'My aim is to preserve our tradition for the next generation'

Cheruvayal Raman has been conserving seeds passed on from his forefathers. He has successfully preserved some 50 native varieties of paddy and set up a seed bank in his house

My aim is to preserve our tradition for the next generation

Wayand in Kerala is not only famous for its breath-taking scenic beauty but is also home to Cheruvayal Raman. Raman in his village Kamanna is affectionately called Vittachan (Father of Seeds). He has been conserving seeds passed on from his forefathers. He has successfully preserved some 50 native varieties of paddy and set up a seed bank in his house.In 2016, he was awarded the prestigious National Plant Genome Saviour Award, for his efforts in conserving seeds. However, Ramanna says though his work has been recognized what will happen to the seed bank after he is gone worries him. He shares his thoughts with Megha Prakash about the challenges and roadblocks ahead him.

How and when did you begin preserving native seeds?

We are traditionally farmers and have been following the farming methods that our forefathers practiced. The seeds that they traditionally used were passed on through generations. I was 10 when I began this journey and continue doing what my ancestors practiced without deviation — sticking to their tradition — farming without use of chemicals or organic farming.

Our ancestors were wise. At what stage the seeds can be taken for preserving was based on calculations. One of the techniques they used to preserve seeds was based on lunar calculations. To preserve paddy seeds, seed maturity, according to them, is important. When the seeds are 70-80% mature it is the right time to preserve them and not wait for seeds to mature 100%.

Before storing the seeds, they should be cured or dried. Traditionally, we don't dry the seeds on plastic mats or cement floor but are dried on ordinary sand floor, plastered with cow dung and are left for days and nights exposed to air, sunlight and mist. This process makes the seeds healthy and resistant to diseases. This way we give the seeds the energy. After curing, the seeds are kept in baskets made of bamboo and not in plastic sacks. These baskets are then placed on a wooden platform two feet above the ground to avoid dampness. It is of utmost importance that the store area is not damp because the seeds may germinate or sprout in such conditions. Also, the room in which the seeds are stored should be warm. One of the natural methods to do so is to store the seeds inside hay and tying them up with coir ropes.

Similarly, seeds other than paddy are also harvested and preserved based on the calculations of the lunar cycle. I continue and stick to this tradition. But after the Green Revolution, many farmers have shifted from the traditional way of preserving seeds to hybrid varieties. Therefore, the native seeds are lost. What we now get is 'man made hybrids' and are losing what we have got from the nature.

How many varieties have you preserved so far?

I cultivate 52 varieties of seeds every year. The different seeds have different periods of maturity time (ripening), some need 180 days, the others 150 days,120 days, and 90 days, respectively. The seeds with me are of such different types.

Among the 52 varieties he cultivated, how many have you developed for cultivation?

Six or seven ...

You are doing this without any help from government. It is a difficult task. So, what are the challenges you face?

One of the challenges that I am facing is of my ailing body. I am now 69; my body is frail and have survived a heart attack recently. The other challenge is the changing climate of Wayanad. The rainfall pattern has changed, and we don't get timely rain. Secondly, non-availability of farm workers is a big problem. Also, the people around use hybrid seeds with use of chemical fertilizers pesticides and herbicides. I face a challenge here. The produce is not bounty when compared to the hybrid varieties. Hence, I have incurred huge loss. There has been little financial support from either the government or individuals or any organization. But I am determined to go ahead. I do this with the sole aim of preserving our tradition for the next generation and bringing a smooth coexistence and coordination. Therefore, I am making constant efforts of passing on the tradition to the newer generation.

How have you adapted to climate change and is there a change in farming practice?

Traditionally, paddy cultivation starts around May. Now because of climatic change, it is postponed for about a month. The sowing is done according to the availability of rain.

What do you think is the importance of preserving the traditional seeds in the face of all hardships? For what purpose are you toiling like this?

We are slowly losing our traditional wealth not only of indigenous seeds but also native breeds of domestic animals. Why preserve them? I believe that nature has provided us these and they should not be destroyed. We should pass on our rich heritage to future generations telling them that the cereals and grains bred using traditional seeds are nutritious and tastier than the hybrid varieties. It is undeniable that we can sustain alone with native varieties, but an attempt should be made to balance the two.

Have gene banks approached you?

Seed banks from two states – Orissa and Tamil Nadu have approached. I have given thirty varieties to Ramayya, gene bank operating in Tamil Nadu.

You have been bestowed with several honours and awards, but little help has come your way. What according to you is the reason?

The government is not very enthusiastic about protecting the traditional villages and or traditional know-how and pays little attention to this area. The concept of development is different for different people. Some people perceive development as comfort and luxury. That's why farming or traditional knowledge is not getting the deserved attention and place in development policies of the country.

(Prakash is an independent science journalist based in Bengaluru)

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