Green Ag project to combat the loss of agrobiodiversity in the Similipal protected area

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  • The switch to chemical-based farming and other flawed farming practices have put the Similipal Biosphere Reserve in Odisha at risk.
  • The Green Ag project has identified five landscapes in India, including the Similipal Biosphere Reserve, to ensure sustainable agricultural practices and reduced emissions.
  • Organic farming and the preservation of agrobiodiversity are part of a portfolio of nature-based solutions proposed in the Green Ag project.

As the glistening rays of the sun signal noon, Jayanta Patra, a 1960s farmer from the village of Saratchandrapur in the Mayurbhanj district of Odisha, stops working on his four-acre agricultural farm and makes his way to his house. On the way back he pauses briefly under a tree, joins other village farmers and begins to talk while looking at the surging rice fields.

“Forty years ago my father harvested rice with rice arhar dal (pigeon pea), corn and millet here. The harvest used to be good and he made enough to support the family. But today the soil can hardly support rice cultivation even for one season. “

Another farmer, 57-year-old Gurucharan Patra, nods in agreement. “At that time, agriculture was completely fed by rain. The plants were tough enough to withstand minor changes in the weather. An alternative irrigation system did not have to be set up. Today the yield would not be good without proper water supply and chemical fertilizers. “

Villages like Saratchandrapur, on the edge of the Similipal Biosphere Reserve in Odisha, began natural farming almost two decades ago. No fertilizers were used and the seeds were naturally climate-resistant. Over the years, however, the switch to chemical-based agriculture to achieve higher yields has impacted soil fertility and affected biodiversity in the area.

Continuous exposure to faulty farming practices has caught the attention of policy makers and Similipal is one of the five landscapes selected for the Food and Agriculture Organization’s Green Ag project, announced in 2018 and in Similipal in October 2021 started. Funded by the Global Environment Facility for six years, the project aims primarily to change agricultural practices while ensuring the preservation of biodiversity and forest landscapes. The other four regions include Chambal in Madhya Pradesh, Dampa in Mizoram, desert areas in Jaisalmer and Barmer in Rajasthan, and the Corbett Rajaji Tiger Reserve in Uttarakhand.

The Green-Ag project seeks to develop a multisectoral approach in order to develop synergies between agriculture and related areas with forest and the environment at national, state and district level. This includes bringing over 1.04 hectares of arable land (34,200 hectares of which in Similipal) in all five states under a sustainable land and water management system. This is to be achieved through organic farming and the preservation of agrobiodiversity. The National Mission on Sustainable Agriculture; National Livestock Mission; National Food Security Mission; National Initiative on Climate-resilient Agriculture, National Mission for Horticulture and Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana.

Organic farming and the preservation of agrobiodiversity are part of a portfolio of options for nature-based solutions (NbS) proposed in the Green-Ag project. While nature-based solutions (NbS) are at the forefront of the sustainability discourse, which is included in the UN Decade for the Restoration of Ecosystems, they are underutilized in agricultural landscapes, according to a paper by World Agroforestry. NbS in the agricultural sector is proposed as “the use of natural processes or elements to improve the ecosystem functions of environments and landscapes influenced by agricultural practices and to improve livelihoods and other social and cultural functions over various temporal and spatial scales”.

The village of Saratchandrapur on the edge of the Similipal biosphere is one of the 1200 villages identified for the “Green-Ag” project. Photo by Tazeen Qureshy.

Why Similipal?

The Similipal Biosphere is one of 18 biosphere reserves in India and the only one in the state of Odisha. The biosphere includes the Similipal National Park and the Tiger Reserve, home to the royal Bengal tiger and the rare melanistic tiger. The biosphere also has over 1,286 species of flowering plants, Asian elephants, and mugger crocodiles. In addition, a variety of rice, corn, millet and some legumes are grown in agriculture. The Green Ag project has identified almost 1200 villages in the area to implement the project, which is being phased in. The population of around 7.95 lakh (795,000) people in the project area is mainly dependent on agriculture, animal husbandry and forest products for their livelihood.

As the high-yielding seeds replace traditional varieties, the landscape has reported a loss of agrobiodiversity. The area has also seen the transformation of forest areas due to pressure from agriculture and illegal mining activities. Earlier this year, forest fires devastated areas in the core areas of Similipal National Park and Tiger Reserve, resulting in habitat loss.

“It is a unique project that looks at agriculture, forests and the environment together. When selecting the landscapes, two essential aspects were taken into account: Agriculture must be an important livelihood and there must be an area with a high nature conservation value. Three tiger reserves, a desert national park and the Chambal sanctuary on the river were selected. We will try to bring synergies into the work of all affected departments, ”said Rakesh B. Sinha, project manager of Green-Ag, to Mongabay-India.

Interventions in Similipal

The cultivation of single crops and the deterioration of the soil quality have led many traditional farmers in the Similipal area to give up agriculture and turn to other livelihoods. “Agriculture is a tradition with us. So we don’t give up completely, even if we suffer losses. But many of us work in brick kilns or as day laborers in the off-season to earn a living, ”says Mania Singh, another farmer in Saratchandrapur.

While the project is currently in the landscape assessment phase itself, one of the first interventions in the area would be to revive interest in traditional agriculture, said a district official linked to the project. The total GEF grant allocation for the project is $ 33.5 million, of which Similipal in Odisha received $ 7.9 million.

“In Similipal we can identify two main problems so far – the limited awareness of the cultivation system and the increasing reliance on forests as a livelihood. After the harvest season, there is a general tendency to venture into the forest and utilize or sometimes inadvertently exploit the resources. Once the project has reached the implementation phase, it will be an important task to educate local farmers about sustainable agriculture, ”said the official.

A newly built facility in Saratchandrapur to meet the village’s irrigation needs. Photo by Tazeen Qureshy.

Experts say while the project looks promising, the implementation should be more holistic to meet the goals, and it should also address food security concerns and be profitable for farmers.

“Since agriculture is very location-specific, the implementation should be science-driven and data-based. There should be a composite sustainability index that needs to be monitored and assessed. The project should also ensure good yields so that food security is guaranteed and farmers also make a profit. The location selection (at Similipal) and the funding are appropriate, but the project needs to rethink and reposition production through interdisciplinary technology and the involvement of not only agricultural experts, but also nutritionists, engineers, social scientists and farmers, ”says Surendranath., Expert for Sustainable Agriculture Pashupalak and former Vice Chancellor of Orissa University of Agriculture and Technology.

“Just changing the technology will be a narrow approach and will not be enough to achieve the goal of the project,” said Pashupalak, who is not affiliated with the project.

Banner image: Agriculture is one of the most important livelihoods for the farmers of the village of Saratchandrapur in the Mayurbhanj district of Odisha. Photo by Tazeen Qureshy.


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