Self help is the best help – Indigenous farmers stand strong against economic slowdown

By Janak Preet SinghonApr. 23, 2021in Economics and Technologies

Farm on wheels, an initiative to sell local produce has enabled the farmer groups to access diverse local markets in a decentralized manner. In doing so this initiative has set an example to all other farmer groups collaborating with NESFAS in Meghalaya and encouraged them to adapt it and take it forward in their areas.

Farm on Wheels initiative in Mawhiang village

The world is hit by a global pandemic, taking everyone by storm and severely impacting various regions. COVID-19 has disrupted the economy throughout the world with small farmers being particularly vulnerable as they lack base capital to tide over the lull in the economy. Closure of regular markets or their partial functioning subject to stipulated government protocols have caused great economic hardship to many. This, however, has not deterred the self-reliant Indigenous farmers. They have withstood this test of time and have come out with innovative solutions to tackle the crisis with the support of NESFAS (The North East Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society), a not-for-profit organization with its head-office in Shillong, Meghalaya that works to promote, defend and revive the
indigenous food systems in North East India.

NESFAS is located in Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya. NESFAS is working in 130 villages of Meghalaya and Nagaland and is currently implementing a Rural Electrification Corporation (REC) Foundation funded project- No one shall be left Behind: Biodiversity for Food, Nutrition and Energy security for 3000 households. At present NESFAS is engaged with 3249 farmers in various activities, primarily engaged with small scale Indigenous women farmers who are mostly practicing shifting cultivation. Some are also engaged with more settled agricultural system like paddy and bund or terrace cultivation. These farmers keep local seeds which are passed on to them by their elders. Though the local seeds are slowly disappearing, special efforts are being made to revive them with help of activities like seed exchange programmes and establishment of community level seed banks.

Kitchen garden of Rajesh B Marak in Darichikgre Garo hills

These farmers usually sell their produce in weekly local markets. Some hire a small space and some make temporary arrangements and vend on floors and pavements. They also sell the produce to traders who come and buy the products. However, because of COVID-19, this way of selling was highly affected. One of the local solutions devised to tackle the regular market disruption and to overcome the livelihood challenges is the launching of an initiative called the ‘Farm on wheels’. This timely initiative is a platform for farmer groups to sell their produce directly to consumers and at the same time, create sustainable livelihood opportunities for themselves. In fact, it is literally a vehicle which the farmer groups hire to sell fresh local produce once a week or whenever the produce is ready. Around 200 farmers/ 30 farmer groups spread in various districts of Meghalaya got involved. These farmers hire a vehicle. No groups own a vehicle still, but the plan is to purchase in the future from their group savings. The farmers map out the market days and accordingly make a plan. Usually the Farm on wheels is operative twice a week. From each group only 1 to 2 farmers accompany the vehicle. This is done to ensure cost savings. NESFAS has helped these farmer groups with promotional material, some seed money and trained them on book keeping. In fact, these small scale indigenous farmers grow a variety of produce/ diverse produce. Some produce is also foraged from the wild. The produce that is marketed includes a variety of foraged wild edibles, cultivated vegetables like potatoes, carrots, beans and other seasonal vegetables, fruits, and pulses. The farmer groups associated with NESFAS are making use of the Farm on Wheels platform. They are also selling in the local markets as COVID-19 protocols are easing down.  This initiative aims at allowing businesses to function while adhering to social distancing norms and actually take the market to the consumer. It ensures the urgent need to safeguard domestic food security and also the ability to market their local produce right from buying to selling.

Seed exchange at Mukhap

However, the challenge faced with with regard to tradeable quantities as most of the small scale farmers have limited quantities and sell only the surpluses. Even after aggregation, they realise small quantities thereby limiting the number of visits to the market. In doing so, this initiative has set an example to all other farmer groups collaborating with NESFAS in Meghalaya and encouraged them to adapt it and take it forward in their areas. In addition to the Farm on Wheel initiative some groups in West Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya, with the help of the Society for Urban and
Rural Empowerment (SURE) has bridged the gap between farmers and consumers with a local online platform called Syllad which enables sale of vegetables online. NESFAS partner NGO, Society for Urban and Rural Empowerment (SURE) coordinates the process between the farmers groups and the online ‘syllad’ initiative. SURE notifies syllad on the availability of produce and helps in procuring the produce from the farmers. The produce is sold under the tab- Fruits and Vegetables on the syllad online store. For more details, please visit the website. This partnership also helped deliver the goods to the homes of the community members in both urban and rural areas. Farmers are also now putting in an extra effort to cultivate healthy local produce in their kitchen gardens/home gardens to increase production and are sharing local seeds with other members of the community who are in need.

In Garo Hills, indigenous farmer groups have advocated the need for diverse kitchen gardens amongst community members. They are emphasizing on clean, local and nutrient-rich food for good immunity in our fight against the COVID-19 virus besides safe guarding domestic food security and livelihood sustenance. COVID-19 in some way has highlighted the importance of dependency on local diversity for food and livelihood. It has empowered the local  farmers to strive for self-reliance and self sufficiency, something that the Indigenous farmers have always been  advocating but had lost its significance in the day of mass-production centric industrial agricultural system.

First published by LEISA India on 5 Jan 2021

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