity of “rural artisans and agricultural services”. Nonetheless, these data are important and useful for our understanding of the changes that have taken place in the food and agriculture domain.

Written by makanaka

December 22, 2014 at 16:16

The state of the world’s crop biodiversity

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FAO, The Second Report on the State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources for Food and AgricultureThis is a big one from the FAO. The Second Report on the State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture is a mega tome. At just under 400 pages, this very dense report is packed into eight chapters which occupy half the pages. The other half is made up of annexures and appendices. Even then, it’s just part of the entire SOWPGR2 package, for there is a synthesis report, the Global Plan of Action for the Conservation and Sustainable Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources, there is a thematic background studies section with seven studies, there are the country reports (over 100!) and there is a picture gallery. It’s an entire curriculum.

It’s been a while coming – the first report was published by FAO 14 years ago and much has changed since then. For one thing, climate change was quite uncommon in common discourse. This is hugely important because the genetic diversity of the grains, legumes, vegetables and fruits that we grow and eat – referred to as plant genetic resources for food and agriculture, or PGRFA – are the foundation of food production, and the biological basis for food security, livelihoods and economic development.

FAO, The Second Report on the State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources for Food and AgricultureThe synthesis report says that PGRFA are crucial for helping farmers adapt to current and future challenges, including the effects of climate change. FAO’s Second Report on the State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture provides a comprehensive overview of recent trends in PGRFA conservation and use around the world.

It is based on information gathered from more than 100 countries, as well as from regional and international research and support organizations and academic programmes. The report documents the current status of plant genetic resources diversity, conservation and use, as well as the extent and role of national, regional and international efforts that underpin the contributions of PGRFA to food security. It highlights the most significant changes that have occurred in the sector since 1996, as well as the gaps and needs that remain for setting future priorities.

The core messages:
FAO, The Second Report on the State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture• PGRFA are essential raw materials for helping farmers respond to climate change. Plant breeding capacity needs to be strengthened and breeding programmes must be expanded to develop varieties with traits needed to meet this challenge.
• Loss of PGRFA has reduced options for the agricultural sector. The major causes of genetic erosion are land clearing, population pressures, overgrazing, environmental degradation and changing agricultural practices.
• Local PGRFA diversity found in farmers’ fields or in situ is still largely inadequately documented and managed. There is now a growing awareness of the importance of this diversity and its contribution to local food security.
• There has been progress in securing PGRFA diversity in a larger number of national genebanks. However, much of the diversity, particularly of crop wild relatives (CWR) and underused species relevant for food and agriculture, still needs to be secured for present and future use.
FAO, The Second Report on the State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture• Rapid scientific advances, especially in information technology and molecular biology, have introduced new techniques for PGRFA conservation and use. Their wider application offers new opportunities to increase efficiency of the conservation–production chain.
• Significant policy developments have changed the landscape of PGRFA management. Many more countries have adopted national programmes, laws and regulations for biodiversity following the adoption of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA).
• Better communication, collaboration and partnerships are needed among institutions dealing with PGRFA management – from conservation to plant breeding and seed systems. These are the key factors for an integrated conservation and utilization strategy and delivering sustainable solutions to build a world without hunger.

The advance guard of climate change

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Winter sky over the Deccan plateau, India

Winter sky over the Deccan plateau, India

From late 2003 to early 2005 I was part of a small group in south Nagaland (in India’s north-east region) conducting a study on natural resource management and the prospects for tourism in the region. The study was funded by a Indian central government ministry, was ‘supervised’ by the state government and was made possible by the village community of Khonoma, in the Naga hills.

At around the mid-point of our study, when the time had come for the paddy seedlings to be transplanted, that the convergence of climate change and scarce labour resources became obvious. The seedlings were not ready to be moved at the time of year they were usually expected to be. By the time they were, the extra labour each rice farming family had mobilised in preparation for the hard work ahead, had their regular jobs and occupations to return to. The hill villages were in turmoil. Practically every single family that had a plot of terraced rice field to attend to was caught in a dilemma.

If they insisted that those who had come to the villages to help them – daughters, sons, cousins or aunts – stay back to complete the work, those helpful souls would certainly lose salaries and wages. If they let them return, they would have to look for very scarce hired labour, whose per day wage was high and which would certainly rise given the scarcity of hands available and time. It was for most families a Hobson’s choice, and by either reckoning only made the socio-economic cost of rice cultivation dearer. This was the most dramatic impact of climate change that I saw at the time, for the shift in transplanting season was considered very odd indeed by the villages, almost unprecedented.

Extracting riverbed sand in North Goa, India

Extracting riverbed sand in North Goa, India

We know now that local observations of direct effects of climate change by tribal populations and indigenous peoples corroborate scientific predictions. In a very real sense, indigenous peoples are the advance guard of climate change. They observe and experience climate and environmental changes first-hand, and are already using their traditional knowledge and survival skills – the heart of their cultural resilience – to respond. Moreover, they are doing this at a time when their cultures and livelihoods are already undergoing significant stresses not only due to the environmental changes from climate change, but from the localised pressures and economic impulses of global trade and movement of capital.

The United Nations University’s Institute of Advanced Study has just released an advance copy of what promises to be a goldmine of such observation. The volume is entitled ‘Advance Guard: Climate Change Impacts, Adaptation, Mitigation and Indigenous Peoples – A Compendium of Case Studies’. The 402 case studies summarised in this densely packed volume mention a host of specific vulnerabilities and early effects of climate change being reported by indigenous peoples (and these include cultural and spiritual impacts): demographic changes, including displacement from their traditional lands and territories; economic impacts and loss of livelihoods; land and natural resource degradation; impacts on food security and food sovereignty; health issues; water shortages; and loss of traditional knowledge.

: Climate Change Impacts, Adaptation, Mitigation and Indigenous Peoples

The cover graphic of the UNU-IAS compilation 'Climate Change Impacts, Adaptation, Mitigation and Indigenous Peoples'

Impacts are felt across all sectors, including agriculture and food security; biodiversity and natural ecosystems; animal husbandry (particularly pastoralist lifestyles); housing, infrastructure and human settlements; forests; transport; energy consumption and production; and human rights. The entire range of effects on habitats and their biomes are supplied: temperature and precipitation changes; coastal erosion; permafrost degradation; changes in wildlife, pest and vector-borne disease distribution; sea-level rise; increasing soil erosion, avalanches and landslides; more frequent extreme weather events, such as intense storms; changing weather patterns, including increasing aridity and drought, fire and flood patterns; and increased melting of sea-ice and ice-capped mountains.

“In spite of these impacts,” states the UNU-IAS compilation, “indigenous peoples also have a variety of successful adaptive and mitigation strategies to share. The majority of these are based in some way on their traditional ecological knowledge, whether they involve modifying existing practices or restructuring their relationships with the environment. Their strategies include application and modification of traditional knowledge; shifting resource bases; altering land use and settlement patterns; blending of traditional knowledge and modern technologies; fire management practices; changes in hunting and gathering periods and crop diversification; management of ecosystem services; awareness raising and education, including use of multimedia and social networks; and policy, planning and strategy development.”

From Asia, I’ve picked out three cases which illustrate just how important it is to observe and learn from these responses:

BANGLADESH | Indigenous forecasting in Maheshkhali, using meteorological indicators and animal behaviour to predict cyclones. Maheshkhali Island is situated off the Bay of Bengal coast with an area of approximately 60 square km. Cyclones are the greatest disaster threat of coastal people. Research has revealed that certain indigenous prediction capacity possessed by the local people always helped them to anticipate cyclones and take necessary precautions. The indigenous cyclone prediction is even more important as it was revealed during interviews with the Maheskhali islanders that they do not understand the modern warning system with its different numerical codes (1-10) and elaboration on wind direction, as explained in the warning bulletins.

Buffalo at work, Kolhapur district, Maharashtra, India

Buffalo at work, Kolhapur district, Maharashtra, India

INDIA | Indigenous forecasting in India using meteorological indicators, plant features and animal behaviour. Researchers from Gujarat Agricultural University have evaluated eight indigenous forecasting beliefs between 1990 to 1998. For each year, the data was tabulated and analysed on the basis of Bhadli’s criteria. Based on the findings the researchers concluded that many of the beliefs are reliable indicators of monsoon. The study has helped to restore the people’s confidence in their own traditional knowledge and skills. As climate change occurs, these traditional forecasting indicators may change. Locals have to continue their observations and adjust their predictions accordingly to ensure that correct coping mechanisms will be applied.

INDONESIA | Customary Iban Community. This study examines the social and institutional practices of a sedentary Iban sub-tribe in the upstream part of the Kapuas system in governing their life. In 2008, the Sungai Utik community acquired a formal, recognition of their institutional capacity to live at the center of one of the most complex ecosystems that is the tropical rainforest of Kalimantan. The Indonesian Eco-label Institute provided the community logging practice of the Sungai Utik Ibans its “seal of ecological appropriateness”. The Sungai Utik life-space is part of the bigger climatic zone just north of the Equator that has been predicted to experience higher precipitation over the course of climate change in this century, particularly in comparison with the last three decades of the last century. It means that the community should learn to adapt to a transformed rainy season—the duration of which and the timing of its start and ending are also subject to change—for the crucial nugal (planting) rituals.