เครือข่ายเกษตรกรรมทางเลือกภาคอีสาน

Indigenous Seed Renaissance: A Network Research Update

In Meetings, Research on 24/08/2009 at 8:18 am

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Indigenous seed preservation and expansion is an essential part of AAN farmers’ sustainable agriculture practices.  Local varieties have a role not only in farm biodiversity, but in community culture and traditions.  A number of varieties have also been found to have unique health benefits and medicinal properties.  These are good enough reasons to plant them, but unfortunately most conventional farmers no longer do: many are in debt and need to continue planting jasmine rice for the mills or lenders they are indebted to (and often need to purchase back low grade rice, after selling their entire crop), others may grow only enough to feed their household and grow cash crops on the remainder of their land, and finally, some farmers are simply not interested in these “low-yielding” or “stiff and un-fragrant” seeds.  The first two cases are examples of the pressures of a market-export-oriented agricultural system.  The last case represents a change in farmers’ mentality and culture about agriculture – there is a dearth of knowledge about these seeds and their characteristics, fear of low-yields and a high value placed on Jasmine 105 rice.

But we don’t seek to rant here about the impacts of Thailand’s Green Revolution.  The AAN has actively supported a small indigenous seed renaissance here in northeastern Thailand for more than ten years.  As this movement has progressed, AAN farmers groups have created local, indigenous seed resources, and invited their communities to join them.  At our meeting in Mahasarakm on Aug. 21, farmers’ groups from Kalasin, Petchabun, Ubon Ratchatani, Roi Et, Yasothon and Mahasarakam provinces gathered to review the past season’s activities and plan for the coming season’s indigenous rice campaign.

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First, an update on seed preservation from a few provinces.  Kalasin farmers are currently working together with local public health officers and testing their Red Jasmine rice on villagers with obesity.  These villagers have volunteered to eat only Red Jasmine rice at meals to see it’s impacts on their blood sugar.  As it turns out, the villagers’ blood sugar is lowering.  Obesity is becoming crisis in rural and urban Esan, so here may be an important alternative for farmers and consumers concerned about their health.

Farmers from Nam Nao district, Petchabun are currently planting 15 varieties for seed-saving activities (in Pukadung, Loei and Chumprae, Khon Kaen – where this farmers group’s members also live – 7 varieties are now available for members to plant).  Farmers want to plant high-yielding varieties like “lao thaek” and planting “kao rai” in mountainous areas.  Overall, more areas are planted this year, with more farmers growing indigenous varieties – including 42 families in Nong Jan, Pu Paa Man district, Khon Kaen (a community that has worked closely on a human rights violations report with CIEE Khon Kaen).

Roi Et farmers are working to find more volunteers for seed-saving expansion, though the group successfully increased 8 families, now with 18 total planting indigenous seeds.  Paw Ngiem is planting many varieties of sticky rice, and Paw Sawat is growing Jasmine on 30 rai (called “Old Jasmine,” it is a local variety to Toongoolah district).  Red Jasmine is also gaining popularity.  Last year, the group really didn’t record much information about their research, so they’ve formed a committee to follow plantings in several areas.  There is more than 100 rai planted for seed preservation.  The farmers’ group in Suwannaphum district is maintaining a demonstration paddy – with 25 different varieties planted on 3 rai (6 varieties were returned to the AAN from government seed banks).  As in Yasothon, the demonstration paddy in Roi Et has gathered a lot of local attention and raised interest in indigenous seeds among many farmers.

This year’s goal in Mahasarakam province is to start selling local rice varieties.  11 farmers are expanding production, with many farmers focusing on “Som Mali.”  Further, 3 new farmers joined the AAN group’s activities, after receiving instruction on sustainable agriculture.  Groups are also carrying out seed research in Wapi Pathum, Na Dum and Gantala Wisai districts.

Provincial public health offices and hospitals are now trying to work together with organic producers in three provinces – Mahasarakam, Khorat, Ubon – to produce organic produce for patients.  Past food security efforts were fruitless, so they are now trying a pilot project – a safe food program for hospital patients, adjusting menu needs to production capabilities of organic farmers.

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After the lunch break, P’ Thoy and P’ Supa helped frame the discussion: we need a clear goal for our network – how do we make working together as concrete as possible?  Self-reliance in seeds, produce for consumption – each area has different goals, but as P’ Thoy explained, we need to “find a road to take together.”  There already exists a concrete basis in local farmers’ groups, based on their interests and needs:

Need to preserve seeds in the local community
–    Develop those seeds – suitable to local ecology
–    Gain new knowledge about seed research – work with academics
Open “Seed Centers” – basis for local (and future) seed sovereignty
–    Research, demonstration paddies
–    Learning center for the community – owners of knowledge
Local varieties are sufficient for consumption
–    Health-oriented: seeds with proven nutritional benefits and medicinal properties
–    Expand production area
Connecting to urban communities, hospitals (Kalasin, Mahasarakam)
–    Expanding local markets
–    Eating several varieties together – change consumption patterns
Policies, legal issues regarding to property rights
–    Work with district-level Tambon Administration Organization (TAO) to support villager seed self-reliance
–    National level – still nothing that supports farmers’ seed saving, possibly campaign on this issue

P’ Brawat an NGO working with farmers in Ubon Ratchatani province, raised some useful questions: “In the next 3-5 years, where do we want to reach?  Work with investors from Kuwait and plant 10 million rai of indigenous seeds?  Or, within our network’s 10 provinces – work with local governments and create local policies?”

A long discussion ensued over the course of the afternoon and into the evening.  Self-reliance in terms of production and expressed ownership over indigenous seeds are the basis for farmers’ seed preservation efforts.  Further, they focus on seeds that are easy to grow and high yielding, suited to the ecology, and taste good.  Farmers also want to plant new seeds in new areas – for example, planting hill varieties in paddies – this can help with farmers’ adaptation to environmental change and build on-farm biodiversity.  Farmers also want to expand the impacts of seed preservation and research

P’ Ubon also asked, “do we have seed ‘security’ or ‘insurance’ yet?”  We may want to start working on developing the characteristics of varieties (for example, a rice that is high-yielding, but plant’s stalk breaks easily).  As these varieties are expanding, we will also want to work with rice varieties that can be transformed into different food products and raise their market value.  P’ Thoy also pointed out that the on-going research with the Thailand Research Fund (TRF) – taking seeds that were once grown in local communities and prove their viability, plant demonstration, research and personal preservation paddies – will be an important way to generate seed security in local communities.  October’s yields in Yasothon will provide opportunity to closely examine process, and plan for the next season’s project, as well as take our research to the academics and bureaucrats.

Farmers’ groups also maintain the importance of preservation via their own knowledge and abilities as this will help inform other farmers and create a larger space for preserving seeds (especially important during environmental crisis).  If seed research is done on outsiders terms and using scientific knowledge in place of villagers, they may not be able to access information or maintain their position of “ownership.”  A combination of villager-researcher based knowledge and consultation with seed center researchers will be beneficial to local communities and empower small-scale farmers carrying out their independent research.  The AAN will continue to work together with the government – learning seed preservation techniques but without the chemicals used in government seed centers.

Our network’s strategy has also focused on decentralization – letting local farmers groups preserve seeds themselves, but using the network’s resources to gather information and know which varieties are planted in each province.  This year, the network will need to conclude what kind of research is currently being done in each ecological system – and generate a statement for the network as a whole.  One approach may involve using the research format generated with TRF and use it in testing process in different areas.  This will also help raise the quality of villagers’ research in areas just beginning to record information. This information will also be put to use in order to compare with conventional yields (for example, Biothai is gathering information with Paw Daeng in Ubon – his paddies have begun yielding 2 tons per rai, more than 4 times the average yield – maybe we need to create goal for promotion: “Organic already…yields this much!”).

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The Sustainable Agriculture Foundation plans to host a villager-researchers’ assembly in January.  Here are our meeting’s conclusions:

Adaptation must be kept this in mind with on-going climate change impacts and differences between local ecologies.  In turn, seed development will focus on:
–    Suited to flooding
–    Survive in drought
–    Suited to salty soils
–    High yielding (higher than promoted seeds)

In order to expand the impacts of seed preservation, we need to increase the number of people growing indigenous rice.  The network will continue to exchange knowledge with others, in order to go beyond last year’s activities:
–    Cultural events, educational events
–    Villager research team outreach
–    Seed production for sale in order to support other organizations (villagers’ organizations also farming organically – for example, communities fighting the Potash mine in Udon, the Farmers’ Debt Network, etc.)
–    Create a universal high standard for farmers’ preserved varieties in network
–    Clear information about varieties’ characteristics and prices (set our own prices for sales and distribution to other parts of network/other organizations – BAAC, etc.)
–    Testing in accordance with different organic fertilizer strategies like green manure or consumer waste compost

Now let’s hope the rain comes back – the past week has been a dry one and it’s got farmers worried!

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