High-yield, low agro-diversity
Traditional agricultural practices in the Western Himalaya are in concord with local environmental conditions. But introduction of high yield crop varieties (hyvs) and orchards have led to a decline in such practices; the region's rich biodiversity has also suffered. The Chhakinal watershed area in Kulu district, Himachal Pradesh, is among those affected.
Till three decades back, agriculture here was a complex product of crop and animal husbandry and use of forest-based resources. As many as 17 crops were cultivated in this 45-square kilometre (sq km) area -- all these, except wheat, were locally bred. These included cereals (two local paddy varieties, one local barley species and two varieties of wheat -- one locally generated and the other hyv), millets and pseudo-millets (amaranths, three varieties of buckwheat, finger millet and maize), pulses (blackbean, frenchbean, horsebean, soyabean, green gram and peas), potato and mustard. Such diversity was maintained through a variety of cropping patterns. As many as 12 crops (amaranths, 3 varieties of buckwheat, fingermillets, maize, blackbean, frenchbean, green gram, horsebean, pea and soyabean) were produced through mixed cropping while only five -- wheat, barley, paddy, potato and mustard -- were cultivated by mono-cropping.
Crop diversity was the local agriculturist's response to the immense topographical and geo-climatic variations within the 45-sq km area. Different altitudes, slopping patterns as well as varying temperature, humidity and rainfall necessitated diversification of the farming landscape. Such conditions also meant that holdings were small -- the origin of small holdings producing varied agricultural products is a complex topic but its functional significance is probably related to ensuring diverse yields to a population that had very little day-to-day interaction with the plains.
All locally generated Crop yields also depended upon inputs of locally available manure, derived from animal excreta and forest resources. Besides, the farmers ploughed back much of the agro-residue into the fields; this ensured a good dose of nutrients for the soil. Significant amounts of weed were left behind in fields for replenishment of nutrients and improvement of the soil's physical and chemical properties. The fodder was then used as animal feed.
This integrated production system evolved through generations-old processes of trial and error. But the introduction of hyv crops -- particularly wheat, rice and apple -- since the 1970s has upset this system. It has led to the incorporation of new farm technologies and made farmers dependent on external markets for agro-chemicals and hybrid seeds; simultaneously many native crop varieties have vanished from the agricultural landscape. For example, crops such as the Setaria italica (foxtail millet), Panicum miliaceum (hogmillet) and Chenopodium album (whitegoose foot-katah) -- once major crops of the area -- have disappeared, while species of Fagopyrum (locally known as kathu, besa and gangri), Eleusine coracana (fingermillet), Amarunthus paniculatus, Triticum aestivum (a local wheat variety) face extinction.
Telling impacts The impact of hyv crops has been telling in other areas as well. The earlier agricultural practices involved a prominent role for women. However, introduction of new crops and fruit trees means very little use of local knowledge systems. And this has meant that the once women-dominated agricultural system is giving way to a more male-oriented agro-horticultural system. Moreover, lack of technical know-how and unplanned use of agro-chemicals have affected farmers' health.
All this does not mean that the Western Himalayan farmers should do away with modern agricultural practices completely. That would be economically unfeasible. The new alternatives must combine modern scientific knowledge with traditional practices. For example, having fruit orchards are not advisable in the higher reaches of Kulu. In valleys, land should be used for local food crops and vegetables. But in the more environmentally congenial lower reaches of the region orchards can be introduced to help mixed crop cultivation. Such a model should be initiated with local people's participation.
Gopal S Singh is with the Centre of Advanced Study, department of botany, Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh