- The switch to chemical-based farming and other faulty agricultural practices have imperilled Odisha’s Similipal biosphere reserve.
- The Green-Ag project has identified five landscapes in India, including the Similipal biosphere reserve, to ensure sustainable agricultural practices and reduced emissions.
- Organic farming and agrobiodiversity conservation are among a portfolio of nature-based solutions proposed in the Green-Ag project.
As the blazing rays of the overhead sun signals noon, Jayanta Patra, a farmer in his 60s from Saratchandrapur village in Odisha’s Mayurbhanj district, wraps up work in his four-acre agriculture farm and starts walking towards his home. He stops briefly underneath a tree on his way back, joins fellow village farmers, and starts talking while gazing at the billowing paddy fields.
“Forty years ago, my father used to harvest paddy along with arhar dal (pigeon pea), maize and millet here. The harvest used to be good, and he used to earn enough to sustain the family. But today, the soil can barely support paddy cultivation even for one season.”
Another farmer, 57-year-old Gurucharan Patra, nods in agreement. “Those days, agriculture was completely rain-fed. The crops were resilient enough to withstand minor weather changes. There was no need to arrange for alternate irrigation facilities. Today, the yield wouldn’t be good without proper water supply and chemical fertilisers.”
Villages such as Saratchandrapur, that lie on the periphery of the Similipal biosphere reserve in Odisha, started practicing natural farming almost two decades ago. No fertilisers were used, and the seeds were climate-resilient by nature. Over the years, however, the switch to chemical-based farming to get more yield has degraded the soil fertility and affected the biodiversity in the area.
The continuous exposure to faulty agricultural practices has garnered policymakers’ attention, and Similipal is among the five landscapes chosen for the Food and Agricultural Organisation’s Green-Ag project which was announced in 2018 and launched in Similipal in October 2021. Funded by Global Environment Facility for six years, the project primarily aims to transform agricultural practices while ensuring conservation of biodiversity and forest landscapes. The other four regions include Chambal in Madhya Pradesh, Dampa in Mizoram, desert areas in Jaisalmer and Barmer in Rajasthan and Corbett-Rajaji Tiger Reserve, Uttarakhand.
The Green-Ag project is looking to build a multi-sectoral approach to develop synergy between the agriculture and allied areas with forest and environment, at the national, state and the district level. It includes bringing over 1.04 hectares of farmland (including 34,200 hectares in Similipal) in all five states under sustainable land and water management system. This is to be achieved through organic farming and agrobiodiversity conservation. Key missions that will be targeted for strengthening include the National Mission on Sustainable Agriculture; National Livestock Mission; National Food Security Mission; National Initiative on Climate-resilient Agriculture, National Mission for Horticulture and Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana.
Organic farming and agrobiodiversity conservation are among a portfolio of nature-based solutions (NbS) options proposed in the Green-Ag project. While nature-based solutions (NbS) are at the forefront of the sustainability discourse stepping into the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, they are underused in agricultural landscapes, according to a paper by the World Agroforestry. NbS in the agricultural sector is proposed as “the use of natural processes or elements to improve ecosystem functions of environments and landscapes affected by agricultural practices, and to enhance livelihoods and other social and cultural functions, over various temporal and spatial scales.”
Similipal biosphere is one of the 18 biosphere reserves in India and the only one in the state of Odisha. The biosphere includes the Similipal National Park and the Tiger Reserve, home to the royal Bengal tiger and the rare melanistic tiger. The biosphere also has over 1286 species of flowering plants, Asian elephants and mugger crocodiles. Besides, in the agricultural sector, a variety of rice, maize, millets and some legumes are grown. The Green-Ag project has identified close to 1200 villages in the area to implement the project which will be introduced in a phased manner. The population of around 7.95 lakh (795,000) people in the project site area is mainly dependent on agriculture, livestock, and forest produce for their livelihood.
With the high-yielding seeds replacing traditional varieties, the landscape has reported a loss of agrobiodiversity. The area has also witnessed the conversion of forestland due to pressure from agriculture and illegal mining activities. Early this year, forest fires engulfed areas in the core areas of the Similipal National Park and Tiger reserve, resulting in loss of habitat.
“It is one of a kind project which is looking at agriculture as well as forest and environment together. The landscapes were chosen keeping two major things in mind – agriculture must be an important source of livelihood, and there must be some area of high conservation value. So, three tiger reserves, a desert national park and the riverine Chambal sanctuary were chosen. We will try to bring synergy in the working of all the concerned departments,” Rakesh B. Sinha, Project Director of Green-Ag, told Mongabay-India.
Interventions in Similipal
The single-crop cultivation and degrading soil quality have prompted many traditional farmers in the Similipal area to give up farming and take up other means of livelihood. “Farming is a tradition for us. So, we won’t give up completely even if we incur losses. But, a lot of us work in brick kilns or as daily wage labourers in the off-season to earn a living,” says Mania Singh, another farmer in Saratchandrapur.
While the project currently is in the landscape assessment stage itself, one of the first interventions in the area would be to revive the interest in traditional farming, an official associated with the project at the district level informed. The total GEF grant allocation for the project is USD 33.5 million, out of which Similipal in Odisha has got a grant of USD 7.9 million.
“There are two major issues we can identify in Similipal so far – limited awareness about the cropping system and growing dependency on forests for livelihood. After the harvesting season is over, there is a general tendency to venture into the forest and utilise the resources or sometimes unintentionally exploit them. Once the project reaches the implementation stage, a major task will be to educate the local farmers about sustainable agriculture,” the official said.
Experts say, though the project looks promising, the implementation should be more holistic to meet the objectives and it should also address the food security concerns and get profit for the farmers.
“As agriculture is very location-specific, the implementation should be science-driven and data-based. There should be a composite index of sustainability, which needs to be monitored and evaluated. The project should also ensure good yield so that food security is met and the farmers also earn profit. The site selection (at Similipal) and funding are adequate but the project needs to relook and reposition the production through interdisciplinary technology and through the participation of not just agricultural experts but also nutritionists, engineers, social scientists and farmers,” says sustainable farming expert Surendranath Pashupalak and former Vice-Chancellor of Orissa University of Agriculture and Technology.
“Only changing the technology will be a narrow approach and will not be sufficient to meet the objective of the project,” said Pashupalak who is not associated with the project.
Banner image: Agriculture is one of the major sources of livelihood for the farmers of Saratchandrapur village in Odisha’s Mayurbhanj district. Photo by Tazeen Qureshy.