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Innovation of the Week: Community seed banks to empower women and protect biodiversity

For fifteen years, Muniyamma, a farmer in Karnataka, India, practiced agriculture with the help of agro-chemicals, such as chemical fertilizers and pesticides, but in recent years she noticed a drastic decrease in yield.

Community seed banks help preserve local biodiversity (Photo credit: GREEN Foundation)Community seed banks help preserve local biodiversity (Photo credit: GREEN Foundation)After attending a village meeting conducted by the GREEN Foundation about organic farming, she decided to try their environmentally friendly techniques to grow bananas. When it was harvest time, Muniyamma’s plot was healthy and green, while her neighbor’s banana plot, which still relied on agro-chemicals, showed stunted growth, pale leaves, and thinner stems. That was enough to convince Muniyamma of the benefits of organic farming.

The GREEN Foundation works to preserve natural ecosystems and sustain rural livelihoods by teaching farmers the importance of agricultural biodiversity. Through village meetings, the foundation informs farmers about organic practices, such as creating fertilizer from organic waste, that are better for the environment and result in higher yields, at a lower cost, for farmers.

To protect the local biodiversity and preserve traditional seeds, the GREEN Foundation, in partnership with other NGOs, including the Seed Saver’s Network and The Development Fund, has created community seeds banks throughout the state of Karnataka, India. All villagers can become a member of a community seed bank by paying an annual nominal fee. Members, who receive seeds free of cost, sow the seeds, harvest the crop and return double the amount of seeds to the bank. To maintain purity of the seeds, farmers must follow rules – such as no chemical fertilizers and pesticides – when growing their crops.

Because these seed banks are managed by self-help groups (SHG) made up of women, they also act as a means of empowering women farmers through leadership roles. It is their responsibility to ensure that the seeds are stored properly, the records are maintained, and quality seeds are selected from those returned.

To maintain the diversity of the seeds stored in the community banks, the GREEN Foundation assists in the creation of community gardens. While all members of the community seed bank are responsible for maintaining the community garden, landless women farmers are especially encouraged to produce indigenous vegetable seeds, helping them earn additional income. The foundation provides farmers with technical guidance for inputs, including creating fertilizer from unwanted materials like dried leaves, mud and cow dung through the process of vermicomposting. This method, that uses worms to make the compost, ensures high quality by storing the unwanted waste materials in cement tanks for 45 to 60 days.

In addition to popular varieties of crops, individuals are also encouraged to grow rare crops, such as red beans and chilies, to add to the diversity of the seed bank. Farmers use a small plot of their land to grow these traditional, but unfortunately disappearing varieties of vegetables, and can either sell their harvest to other farmers for additional income as well as contribute to the seed bank.

Through organic practices and the preservation of local crops, the GREEN Foundation is helping communities in rural India improve their livelihoods and help protect the environment.

Can you think of other innovations that are helping empower women, while preserving biodiversity? Let us know in the comments section!

To read more about preserving biodiversity and organic farming, see: Maintaining the Diversity of Food Crops: An Interview with Gary Paul Nabhan, The Debate Continues: The Economist Hosts Debate on the Compatibility of Biotechnology and Organic Agriculture, Rodale CEO Calls for Organic Voice and Restoring Biodiversity to Improve Food Security.

Supriya Kumar is a communications associate for the Nourishing the Planet project.

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