Erratic monsoon? No problem, say these subsistence farmers

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India Climate Dialogue, Gulel, Odisha, India

While India is trying to deal with an erratic monsoon that is still sub-normal, some farmers in Odisha show how to adapt to it

With water tanks at hand even if monsoon is not, Bangari Sisa, high on motivation, tends to the Lady's Finger saplings even as the sun has set in Gulel village. (Image by Manipadma Jena)

With water tanks at hand even if monsoon is not, Bangari Sisa, high on motivation, tends to the Lady’s Finger saplings even as the sun has set in Gulel village. (Image by Manipadma Jena)

Bangari Sisa, 40, cannot remember seeing so few monsoon clouds in early July over her village Gulel, which nestles amidst the high hills of Koraput district in India’s eastern state Odisha. “As a child I’ve touched clouds,” she says laughing, “they’d glide low and shower every so often this time of the year.” But all that has changed.

In India, erratic monsoons are becoming the new normal. According to the India Meteorological Department, this was the driest June since 1901, leading to serious fears of drought; by mid-July the rain deficit was still 36%. Odisha had a 40% deficit in June, the crucial sowing month.

This is catastrophic news for over 60% of India’s farmers, who are dependent on the annual June-September monsoon to irrigate their farms. In a country where over half the population is still dependent on agriculture, drought prospects also have a major dampening effect on economic growth.

But neither Sisa nor anybody else in her subsistence farming tribal community is worried. They no longer depend on the temperamental monsoon to grow their food.

“Pre-monsoon’s short showers have all but vanished. They help germinate the seeds sown early June. Instead, delayed monsoon comes like a deluge down cultivated patches on our hill slopes and washes away all the sown paddy, millet and Niger seeds,” Tulabati Kirsani, another woman farmer told indiaclimatedialogue.net in Gulel.

More than half the population of Koraput is tribal, eight in ten families depend on farming and three-quarters of them own less than half a hectare of land. The landless resort to shifting cultivation by slashing and burning forest patches every three to four years.

Till two years back, whenever there was a drought most of Gulel’s 60 households would curse their fate, go to the door of Raghunath Khila, the richest among them with three hectares of land, and got loans at 60% interest to buy more seeds to sow a second time.

Then the community got together and decided they would not put their lives and livelihoods into the hands of a whimsical monsoon. Under a government rural livelihood security programme, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), they dug a pond into which a perennial stream is harvested, providing irrigation water as insurance against erratic monsoons and for summer vegetable crops as well.

They collected Rs 7,000 ($116) to buy a water pump while a NGO came forward to set up a drip-irrigation system covering 30 farms. Water is pumped from the pond into an elevated tank built beside each farm. Last year in four months – July to October – Khila earned Rs 25,000 ($415) from vegetables alone, grown on three acres. “With sufficient water at hand, I started using Growmore (Urea, a chemical fertilizer) to maximize my harvest,” Khila said.

In rain-fed farming regions, by December, wage work is mostly unavailable, forcing landless and rain-fed farm owners to migrate out till June and to return for the sowing season before the monsoon starts. But now with half of Gulel’s 60 households engaged in year-round farming, most get daily wage work in the village itself.

“Climate-related impacts are already reducing crop yields in some parts of the world, a trend that is projected to increase as temperature rises further. Crops affected include staples such as wheat, maize and rice,” states a June 2014 research document ‘Climate Change: Implication for Agriculture: Key Findings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Fifth Assessment Report’ (AR5) by the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL).

By the middle of this century, most of the food insecure people will be in South Asia. There will be increased risk of drought related water and food shortage causing malnutrition. Each degree of warming is expected to decrease renewable water resources by at least 20% for an additional 7% of the global population, according to a July 2014 guide report for policy makers ‘The IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, What’s in it for South Asia?’ by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN) and Overseas Development Institute (ODI).

The CDKN report adds that effective adaptation strategies to strengthen livelihoods and reduce poverty should focus among others on disaster preparedness and early-warning systems and local coping strategies; adaptive and integrated water resource management including water re-use; more efficient irrigation management, and resilient agriculture.

Most of these climate adaptive strategies for water are now being practised in Gulel.

Secure land ownership as climate adaptive strategy for subsistence farmers

A much poorer hamlet 22 km away, Tala Naranga has 25 households that once belonged to landless farmers.

The rain-fed shifting cultivation fed their six-member families for half a year while the men had to migrate for work for the rest.

“We would always live in fear as forest officials often showed us a red-eye and warned us that we’d land in jail if we cleared forests for farming. We were encroachers,” said Dhana Jani, the tribal priest-healer.

In 2013, under a government programme to provide livelihood to tribal communities, Odisha Tribal Empowerment and Livelihoods Programme (OTELP) with Landesa, a Seattle based non-profit globally partnering with local governments to secure land rights for the poorest people, identified and gave homestead land to all 25 households. Eighteen of them also got an additional acre of farmland with women holding joint ownership titles. By 2017, the programme targets providing tenure rights to landless tribal families in 25,000 villages.

With these new farmlands being located much lower at the foothills close to their homes, the community decided to harvest the perennial hill stream and bring it right down to their habitation and the farms. They built a half-km-long, gravity-based wide ‘pucca’ drain under MNREGA and with the help of OTELP.

Tilsu Saunta, 30, tells of how his elderly mother had to trudge uphill to fetch water to cook and wash. But now even the wash water is reused, he says, pointing at the women washing clothes in front yards. After the wash, the water is carried by running stream into cauliflower and cabbage patches.

With security of land tenure, the cropping pattern has changed too. On the acre of land they now own, the farmers grow mango and cashew – long-term crops that are not only more suitable to the soil and climate but are more resilient than cereals to changing rainfall patterns and promise good cash returns in future.

Before the trees grow big and shade the area around them, they are being intercropped with millets. Later, the farmers plan to grow shade-compatible ginger and turmeric around the trees.

There are problems, of course. “Till the trees grow, we have to guard against wild boars uprooting the plants and monkeys that get attracted to the mangos,” says Salme Saunta, one of the one-acre land owners. A bigger problem is the lack of storage facilities such as a cold chain, lack of food processing factories nearby, or any direct link to the market.

But the community is now more conscious of how to conserve their land. They have requested the local government to include stone-bunding of some of the hill-slope land to prevent erosion.

“Without secure rights to land, planting a tree is just wishful thinking. But with secure rights to land, planting that same tree is a smart long-term investment,” Tim Hanstad, CEO of Landesa, toldindiaclimatedialogue.net  on the role of land rights in helping the poor adapt to climate change. “There are a number of studies that provide solid evidence that secure land rights promote conservation efforts. This includes an interesting study in Ethiopia that found that men and women with secure rights to land spend twice as much time on conservation efforts.”

Adapting with livelihood diversification

Livelihood security under climate challenges also comes from livelihood diversification. In Gulel, Moti Pajari, 55, says they haven’t stopped at vegetable farming for subsistence, but keep large numbers of poultry, selling eggs at Rs 5 each. The Kolab river is a 15-minute walk from the village and young men make an income from fishing. Traditional forest-sourced livelihoods such as making leaf plates, collecting bamboo shoots, yam and mushrooms for food in monsoon, continue.

Climate experts are increasingly in agreement with the CDKN report that says, “South Asia has inherent strengths that will be important for climate adaptation. These include a wealth of natural resources and well-developed social networks. Local and indigenous knowledge underpin longstanding traditional practices for managing climate variability through, for example, diversifying crops and livelihoods, migration and small-scale enterprises.”

The residents of Gulel and Tala Naranga do not know it, but they could well be among India’s climate adaptation leaders.