Thirunelly’s seed festival celebrates traditional climate-resilient seeds and farm produce

Image shows a display of seed crops against a white background

Rice varieties on display at Thirunelly Seed Festival

  • The Thirunelly Food Festival in Wayanad is an annual celebration organised since 2013 to honour traditional paddy seeds and other produce.
  • Indigenous seeds and crops are disappearing amidst commercial farming; but they are crucial for sustainable, resilient, and climate-friendly farming
  • Farmers and indigenous peoples have sown, saved, and shared rich, diverse crops, which are a central part of their lives, livelihoods, and celebrations.
  • Events such as the Thirunelly Seed Festival bring together farmers, environmental activists, agriculture scientists, conservationists, and support organisations to conserve local seed varieties.

As the percussion ensemble of Pancharimelam evoked the spirit of temple festivals of Kerala, an elderly man, fondly called Vittachhan (Seed Father), clad in his trademark saffron sarong and white shirt, spoke to his young fans about carrying on the sacred tradition of seed conservation.

Cheruvayal Raman, in his early 70s, is a winner of a 2023 Padma Shri, one of India’s top civilian honours. He narrated how he conserved 55 native rice varieties, lining up mementos and medals on the porch of his 150-year-old mud house. “Now it’s your turn,” he told farmers, many of them adivasis, barefoot scientists, conservationists and curious visitors who gathered at the Kattukulam village of Thirunelly Panchayat (local self-governance body) on the edge of forests that lie across Kerala and Karnataka.

At the Thirunelly Seed Festival on February 10­­­ to 12, 2023, one could learn all about 350 rice varieties, 70 millets, 243 banana plants, 138 tubers, 60 leafy vegetables and handloom clothes made of organic cotton displayed in different stalls. The local milk cooperative sold ice cream and a local food processing company called Brahmagiri sold organic coffee and dried meat dishes. There were government departments, banks and even a mobile soil testing lab at the fare. About 5,000 visitors visited the fest.

Raman’s Kurichiya adivasi ancestors were farmers and fabled archers who once fought the British with Malabar’s freedom fighter Pazhassi Raja. Raman, who declined a government job offer, preferred to work in the 40-acre family farm as his maternal uncle advised, vowing to fight pesticides, chemical fertilisers, and genetically modified seeds. True to form, the attractions at the fest included a performance of Kerala’s fabled martial art Kalarippayattu, and a tug-of-war contest.

Farmers offered the visitors a free lunch of unpolished rice gruel with puzhukku, a coconut-laced medley of tubers, topped up with a dessert of payasam, or the local sticky rice pudding sweetened with jaggery. It was a day to remember agricultural roots.

Image shows a group of women standing around a table laid with seeds
A group of adivasi women who conserve local tubers, vegetables and medicinal herbs in a piece of private forest land. From left: Lakshmi DK, Rani M, Bindu PM, Sharanya DC, Sharanya M, and Sarasu G. Photo by Max Martin/Mongabay.

Traditional rice varieties are climate-resilient

The Thirunelly Seed Festival was initiated in 2013-14 by the conservation NGO Thanal along with the Save our Rice Campaign and a few other seed-saving groups and individuals, with the support of the panchayat and Kudumbasree, a government-run network of local women’s self-help groups. The annual fair was discontinued during the COVID–19 pandemic. “Then, it grew into this big farmers’ fair,” said Rajesh Krishnan, convenor of this year’s fair and CEO of the Thirunelly Agri Producer Company Ltd. (TAPCO), a co-organising group.

“We are preserving a tradition of 10,000 years,” said Usha Soolapani, director and co-founder of Thanal. From the early days of farming in India, people moved across agroclimatic zones carrying and sowing strains in their newfound homes, spreading rich and resilient biodiversity, letting the fittest and most resilient strains to survive, she explained, highlighting the secret behind the country’s once booming crop biodiversity. “Before the 1960s, there were one lakh rice landraces in India,” she said. Landraces are the groups of lineages locally evolved and selectively bred by generations of farmers. The 1960s saw the Green Revolution as a remedy to widespread food shortage. This ambitious effort to feed the hungry had unintended consequences, including cuts in the cultivation of indigenous grains and millets.

Soolapani argued that the market-based agri-ecosystem is energy and carbon intensive, responsible for over 30% of greenhouse gas emissions. Farm and cattle production, land-use change such as deforestation, pre- and post-production processes, consumption, and food disposal — all these activities emit carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases. However, local, hardy varieties use less resources and are tolerant to the vagaries of weather, Soolapani said, and are thus suitable for climate change mitigation goals.

Read more: Why is 2023 the International Year of Millets? What do we achieve by celebrating such years?

Reviving ancient seeds

Inside the metal-roofed festival marquee lined with white sarongs, O.V. Johnson, a retired schoolteacher, president of TAPCO, and a winner of the state award for the best organic farmer, narrated his story. He left teaching and then his native village after the Cochin International Airport made his neighbourhood noisy and busy, and migrated to Wayanad 15 years ago. He now conserves rice and vegetables, harvests honey, teaches adivasi children at his informal school and sponsors farm festivals. For the festival of Kambala Natti, people from different villages get together, dance and sing while planting seedlings, and then partake of  meals the host offers. Serving payasam and slices of watermelon from his farm, Johnson said he is on a quest to discover himself.

Johnson’s farm conserves 50 kinds of rice including some of the farmers’ varieties native to Wayanad such as the scented jeerakashala and gandhakashala. His collection also includes navara used in ayurvedic treatment, the red rakthashali rice, the fragrant mullankaima, kalladiyaran and okkapunja.

Image shows four people
(Clockwise from top left) PJ Manuel conserves tubers and believes they are the key to food security; Usha Soolapani, director of the NGO Thanal says, local, organic farming is an effective climate change adaptation and mitigation measure; Cheruvayal Raman, an award-winning adivasi rice conservationist, has a huge fan following; PK Radha conserves and distributes local vegetable seeds after treating them with ash, and smoke in her kitchen. Photos by Max Martin/Mongabay.

Beyond only grains

P.J. Manuel, another award-winning conservationist at the fest, said farming is the surest way out of poverty and hunger. He belongs to a family that moved to Wayanad in the late 1930s, as part of the mass migration of south Kerala farmers escaping poverty. Manuel was born in 1948 and remembers his school used to serve wheat flour and milk that arrived as aid from the U.S. “In the evenings, boiled cassava came as a relief,” Manuel recalled. Cassava, then, was a major food and income source for low-income families of Kerala.

Manuel started conserving tubers and roots, and now has 60 varieties in his farm.  He favours a radical shift in the current eating habits, which is largely based on grains, and considers tubers, roots and bananas as a way to reduce food insecurity. “Highways and airports have taken over paddies; but we have a lot of inland plots, where we can cultivate these,” Manuel said. “You can, for instance, grow 25 kachil (a kind of yam) plants around a single tree, and each would give you a yield of 2 kg. About 50 kg can fetch you Rs. 1,000.” To spread his message, he organises another seed festival in his village in Wayanad called Edavaka.

Scientists say Kerala’s climate is suited for tuber crops like cassava, colocasia, yams and sweet potato. “Yams have a long shelf life, and they can save people from food shortages. It is a staple food in many African countries, and adivasis still consume them very effectively. There is a tradition of preparing yam dishes during Karthika, our festival of light,” said Sasikumar Soman, a botanist who taught at the University College, Thiruvananthapuram.

Inspired by these tales, a group of ten local Beta Kuruba adivasi women have cleared a 75-cent forest patch in a neighbour’s land and started organic farming dozens of tubers, vegetables and many spices. Posing for photos before a giant piece of noorankizhangu (Fiji yam) at the fest, Sunita, a member of the group, said “Our ancestors used many of these as staple food and medicine.”

Image shows a man next to a brown hut
The entrance to the Thirunelly Seed Festival campus. Photo by Max Martin/Mongabay.

Working for the future

Many specialist groups are supporting such initiatives. Keystone Foundation, a conservation NGO, promotes rice varieties in about 200 acres. “Indigenous varieties like Kullan thondi…are flood resistant, nutrient-rich and provide good yield in a short duration,” said a spokesperson. Hume Centre for Ecology and Wildlife Biology offers localised weather forecasts to farmers in collaboration with atmospheric scientists of Cochin University of Science and Technology.

Swayam Shikshan Prayog, an award-winning NGO, promotes women-led climate-resilient farming and works with local women in a farm produce start-up called Keravriksha (coconut palm) and smaller ventures.

Kartyanaiyamma in her 70s prepares and sells vaduku, small friable balls made of rice flour, turkey berry, garlic and other medicinal herbs from her farm. P.K. Radha, another village elder, distributes vegetable seeds treated with ash, smoke and cow dung that keep pests away, a technique taught by her ancestors. Her friends say she will be called Vitthamma (Mother Seed) soon. Sreejisha, a young Kurichiya adivasi woman, rotates vegetable crops in her rice paddy after harvest in “a very small first step, a beginning”, technically called the one-acre model. “The challenge, however, is to keep wild boars, pythons, monkeys and leopards away,” Kartyanaiyamma said.

While these women wait for Raman, their role model, to inaugurate a new outlet of their start-up, Soolapani sees these small steps leading to an eco-friendly, low-carbon alternative to mainstream agriculture methods. However, Krishnan counters this modest view: “We are the mainstream.”

Read more: Natural farming methods help the ‘climate-smart’ villages of MP brave climate impacts


Banner image: Different varieties of rice on display at Thirunelly Seed Festival. Photo by Max Martin/Mongabay.

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