Land rejuvenation, which would take three to four years in the ideal swidden systems of the past, now necessitates fallow cycles of five to seven years or even more in the n the interior pockets of the western Odisha districts, for example in Kashipur block which comes under Rayagada district.

The fallow cycles have increased along with rising loss in productivity. The latter necessitates bringing increasing acreage of land under shifting cultivation, setting in motion a downward spiral of land degradation and ecological imbalances. All this has caused impoverishment amongst the tribal communities at multiple levels, leading to distress migration, increasing malnutrition among all ages, higher susceptibility to diseases and infections which again lowers earning capacities, land alienation and increasing indebtedness.  

It is in this backdrop that Ama Sangathan (Women’s Federation) – a sister organization of Agragamee (the State Resource Centre for Adult and Continuing Education in the district) having a membership of 25 women’s organisations known as Mahila Mandals (MM) and 1200 tribal women members in total –proposed to the Indigenous Peoples Assistance Facility (IPAF) a project entitled, “Reclaiming the commons with women’s power: Eco-village development in tribal Odisha”. This was finally sanctioned in the year 2012.

The rationale of Eco-village Development

The project aimed to enable targeted village communities to develop a model for reversal of ecological degradation of their lands and commons by combining traditional knowledge systems with agro ecological models. This was hoped to pave the way for the development of viable eco-village models that could be up-scaled and replicated in other villages and panchayats.

Another key objective of the project was to build on women’s role as traditional keepers of the commons, by helping them demonstrate viable alternatives to shifting cultivation. The thrust in general would be on establishing a people and more specifically women-centred model for the governance of the commons that would provide for the livelihood as well as income needs of a tribal community in a sustainable manner.

Alongside these, the project would make use of enabling laws to help tribal communities have institutional and legal access to land and Natural Resource Management (NRM) in general, and help establish sustainable and eco-friendly practices of land use, helping tribal communities to preserve and develop their indigenous seed resources.

Project coverage and farm inputs

With these objectives in view, the project was taken up in 25 villages of Chandragiri and Mandibisi Gram Panchayats of Kashipur block. In the targeted areas efforts were made to mobilise for development of the different eco-system services including food, fire-wood, fodder, timber, through an integrated systems approach.

During the project period between 2012 and July 2014, 157 farmers in all from the 25 villages were provided necessary farm inputs in terms of saplings of mango, litchi and farm yard manure for their lands covering 326.70 acres (130.68 hectares) in totality. Wage labour was also provided to the stakeholders for fencing of the plots, pit digging and other necessary preparations of the land.

Apart from it, four Mahila Mandals were provided agro inputs to develop 100 acres (40 hectares) of common land through fencing, stone bunding and plantation of mango, litchi along with minor millets as intercropping. 

The Maligaon Mahila Mandal

Initially, a series of sensitisation meetings were conducted in Maligaon, one of the villages in the block, where multiple benefits of the development of common land and settled agriculture were shared. Relevant documentary films on NRM and sustainable agriculture were screened, finally motivating the villagers in general and women in particular to embark upon the mission of Eco-Village development.

Members of the Maligaon Mahila Mandal in front of their cashew plant on common land. Pic courtesy: Abhijit Mohanty

In order to avoid any kind of conflict pertaining to rights over produce from the common land in future, a Palli Sabha was organised in the village, attended by all villagers. A resolution was passed empowering the members of the MM to develop the common land and equally distribute the produce amongst the members. As one female member from each family of the village was a member of the MM, a sense of common ownership of the land and its agro-produce prevails amongst the villagers. Indeed, this is one of the most vital facets of the development of common land, where the women are at the forefront, interacting with the entire village in a harmonious way.

Although land development in terms of labelling, bunding, pit digging and fencing in 8 acres of common land was not an easy task as perceived, the collective effort of the Maligaon MM has made it possible.

Sumitra Majhi, one of the members of the MM, shares, “It took around two months of rigorous manual labour to develop and protect the land. Under the project, 300 mango and 300 cashew saplings were provided to us during the year 2012-2013. The mortality rate of the mango and cashew plants were 20 percent and 30 percent respectively in the first year. In the subsequent year 2014, 115 saplings of mango were provided to the MM to fill in for the plants that did not survive the year before.”

Intercropping in the common land

Intercropping being one of the integral components of the project, a range of vegetable and pulses such as beans, bottle gourd, tomato, ragi, arhar, and koting were provided to the members of the MM over the period 2012-2014. “The space between the mango and cashew trees are judiciously used for growing a series of vegetables and pulses which is altogether a new practice of intercropping in the region,” says a proud Jamuna Majhi.

To begin with, a couple of vegetable seed beds were prepared in the common land and tended so as to meet the nutrient requirement for the seedlings. After allowing two weeks for the germination of seeds, the plants were transplanted in the pits of common land. Besides the vegetable plants, the seeds of arhar, ragi and koting are sowed in the land.

Members of Maligaon Mahila Mandal prepare vegetable seed beds. Pic courtesy: Abhijit Mohanty

A bumper harvest of beans, bottle gourd and arhar enthralled the women members of the MM, as a result of which they are planning to raise intercropping of new vegetables and pulses in a more extensive manner. As per the Palli Sabha resolution, the produce from intercropping in the previous year was equally distributed among all members of the MM. The vegetables produced on the common land have significantly enhanced nutrition levels, especially among children and pregnant women of the village.

“Of course, we have to keep a vigilant eye on the maintenance of fencing, failing which all our efforts will be futile,” says one of the members of the Maligaon MM.

Border plantation

Keeping in mind firewood and fodder needs, several plants like simarua, acacia, chakunda, and karanjia have been planted along the border area of the Mahila Mandal common land. Such plants usually grow at a faster pace and need no special care unlike fruit-bearing trees. Border plantation has multiple benefits - it strengthens the existing fencing of the common land and also provides firewood for the hearth. Indeed, these will significantly reduce the burden of the village women who earlier had to trudge miles for collecting firewood.

Another pivotal benefit of the miscellaneous plantation is that the dried leaves of these trees decompose over time, acting as effective organic compost for the orchard plants and intercropped plants.

Development of individual farmland

Under the IPAF Eco-Village Development project, individual families were also included, where each selected family was provided fruit saplings, seeds of pulses, millets and vegetables for intercropping. Wage labour was also provided to the beneficiaries for land preparation, pit digging and fencing of the boundaries of the individual plots.

During the project period of 2012-2014, a total of 87 individual households have been thus supported, thus reinforcing the otherwise fragile livelihoods of the targetted families with this model of sustainable agriculture.

This in turn has yielded several interesting case-studies on individual family farm land development that hold important lessons and may be replicated in other parts of the country.

An expert in multi-tier agriculture

Take, for example, the case of Kuntala Majhi – a woman farmer from Maligaon village, who has earned repute for her success in terraced land cultivation in her two acres of patta land. In fact, she is now considered a maestro in multi-tier cultivation of orchards and a range of pulses, grams, and vegetables.

Kuntala’s life was not always as happy as now. A major part of her two-acre land was of the up-land category, making cultivation round the year a difficult affair. A few traditional millets and up-land paddy was all it yielded, scarcely supporting her household consumption. It was only after IPAF provided 40 mango saplings, along with seeds of pulses, grams and vegetables for intercropping, that self-farming turned smooth, sustainable and sufficient for her household.

Today, Kuntala speaks proudly about her multi-tier vegetable garden that has provided the family substantial quantity and variety of vegetables and grams. The first tier includes plants which require minimal sunlight such as root or tuber crops such as carrot, reddish, beetroot, turmeric, and ginger. The second tier includes creepers that cover the soil, such as bottle gourd, pumpkin, and cucumber, and act as live mulch. The third tier includes leafy vegetables like sorrel leaves, spinach and amaranthus. The fourth tier grows vegetables such as brinjal, tomato, cauliflower, cabbage, chillies and maize. The sixth and seventh tier are comprised of fruit trees such as mango, cashew, banana, papaya and drumstick, being plants which require maximum sunlight.

Kuntala, however, is quick to acknowledge that these would not have been possible without the technical support and critical inputs from Ama Sangathan.

The harvesting of multiple crops round the year provides food throughout the year, ensuring nutritional security and regular income for the five-member family. In fact, they now have marketable surplus. “I feel delighted for our piece of land now, as it even attracts neighbouring villagers; they visit our farm land and appreciate our effort,” says a satisfied Kuntala. 

A life transformed from grey to green

Sumitra Majhi lives with her husband Dhanu Majhi and one son and two daughters in the Maligaon village. Rainfed agriculture and wage labour in the dry season are the mainstays of her livelihood. The couple hold 1.5 acres of land out of which one acre comes under up-land and the remaining half acre under medium land category. In the up land, ragi and fox millet were produced by Jhum cultivation in the days before the IPAF project, while the medium land was used to grow paddy and niger.

Like many small farmer-households of Odisha, most of Sumitra’s agricultural and wage labour income was spent towards purchasing food for consumption and paying exorbitant rates of interest on loans taken to purchase agricultural inputs like chemical pesticides and fertilisers. Despite having 1.5 acres of land, her family had neither income security nor food security. By any standards, she was considered one among the very poor, if not the poorest.

Sumitra herself concedes that the support received under the Eco-village Development project brought about sea changes in her life. In her own words, initially she was a bit confused about orchard raising and intercropping as she had only seen the practice of Jhum cultivation in the region since childhood. Detailed enquiries at the village level meetings organised by Agragamee finally convinced her of the perceived benefits of the project and motivated the couple to go ahead.

In 2012-2013, she got 25 mango and 10 cashew saplings from the project. With utmost care, she planted these saplings in the pits and protected them from cattle by making stone and green fencing. She got another 12 mango saplings in the subsequent year in place of three that died during the first year. In 2013-2014, they procured pulses, millets and vegetables like, arhar, ragi, koting, tomato, and beans for intercropping.

Through use of bio-fertilisers, bio-pesticides and mulching, Sumitra’s family improved their production and the variety of produce remarkably. Her household now harvests multiple crops each year and the cost of cultivation is nearly one fourth of what it was earlier. Moreover, the amount of vegetables and minor millets they used to buy from the market has also gone down substantially. Sumitra expects her mango and cashew trees to bear fruits within the next couple of years. 

Overall impact

The overall success of seasonal agro crops, millets, pulses and other herb-culture varieties in the village following the particular initiative has been remarkable. The levels of awareness and acceptance of issues and concepts related to eco-village and mixed cropping have also risen considerably amongst all stakeholders. The case study of Maligaon village has made it evident that sustainable agriculture, food security and environment conservation are deeply interwoven phenomena.

To add to that, the project has clearly provided women farmers self-reliance in the matter of food security and livelihood generation in a vast barren landscape with hardly any scope for water harvesting. The project has facilitated water logging around the mango and cashew plant pits, which has proved to be immensely beneficial for agricultural production in general and intercropping in particular.

The advancement in individual household food security and nutrition levels among children have been even more phenomenal. The practices have, to some extent, revived traditional barter among the community as well, and it has achieved all of this with women at the forefront.