As mentioned on Friday, today is the first convening of the Indigenous Peoples Forum held at the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). A wide range of landscapes globally are managed by indigenous people. In addition to the importance of recognizing these groups’ rights and unique perspectives, many traditional land management approaches can also help mitigate the negative effects on livelihoods from environmental degradation and climate change.
India’s Jeypore Tract, located in the Koraput district in the state of Orissa, consists of a series of hills making up a highland plateau landscape which has been cultivated for thousands of years. A center of origin and diversification for Asian rice, this part of the Eastern Ghats is composed of agro-ecosystems ranging from hillside shifting cultivation and midland rain-fed systems to deep lowland cropland and terraces. Traditional agricultural systems dating back several millennia are adapted to the hilly terrain, water resources pressures, and even a changing climate, employing hardy crops in the highlands and more water-intensive crops on the midland and low-lying areas.
In the latter part of the 20th century, the region began to experience worsening water stresses brought on by variable rainfall, depleted water resources, and soil degradation, and ultimately resulting from climate changes and pressures from deforestation. Extended droughts and topsoil erosion on hillsides are only exacerbating these challenges, fostering a high incidence of poverty and growing vulnerability to food insecurity among the population reliant on agriculture. However, a recent article from the Inter Press Service News Agency (IPS) demonstrated how one indigenous group, the Bhumia Tribe, is returning to these traditional farming systems. Food and fuel products are grown in their natural environment, using no artificial inputs; agricultural wastes nourish the next generation of crops and help control pests; and seeds are preserved in “gene-seed-grain banks”.
The tribal groups living in the Koraput region, numbering over 50, have cultivated and conserved an astounding array of agricultural diversity in the traditional farming systems. As a result of utilizing the landscape’s topography and associated ecosystems, including forests and highlands, such plant diversity encompasses many varieties of rice, millet, pulses, oil seeds, spices, vegetables, timber products, and medicinal plants. A project by the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation to promote tribal and rural community participation in conservation of agrobiodiversity and diversification of income sources led the region to gain recognition as Equator Prize recipient in 2002. And only last January, Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) awarded the traditional agricultural systems in the Koraput region the status of Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System (GIAHS). Through such designations, the GIAHS program is trying to identify and safeguard landscapes with globally significant agricultural biodiversity and traditional knowledge systems, by supporting community participation in conservation processes and promoting sustainable management and livelihoods. The lessons from the Jeypore Tract can offer the Indigenous People’s Forum a clear example of how traditional farming systems and an integrated approach to landscape management can benefit the health of natural systems, and the well-being of the people who depend upon them.