In Rayagada, Bt cotton acreage has risen by 5,200 per cent in 16 years, with the result that this biodiversity hotspot, rich in indigenous foods, is seeing an alarming ecological shift
EXCERPT: The scenario here is reminiscent of Vidarbha from 1998-2002 – initial excitement over the new miracle (and then illegal) seeds and dreams of great profits.. Vidarbha subsequently ended up as the epicentre of farmer suicides.. Those farmers were overwhelmingly Bt cotton growers.
Sowing the seeds of climate crisis in Odisha
Chitrangada Choudhury and Aniket Aga
ruralindiaonline.org, 4 Oct 2019
* In Rayagada, Bt cotton acreage has risen by 5,200 per cent in 16 years. The result: this biodiversity hotspot, rich in indigenous millets, rice varieties and forest foods, is seeing an alarming ecological shift
“Everybody is doing it. So we are too,” said Rupa Pirikaka, somewhat uncertainly.
"It" is genetically modified (GM) Bt cotton seeds, now easily bought at the local market, or even in one’s own village. ‘Everybody’ is countless other farmers like her in the village of and across the rest of south-western Odisha’s Rayagada district.
“They are getting money in their hands,” she says.
Pirikaka is a Kondh Adivasi farmer in her 40s. Every year, for over two decades, she would prepare a hill slope for dongar chaas – literally, ‘mountain farming' (shifting cultivation). Following traditions honed by the region’s farmers over centuries, Pirikaka would sow mixed plots of heirloom seeds which she had saved from family harvests the previous year. These would yield a basket of food crops: millets like mandia and kangu, pulses like pigeon pea and black gram, as well as traditional varieties of long beans, niger seeds and sesame.
This July, for the first time, Pirikaka switched to Bt cotton. That was the time we met her, sowing the dark pink, chemical-doused seeds on a hill slope at her village in Bishamakatak block. The penetration of cotton into the shifting cultivation practices of the Adivasis was striking, making us ask her about this switch.
“Other crops like turmeric also give money,” admits Pirikaka. “But nobody is doing that. Everyone is leaving mandia [millet]… and going after cotton.”
The area under cotton in Rayagada district has risen by over 5,200 per cent in barely 16 years. Official data show just 1,631 acres under cotton in 2002-03. In 2018-19 that was 86,907 acres, according to the district agriculture office.
Rayagada, with close to 1 million people, is a part of the Koraput region, one of the world’s great biodiversity hotspots, and a historical area of rice diversification. A 1959 survey of the Central Rice Research Institute showed the region still had over 1,700 rice varieties at the time. It’s down to around 200 now. Some researchers believe it to be a birthplace of rice cultivation.
The Kondh Adivasis here, largely subsistence farmers, are known for their sophisticated practices of agro-forestry. Even today, many Kondh families across the region’s emerald-green terraced fields and mountainside farms, cultivate a dizzying array of paddy and millet varieties, pulses and vegetables. Surveys by Living Farms, a non-profit in Rayagada, have recently documented 36 millet varieties and 250 forest foods.
Most Adivasi farmers here work on individual or common property farms ranging from 1 to 5 acres in size.
Their seeds are largely nurtured and shared within the community, using almost no synthetic fertilisers or other agri-chemicals (also called agro-chemicals).
Yet, cotton has become the second-most cultivated crop in Rayagada after paddy, overtaking millets – the premier traditional food crops of the region. It covers a fifth of the 428,947 acres under cultivation in this district. Cotton’s swift expansion is reshaping this land and people steeped in agro-ecological knowledge.
Cotton occupies roughly 5 per cent of India’s gross cropped area, but consumes 36 to 50 per cent of the total quantum of insecticides, herbicides and fungicides applied nationally. It is also a crop with the greatest correlation to indebtedness and farmer suicides across India.
The scenario here is reminiscent of Vidarbha between 1998 and 2002 – initial excitement over the new miracle (and then illegal) seeds and dreams of great profits, followed by the effects of their water-guzzling nature, the huge spike in expenses and debt, and various ecological pressures. Vidarbha subsequently ended up as the epicentre of farmer suicides in the country for over a decade. Those farmers were overwhelmingly Bt cotton growers. ...