Andaman farmers reshape land for better farming

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Village Square, Andaman Islands

Land shaping has helped farmers in the Andaman Islands increase farm incomes despite the limited availability of land, increasing soil salinity and inundation caused by cyclones and changing tides

Broad bed and furrow system of land shaping has helped farmers like Sudhir Datta overcome the effects of extreme weather events and increase farm income / Credit: Sharada Balasubramanian

“When the tsunami struck, I saw the road crack open and I clung to a tree desperate to save my life,” recalled Tapan Mondal, a farmer from the southern part of the Andaman Islands, an archipelago in the Bay of Bengal between Indian and Myanmar. Mondal grew paddy and pulses until the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami devastated his farmland.

“After the disaster, everything was destroyed,” he said. “Nothing grew.”

The case was no different for Sudhir Datta, a farmer whose land was just 10 meters from the sea. He lost his entire paddy crop following the tsunami, and his land remained fallow for almost six years.

Farmers were unable to cultivate crops due to the high salt content in the soil, said Tapan Biswas from the Central Island Agricultural Research Institute (CIARI). Even with heavy rainfall, which decreased soil salinity, the leaching of the nutrients after the tsunami made growing food nearly impossible. “The next year, they tried growing crops, but there was no fruiting,” Biswas said.

Scientists from CIARI and the island administration worked with the farmers to devise solutions, taking unpredictable weather conditions and constraints on land availability into consideration. The climate-sensitive remedies they developed have helped improve farmers’ revenues and the ability to adapt to future climatic changes.

Land-shaping as a solution

After the tsunami, most farmers stopped paddy cultivation due to extreme soil salinity. Frequent cyclones and changing tides have also impacted agriculture in the islands. In January this year, just after Cyclone Pabuk hit the archipelago, banana plantations collapsed. Severe winds damaged vegetable crops too.

“We build machans to protect okra and beans; however, due to severe winds, the machans broke and there was nothing we could do,” Datta said. Machans are built with tree branches to support the growth of climbing plants, but they break easily during severe storms.

“Early weather warnings are not of much help,” Datta added. “Can we stop the water from entering the land or the wind from blowing? We can do nothing about natural calamities. Sometimes, we just use nets and save our crop at the last moment.”

Devising solutions to these challenges can be tough here because land availability is limited to 50,000 hectares, the total land area of all the islands that comprise the archipelago. In addition, most of the islands are covered in forest and so farming solutions had to maximize production within this restricted land space.

After the tsunami, scientists from CIARI worked with farmers to come up with strategies that suited the weather and the climate of the Andaman Islands.

One of their solutions was land shaping, a controlled form of agriculture focused on protecting natural resources, such as soil and water, while also increasing farmers’ incomes through climate-smart farming.

Some of the land shaping methods include the broad bed and furrow system, where vegetables are grown on a raised bund that prevents sea water or flooding caused by heavy rainfall from entering crop-growing areas. Farm ponds were also built to store rainwater for the farmers’ agricultural needs in the summer when there are water shortages.

“When the bund is raised to 1 meter, even if water enters to about 60 centimeters, the land is safe,” said A. Velmurugan, a senior scientist at CIARI.

These measures have helped farmers increase their revenues since techniques such as bunds have enabled them to switch from growing paddy to growing vegetables, allowing them to earn more income.

Scientists also assessed the size and type of land, the amount of salt in the soil, individual farmer’s budgets and crop preferences, average rainfall and other climatic conditions in the Andaman to ensure farmers grew the right kind of crops in the right season to make them less vulnerable to extreme weather conditions. 

“In April we can harvest fish. Between January and March vegetables can be grown,” Velmurugan said. During the ban on ocean fishing in May and June when fishes breed, “freshwater fishes could be sold in the market.”

Bunds formed through land shaping solutions have enabled farmers like Tapan Mondal switch from growing paddy to growing vegetables, and earn more / Credit: Sharada Balasubramanian 

Farmers benefit

Both Datta and Mondal say they’ve benefitted from implementing the broad bed and furrow system and building farm ponds to store rainwater.

“In 2015, government officials made three beds in the farm, and after six months, I harvested plenty of brinjal,” Mondal said.   

The increased availability of water has also allowed him to develop some aquaculture. By raising fish, Mondal said he was able to earn between Rs 70,000 (US$1,000) and Rs 100,000 (US$1,440) a year, closer to the profits he earned before the tsunami. 

On Datta’s land, a wall was created from the soil dug out to create a farm pond.

“This helped me grow vegetables. This is more profitable than paddy. I had a single harvest of 300 kg and sold one kilo for Rs 80 recently,” he said.

Diversifying agriculture is also more sustainable for farmers since it offsets losses associated with extreme weather. For instance, in three-tier farming, if paddy is lost due to waterlogging, income can be earned from fish or vegetables. If vegetables are lost, fish can be sold. Such systems ensure that if one crop fails, another can be sold.

“If the farmer is intelligent, he can grow three crops a year,” said Velmurugan.

Over time, farmers have also come up with their own adaptations to ensure the success of these land-shaping methods.

“After a cyclone, the soil becomes loose and plants would not stay firm. We press the loose soil to ensure they remain intact,” Datta says as a farm worker fixes loose soil with his feet.  “This is one of the measures to save our crop.”

Biswas from CIARI said farmers will also spread seashells in their soil to reduce salinity. “This is something unique that is done here,” he noted.

Need for more government support

After cyclones, the government typically provides financial aid to affected communities through district or village councils or the agriculture department. But farmers say it seldom reaches them.

“The middlemen take a commission. They give us Rs 500, get our signatures, and then add a zero later to the amount,” said Datta. “Let the money come into the farmer’s account – to the one who owns the land.”

Farmers also say it would help if the government could provide seeds so they wouldn’t have to buy them from private companies.

When the land-shaping project started the government helped build and implement it in the Andaman as a part of a pilot to look at its effectiveness and determine if it worked for the farmers. Velmurugan says the government should now provide farmers with work opportunities by hiring them to build the farm ponds and other land-shaping structures.

“As we have standardized the method, if the government funds farmers to build them, it will be greatly beneficial. There will be less dependency on Chennai market, and a significant reduction in transport cost as well,” he said.

Sharada Balasubramanian reported from the Andaman Islands with the support of the Earth Journalism Network’s Bay of Bengal Story Grants. A version of this story originally appeared in the Village Square on May 27, 2019.