Three years ago, officials of the Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary at Idukki in Kerala conducted a medical camp for the tribal natives residing in the sanctuary. While the officials were expecting to see widespread malnutrition and related ailments, the final results of the camp, they say, left them saddened and in pain. Many residents were not just afflicted with diseases like anaemia and goitre, there was also a high prevalence of non-communicable diseases like high cholesterol, high blood-pressure and diabetes. The doctors told officials that the very existence of the tribes was at risk.
“We held further enquiries and found that most of the tribal people survived on under-nutritious food and black tea. There wasn’t enough protein in their diet, and that was the main cause of most of their diseases,” recounts PM Prabhu, Assistant Wildlife Warden of the sanctuary. The officials did not want to just prescribe readymade solutions and walk away. The officers interacted with the Kanis – the tribal heads of each settlement – and found that over the years, they had lost their traditional diets. “We spoke to the Kanis and found out what their traditional food habits were,” Prabhu explains.
Earlier, the tribal people ate various types of millets like ragi and thina (foxtail millets), cheera (Amaranthus), cholam (sorghum), poosani (Pumpkin), turmeric and beans. These nutritious “super-foods”, as christened by the modern wellness industry, used to be a part of their everyday diet. The protein-rich ragi, thina, kodo millet, little millet, barnyard millet, pearl millet, sorghum and various types of beans largely helped them maintain their health. The millets are high in minerals like iron, magnesium, phosphorous and potassium. Ragi had rich calcium content, about ten times that of rice and wheat. And all of these foods were being cultivated on these very lands by the people, but the cultivation was lost over the years.
“Earlier, the Muthuvans in the settlements had cultivated over 25 varieties of finger millets and various types of beans. When the government started supplying ration rice to them, the farmers lost interest in traditional farming, and gradually they lost their rare varieties of millets. The change in their food culture led them to undernourishment,” Prabhu says.
Cut to 2018, and the tribal people have emerged stronger by going back to their roots. Thayyannankudy, a small tribal settlement located inside the sanctuary, shows how retrieving traditional farming culture and food habits can change their lives for the better. The village now conserves and cultivates rare varieties of millets, beans, Amaranthus, pumpkins and other crops through biodiverse and organic cultivation methods. And they are winning laurels. For their seed protection project, called ‘Punarjeevanam’, the Union Ministry of Agriculture has awarded them with the prestigious Plant Genome Saviour Community Award.
The rebirth of their agriculture
Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary has 11 tribal settlements and nearly 1,800 people living inside the sanctuary. Most people in these settlements - Thayannankudy, Mulangamutty, Vellakkal, Puthukkudy, Eiruttalakkudy, Eechampetty, Alampetty, Palappetty, Champakkad, Mangappara and Ollavayal - hail from the Muthuvan community and are engaged in small-scale farming.
In 2016, Punarjeevanam – which means the revival of the lost one – was launched in the Thayannankudy settlement with just one variety of finger millet called "Pacha Mutti". On a trial basis, the tribal community members led a farming initiative and took 15 cents of land to develop a seed bed and cultivate millets. “The initiative became a big success and within one year they recovered the seeds of over eight varieties of millets. By the end of the second year, they recovered 15 varieties of millets. Now, the project has successfully completed three years and we have recovered over 23 varieties of millets,” Prabhu says.
Today, in the hills of Achanadu, several varieties of millets are cultivated. “The traditional food culture was the only way to solve the malnutrition issue and assure the sustainability of the tribal community,” he adds. The Kanis agree with him. “Earlier, we had used ragi, beans and various types of millets in our daily food habits. But for the last several years, the farming was reduced and most of the seeds lost. The Punarjeevanam project helped us get back to our traditional seeds and food culture,” says 62-year-old Chandra Kani, tribal head of the Thayannankudy settlement. Now, about 27 tribal families with 70 members are involved in the farming of the rare variety of foods in 30 cents of leased land under the project. "Long back, all families in the settlements were engaged in farming and it assured food security for all. Now we have resumed our traditional food culture and it will assure our sustainability," says Chandran Kani.
Sumithiri, 65-year-old native at Thayannankudy settlement, says she is happy to return to their traditional food habit. “Most of our kids do not follow our traditional food habits. Earlier, we regularly had millets and beans in our daily diet, but that was lost. Now we got our seeds and we plan to develop the farming. We already shared the seeds of the millets and beans to other settlements and they have begun farming. We hope to reclaim our traditional farming entirely soon," she said. 55-year-old Indrani, another native from the settlement, says that their kids did not even know how some of these millets tasted. “We hope that the Punarjeevanam project will be open the doors for our kids and they know the value of our traditional food culture," she says.
Asked what are the varieties they have recovered, and the people rattle out a long list of names. Among millets, they have recovered seeds of Ragi, Vella Ragi, Matta Thongan Ragi, Palakkanni Ragi, Mutti Ragi, Rotti Ragi, Cholakambili Ragi, Arakkanchi Ragi, Karuppu Ragi, Meen Kanni Ragi, Kadmpara Ragi, Uppulusi Ragi, Changili Ragi, Poovan Ragi, Siru Koran Ragi, Matti Ragi, Karimutti Ragi, Pachamutti Ragi and Neelakkanni Ragi. The foxtail millets (Thina) are Pullu Thina, Kamban Thina, Mulian Thina, Vella Thina, Karu Varagu, Vella Varagu and Vella Chama. Among the Amaranthus varieties, they have retrieved Karim Cheera, Pori Cheera and Karim Keera, and the beans varieties are Keerakkanni, Manjakkodi, Kodi, Muringa Kodi, Manja Kodi, Kakki Mutukan, Karutha, Arakkodi, Kuthu Butter 1 and 2, Paak, Mixed beans, Thay, Meyyalan and Munnar Murukkan. “Various types of pumpkins have also been recovered as part of the Punarjeevanam Project,” says Chandran Kani.
Recognition for tribal people
Apart from the Union Agriculture Ministry’s award which includes a cash prize of Rs 10 lakh, Thayannankudy tribal farmers also received the state agricultural award in 2017 for being the best tribal colony in the state. "The award money will be used for the developmental activities of the settlement,” says tribal head Chandran Kani.
Director of Kerala Regional Agricultural Research Centre, Dr CR Elsi says, “The award received by the Thayannankudy tribal settlement is a recognition of the rich varieties of millets they grow. Our university has an Intellectual Property cell to promote these practices. Fifteen individuals and four groups have got plant genomes to their name through our IP cell. The Thayannakuady settlement has brought prestige to itself and is securing our future generations.”
Elsi also points out, “There are two things here - food security and nutritious food security. When we included rice and tapioca in their diet, we ensured food security. But with traditional food, we aim to get nutritional security into their daily food habits. Various types of millets and other food items will provide nutritious food security to the tribal families. And with this, they also have additional income.”
Future plans of Punarjeevanam
With the raving success of the project, and the retrieval practice spreading like wildfire among the various tribal communities, all the settlements are coming together to form an Eco Development Committee. Ten active farmers of the 11 settlements will manage the functioning of the EDC, which aims to develop millet farming in all settlements in large scale. The sale and distribution of the products will be managed by the EDC members. “When they got the award, the officials told them that for the farming to be sustainable, they must grow crops in large scale, get better harvest and get good money for it,” Prabhu says.
“If we get proper market access and income, we will be able to do it on a large scale. Now most of them are involved in making ginger grass oil,” says Chandran Kani. “We will be selling our traditional tribal food items through these EDCs and it will ensure proper market access for us and encourage farming. We hope the traditional farming methods will spread to other settlements too,” he says.
Photos: Shinoj Kumar, PM Prabhu
Video: Shinoj Kumar, Sandeep Vellaram