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Community gene banking and on-farm conservation in India

Conservation efforts in relation to plant genetic resources are usually divided into two categories, in situ conservation and ex situ conservation. In this example of benefit sharing from India, in situ, or on-farm, conservation is used as a means to revive old varieties and increase seed diversity, thus rewarding and supporting farmers' contributions.

Traditional agriculture in India is one of the oldest and most advanced forms of food production. It has proved to be inherently sustainable over centuries and rates high in terms of total productivity, self-reliance, diversity and the depth of its indigenous knowledge. With the advent of the green revolution however, this changed. Together with the modernization of agriculture, changes in agricultural practices and cropping patterns, the green revolution led to the erosion of genetic diversity. It was in this context that the Genetic Resource Ecology Energy Nutrition Foundation (GREEN) initiated a people's movement for in situ conservation aimed at moving beyond the limited scope of gene banks.

Selecting the best varieties. Photo: Green FoundationWorking in the dry land regions of southern India, the GREEN Foundation took the initiative to involve farmers in on-farm conservation of the subsistence crops of the area. Building farmer-based community seed-supply systems and campaigning for Farmers' Rights to biodiversity have been the main focus of this work, where a basic idea has been that on-farm conservation and sustainable agriculture could benefit from a partnership involving farmers, scientists and consumers.

The on-farm conservation efforts consist of interaction with individual farmers and community farms; focus on community seed supply, training of farmers as key seed keepers and the forming of an association of farmers to take the movement forward. Sustainable agricultural practices form a major component of the training. Since women play a major role in the conservation of diversity at the farm level, the project took this into account when designing its strategy. It is women who decide on the amount of seed and selections of varieties to be stored and the various ways of storing them, and a gender-sensitive approach was therefore recognized as necessary.

One of the means employed by the GREEN Foundation to conserve and revive old varieties, has been community seed banks. These community seed banks are low-cost, low-technology systems owned and managed by the local communities. The concept involves two major components: a seed store and germplasm repository for local crop improvement, and a field gene bank. Consisting of land-race material grown locally, the seed store becomes a backup to the local market networks where farmers normally exchange seeds and information. These can be crucial in ensuring a sustained supply of locally adapted seeds, thereby averting the potential loss of genetic diversity. Not only do the seed banks serve as repositories for seed, but they also function as places where the community can interact, exchange seeds and share information. As of 2008 there are 25 GREEN-initiated community seed banks; on average they have 15 to 20 members, most of whom are women. Together these banks conserve some 43 varieties of finger millet, 84 varieties of paddy, 24 sorghum varieties, 44 minor millets, 53 pulses, 14 oilseeds, 4 wheat varieties and 116 vegetable seeds.

Displaying a ragi crop. Photo: Green FoundationFrom the beginning it has been important to the GREEN Foundation to ensure through capacity-building that the farmers are able to carry the work forward themselves. As an important step towards seed conservation and the creation of a stable seed system, a participatory breeding programme was initiated to involve farmers in the variety-selection process. Farmers determined their selection criteria, for example the level of resistance to pests and diseases, drought tolerance or other plant characteristics, and then on-farm trials were performed before wider dissemination. Through these experiments, the farmers have witnessed the benefits of using traditional seeds and become motivated to carry on the conservation and maintenance of traditional varieties. In addition to the farmers who have participated directly in the on-farm conservation activities of the GREEN Foundation project, there are also many who have acquired seeds informally.

An external evaluation conducted in April 2000 concluded that, due to the efforts of the GREEN Foundation, there has been an appreciable increase in seed diversity in the project region. More recently, GREEN findings indicate that there is now greater awareness of the value of using and conserving traditional varieties. In the combination of efforts that constitute a successful on-farm conservation network, the community seed banks occupy an important place. The aim of the GREEN Foundation has been to increase diversity both in terms of species and varieties, and these efforts have proven successful in reviving the genetic resources so basic to the survival of small-scale farmers. In the course of the past decade, several indigenous varieties have once again found their way into the fields of farmers. This success can be seen as a way of achieving benefit sharing through the creation of a small-scale reward and support system. Farmers are encouraged and supported in their efforts to revive, maintain and develop plant genetic diversity. As a result of the increased diversity, their food security is improved.

Again the collaboration between farmers, scientists and an NGO has proven valuable. Indeed, this is probably the most important lesson to be learned from this project, in addition to the fact that various measures employed together have strengthened in situ conservation in the region.

(The information in this text is largely derived from an article written by Vanaja Ramprasad for the Growing Diversity Project, completed 2002)

Pages in this sub-section:
   Creating incentive structures from the ground in the Philippines
   Community seed fairs in Zimbabwe
   Community gene banking and on-farm conservation in India
   Dynamic Conservation and Participatory Plant Breeding in France
   Participatory plant breeding adding value in Nepal
   Capacity-building for seed potato selection in Kenya
   The Peruvian Potato Park
   Rewarding best practices in Norway
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 In this section:
  What is a 'success story' of FR?
  Success stories from the realization of the right to save, use, exchange and sell farm-saved seed
  Success stories on traditional knowledge related to agro-biodiversity
  Success stories on benefit-sharing measures
  Success stories on participation in decision making
  Common features

Photo: Pratap Shrestha, Nepal