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Pabhoi Greens - The Organic, Community-led Seed Bank of Assam

Assam’s biological and cultural richness is maintained through community managed and research-led seed banks and organic farming.

Photo of Neelam Dutta
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Lead Applicant Organization Name

Pabhoi Greens

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Farmer Co-op or Farmer Business Organization

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

Pabhoi Greens (PGs), beyond carrying out integrated and organic farming, as well as seed breeding and storage, has been collaborating with various villages, communities, organisations, farmer’s cooperatives and indigenous tribes for over 15 years. This Vision has also been co-constructed by members of the Nutrition and Community Action Resource Centre (NCARe), Department of Social Sciences, Tezpur University, which engages in research and community outreach on food and nutrition issues, with the aim of reviving the nutrient-rich, locally diverse crops of Assam. Lastly, an international team, with members professionally working or researching on a multitude of food-related topics (soil, public health & nutrition, sustainability, community work), which attended a participatory workshop at PG in January 2020, collaborated with the community and the youth in embodying this vision.

Website of Legally Registered Entity

pabhoigreens.com (still in construction)

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 3-10 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Assam, northeast India

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

India

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Assam, northeast India

What country is your selected Place located in?

Assam is a state located in the northeastern region of India

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Pabhoi Greens (PGs) was instituted by the Dutta family in 1976, to farm organic produce by retaining traditional techniques and methods important for social and environmental health. Over the years, having grown up on the farm and seen it evolve, I, Neelam, have expanded its operations to include research trials on seeds and build capacities of ethnic tribal communities with the goal of reviving diminishing crop varieties and preserving traditional knowledge-based agroforestry practices integral to Assamese farming ethos. Seeing a place that helped shape my formative years and instil strong cultural values, increasingly face complex socio-economic-environmental challenges as a result of exploitative, economic-focused development, makes me want to contribute towards tackling these issues at scale. Currently, PGs base its work in seven activities: (1) organic agriculture and seed production, (2) fish and rice production, (3) compost and bio-pesticide production, (4) apiculture and mushroom culture, (5) nursery and seedling production, as well as (6) training and consulting activities and (7) the cow and duck unit.

The international team members have known PGs activities long before. In January 2020, during a participatory workshop, the team experienced Assam for its unique cultural and ecological diversity, high indigenous tribal population dependent on agriculture, rapid urbanisation, and the interlinked socio-ecological challenges for food security, health and cultural wellbeing currently facing the state. Motivated by the visionary character of PGs and Neelam the team wish to provide PGs with further resources to make its sustainable and healthy food-future come true.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Assam is a northeastern Indian state, covering an area of 78,438 km2. It is situated below the Himalayas in the North, the Patkai and Barail mountain ranges in the South, bordering Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh in the East, and the state of Meghalaya and Bangladesh to the West. The Brahmaputra river brings freshwater and nutrients needed for agriculture from the Himalayas to the valley through Tibet. Assam’s geographic location provides high soil fertility and incomparable ecological diversity, featuring two World Heritage Sites. Assam has a tropical climate, a warm monsoon season, and cold, dry winter months. 

Assamese people are proud to be different from the rest of India and fiercely preserve their cultural peculiarities, which contribute to their distinct identity of multi-ethnic tribes. Assam has a large number of diverse ethnic groups and communities, like the Mishings, Karbis, Bodos, Kacharis, Deuris, Dimasas etc, who are accorded the special official status of Scheduled Tribes in the Indian Constitution. Whilst predominantly Hindu, other religious communities like Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and Sikhs, also live in Assam. 

Assamese is the official language, however, there are many other languages and dialects spoken among the tribes, such as Bodo, Karbi, Mising, Deori, Dimasa and Kachary.

Assam is renowned as the world’s largest tea growing region. Rice is a major crop, with important rice varieties like the Chokuwa rice and Bora rice (sticky gum rice). Assamese handlooms and handicrafts are distinctive and widely worn. 

Assam has witnessed rapid urbanisation in recent years. The coming of the cash economy coupled with a growing aspiration of upward mobility has led to a steady migration of people from rural to urban areas. This has caused a disintegration of natural resource-based livelihoods in rural Assam, where agriculture is the primary occupation. Consequently, traditions interrelated with natural resource-based livelihood systems are also being impacted. Assam is now dotted with small towns with moderate to poor infrastructure and public services. The rural areas offer a scenic picture but one can easily witness the poor state of the land based occupations. The chemicals and hybrid seeds market has steadily gained ground, leading to the disintegration of traditional systems of farming and the resilient varieties of food crops.

The basis of most meals is rice and fish. Side dishes depend on the availability and accessibility of vegetables, meat and wild foraged species like ferns and colocasia. Thus, according to seasonality, meals can be very nutritious and varied, or rather plain. The food is moderately spicy and has multiple tastes due to various spices and herbs used. Food is either steamed, boiled or cooked in mustard oil. Fermented bamboo shoots, cane shoots, an alkali sourced from a variety of seeded banana peel, elephant apple, lemon, several herbs, king chilli are major components of the food basket. 

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)

78438

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

31000000

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Assam’s agri-system has not experienced modernisation, agricultural labour is carried out manually and oftentimes stigmatised. The dependency of agricultural workers—around 60% of society—on commercialised inputs (i.e. seeds, fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides, machinery) is rapidly growing. Beyond being economically challenging, as income is low, these inputs pressure human and environmental health, with farmers increasingly applying higher doses. Hybrid seeds, which are readily available and heavily promoted by government policies, are decreasing crop diversity and weakening the food system’s resilience, as indigenous varieties have a higher tendency to resist extreme conditions. Although the occurrence of floods is usual during the rainy season, the amount and intensity of water increases as a consequence of climate change. Further, water is being overused for irrigation in the dry months (October to March), continuously lowering the groundwater and exposing the heavy metal into the environment. Currently, Assam’s economy is based on natural resources (e.g. petroleum and natural gas) and tea exports. Profits from these industries are not shared equally: tea plantation workers have the weakest economic position, earning about 1-2 dollar per day and not owning any land. Being an organised industry, land is evermore being transformed into tea gardens. This further reduces the access to land and the possibility to grow food and improve one’s own nutrition. Market access for crops aside tea is limited, due to middlemen (decreasing the farmer’s income) and infrastructural challenges. Although people still cook and eat typical Assamese dishes, food habits are changing, as packaged and hyper palatable foods are gaining dominance. Government policies subsidise staple foods (i.e. rice and wheat) at a subsidised price, making people eat rice, wheat and pulses for months, lacking nutritional diversity. In this light, the diminishment of kitchen gardens, access to land and fish ponds is problematic.

There is increasingly a disconnect from traditions and rituals that are bound to food and agriculture. An example is the gathering of food in forests, which has been practised by many generations, as foods that are not being cultivated can be eaten. However, new generations do not know how to recognise and collect edible wild food, losing a valuable source of nutrition and the connection to the forests. 

Lastly, there is a general lack of awareness about the effectiveness and socio-ecological and economic benefits of organic farming. People do not believe that organic cultivation can yield good quality and abundant produce, and are surprised on being shown the results at Pabhoi Greens. Currently, organic seed storage is burdened by the high moisture and heat over the summer seasons along with fungal infections.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Challenges concerning the increase of commercialised inputs (i.e. gene-edited/hybrid seeds, fertilisers, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, machinery) will be addressed through preserving, adapting and sharing non-hybrid and non genetically modified seeds. While this will initially be achieved through setting up a central seed bank—via facilities powered by solar energy—that is resistant to heat and moisture, there will be decentralised community-owned and managed, live seed banks within clusters of villages in 2050. Field trials and replication will be carried out in each village cluster so as to understand acclimatisation parameters including quality and quantity, breaking the prevalent mindset that crops cannot grow sustainably without chemicals. Through the access to diverse seed varieties, communities will be incentivised and equipped to also plant vegetables on the paddy fields, after the rice has been harvested—utilising the land throughout the year. Local and community-held seed banks will break the current vicious circle in which the agribusiness-government lobby initially provides free seeds, thereby creating dependency among farmers, and after a few years demands a high price for seeds. In 2050, the Assam government will regulate the use of chemicals more strictly. Timewise, there will be policy incentives to encourage organic farming, and organic certification will be more holistic and controlled by 3rd parties while being affordable to everyone.

Assam’s biodiversity will be protected through buffer zones, where young people continue learning about the nutritional value of wild foods. Nutrition will have improved through the revitalisation of home and village gardens—protected by bamboo fences and improved irrigation—, especially in regions where vegetables and fruits are unavailable or inaccessible for many months.

Water will be spread more equally amongst the villages and more awareness for overuse will be created. While villages continue to rely on commonly managed water sources, industry water usage (i.e. tea) will be monitored by government authorities. Villagers learned how to tap water through rain water harvesting like fish ponds, covered with poly sheets lining, providing them simultaneously with water and fish. With the recognition that organic agriculture is worth pursuing, pesticides and herbicides residues flowing into waterways will diminish.

Farm economics improve through lowering the role of middle men, allowing for direct sells, community supported agriculture (CSA) and better connections to urban areas. As seeds are now commonly held, capital does not need to leave the villages as quickly but can circulate and work locally. A harmonious interdependence between the villages will be created through the different villages focusing on the production of different inputs for organic farming: vermicompost, biopesticides, seeds, etc.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

It is 2050. The cornerstone for the preservation of cultural and biological diversity and richness has been brought along through the establishment of community seed villages (CSV). Assam is powered by renewable energy which allows seed for seed conservation through appropriate facilities. Beyond the improved accessibility and availability of non-hybrid and non-gene-edited seeds, farmers are trained in selecting and breeding those seeds that are resistant to climatic and other threats. Assamese farmers now engage in seed saving, re-use, exchange and sales amongst family, neighbours and communities to produce the bulk of food consumed. Everyone participating in the CSV has free and open access to seed and knowledge exchange. Farmer managed seed systems are sustained, continuously improving nutrition and food security. This, in turn, has a net effect of advanced agro-biodiversity and resilience in the food production system. Farm economics improved, as most money is now being used to buy organic agricultural products (i.e. vermicompost, biopesticides, coco peat)  locally, produced by surrounding farms. Nowadays produce with chemical residues is almost unsellable as the community fully trust organic produce. Young people are attracted by the complexity of integrated farming systems, and producing food in a socio-ecological way is now well-regarded by the wider society. Malnutrition has been eradicated, as access to protected village and community gardens as well as fish ponds has improved. The example given by Assam, finding a way not to tap into all promises by the ‘green revolution’ has given the state a role in consulting larger India.

Smallholders in Assam, are big players in the food production for NE India through the wide diversity of farmer-saved and selected varieties while preserving its agrobiodiversity.



Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

It’s the year 2050 and the northeastern Indian state of Assam has preserved and enhanced its ecological and cultural prosperity through preserving, adapting, and sharing organic seeds and farming practices. It guides the rest of India, which now has a population of 2 billion people, on how sustainable food and agricultural systems that incorporate traditional knowledge, can flourish. The food is grown in Assam no longer harms human health and the environment, instead, it positively contributes to it.

Food and agricultural sustainability has developed in Assam through understanding seeds—the primary source of agricultural and food energy—differently. Farmers recognise that by regaining seed sovereignty, they do not need to spend money on buying modified seeds and external inputs every year. Farmers have become leaders in preserving their food diversity and identity, building stronger social bonds of trust. The epicentre of change has been introduced by the establishment of community seed villages (CSV) with special focus on safeguarding local, heirloom and indigenous seeds, and bringing back farmer rights and ownership over seeds. The concept of CSV has three main components to it. First, to collect and keep seeds in order to maintain and preserve seed diversity and ecological richness. Second, the maintenance of quality by keeping the seed bank alive, thus renewing the seeds to share them among farmers whenever necessary. The third vital component is breeding and research and development (R&D) to discover which seeds are best adaptable to the Assamese environment, despite the issues brought along by a changing climate. Distinctness, stability and uniformity tests are being carried out regularly in different trial locations. This third component is facilitated by close collaboration with research institutions like the Nutrition and Community Action Resource Centre (NCARe) of Tezpur University, as well as through the training—for seed testing—of indigenous and local groups. Thus, there is now a wide choice of a variety of organic seeds, crops and learning resources free to access. The creation of an open-source knowledge platform accessible through a dedicated mobile app for organic farmers has accelerated the shift toward sustainable agricultural practices as well as allowed them to contribute their experiences with different experimental crops for climate adaptation. 

The availability and accessibility of successful organic seeds give a practical alternative to farmers, who had been dependent upon hybrid and genetically modified seeds for too long. With increasingly more farmers planting organic seeds and learning themselves on how to reproduce them, the seeds adaptability is being increased every year. Farmer apprehensions of reaping less quantity or reduced quality crops when using organic seeds are abated. Seeds are now a community-managed common good, enabling farmers to be free of debt which increases monetary savings potential. Economically, Assam’s produce commands a premium in markets in the rest of India, as it is well known that Assamese communities adopt integrated, eco-conscious agricultural farming methods. This makes it attractive, and a matter of pride, for the young generation of farmers to return to the farming profession in their respective home villages, and those studying agriculture at university are looking forward to running their own organic, integrated farms soon.

A major component of improved health and nutrition are people’s village vegetable gardens, where they grow local and organic varieties. People are convinced through experience, that organic food production brings much greater benefits, such as maintaining plant diversity, soil health, and human wellbeing.

Likewise, food habits are changing for the better - young people recognise that junk foods are detrimental to human health and monetary savings. Apart from community seed banks and gardens, villages have started specialising, on either different seeds or different inputs (vermicompost, biopesticides, coco peat) for organic farming. These organic products are being traded amongst clusters of villages, making capital circulate locally. Adopting a strategy of 7 to 11 years crop rotation will enable the farmers to be part of a live market that takes care of highly nutritious food demand and soil quality. The participation of the farmers ensures they receive an equal share of income and food distribution. 

Government policies actively support the transition to organic farming via offering financial support, training, community building and enough vegetables and fruits throughout the transition period. Farming policies now protect seed-keeping, making seed bank practices widely accessible in the region. The Assamese economy has expanded to include R&D to dehybridise seeds and bring back diverse indigenous crops which are tastier and more nutritious. This directly impacts Assamese cuisine, reuniting the community around its roots.

Gaining an organic certification is better checked and monitored now—yearly by a 3rd party— while being affordable to small and big farmers alike. Further, there are stronger policy regulations in place concerning the use of chemicals and hybrid seeds. Foods with chemical residues remain unsold on the weekly market. As most of the produce is organic, it is affordable for everyone. There are policies in place that ensure consistent messages are delivered by local authorities, planning bodies, NGOs, schools and universities to encourage coherent action. 

Keeping in mind the significance of tea plantations for employment and economy in Assam, the government enforced policies to improve the sanitation and healthcare within tea farms. Also, education has improved and tea workers can freely choose whether to work in the tea gardens, an own farm or outside agriculture. Further, seed sovereign communities acquired the capacity to support tea workers rights, enabling tea farmers to regain land rights. Thus, tea workers nutrition considerably improved through the establishment of family gardens next to their homes. Indeed, a fixed percentage of the area of every tea garden has to be left for the workers to plant food. Also, there are now more small tea gardens, increasing the quality and market price of Assamese tea. Big tea plantations, which required huge amounts of dirty fuel to run their operations, are less profitable after the government introduced a high carbon tax.

After having reached self-sufficiency, the Assamese are now exporting some of their specialities to central India and surrounding countries. This has been made possible by infrastructural improvements, mostly concerning road safety, and direct selling opportunities (i.e. food is being paid directly to the farmers—individual or commonly held—bank account). Thus, typical Assamese foods, such as pickled ‘olives’, sweets made of rice and/or jaggery, are now famous within and beyond India.

The region of Assam took the initiative to demonstrate to the rest of the fast-growing Indian subcontinent that organic farming can bring long term social, economic and environmental benefits without overlooking environmental and human health.



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Photo of Trupti Jain
Team

hi Neelam: Good afternoon from Ahmedabad. Excellent submission. will love to exchange ideas and help you if your farmers are facing water shortage in summer and winter or if they having their rainy period crops disturbed due to water logging or flood in monsoon period? For last 30 years we are working in this subject. we are helping our smallholders with our World Bank, UNFCCC, Securing Water for Food (USAID) and Millennium Alliance (DFID) awarded innovation BHUNGROO which saves farmers from drought and flood, doubles farmers income and improves soil fertility. we are currently helping more than 100000 farming families across India, SEAsia, EAsia & Africa. We have also designed Youth Climate Leaders and Women Climate leaders. I am sure both will add strength to your program.
We also applauded your entry. Will appreciate your feedback on our entry ""Antodaya" through Food".

www.naireetaservices.com , ph: +919825506900, wa: +919825506900, T: @BHUNGROO fb: BHUNGROO , e: biplab@naireetaservices.com

Photo of Neelam Dutta
Team

Thanks

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