09 / 1997
Draped in a worn-out light green saree, she is sitting on the mud porch of her house, surrounded by little heaps of seeds and bamboo baskets. In her hands is a bamboo thresher which bears the appearance of black leather : it has been coated with cashew nut oil and cowdung so as to be more lasting. The door posts behind her are richly decorated in yellow, red, black, blue and green colours, in accordance with the Indian habit of making living spaces, however modest, aesthetically pleasing.
We are in Kamalpally, a small village of Andhra Pradesh, in Medak district, which lies in the semi-arid area of the Deccan Plateau. Agriculture is primarily rainfed here. A majority of farmers - both men and women - only have access to small plots of land on which they grow millets (sorghum, foxtail millet, little millet, pearl millet)and pulses (pigonpea, chickpea...). This dryland farming system is well adapted to the conditions, and some crops, like sorghum, can be grown both in the rainy season and in the post-rainy season.
This is the month of March, which corresponds to the end of the rabi season.
The harvesting of sorghum and pearl millet has taken place, and the seeds are drying out in the sun in front of the house, forming large colourful halos on the ground. A young woman is sweeping the seeds back and forth with a bunch of leaves used as a broom. These leaves are from virungo negu, a plant known for its insecticidal properties, which will help the seeds keep better.
Once the seeds are dry the threshing work begins. The task, which demands hours, is entirely carried out by women.
Again and again, with a precise and refined gesture of the wrist, she throws the seeds in the air, blowing on them softly to remove small pieces of straw mixed in with the seeds. The sound produced as the seeds land on the bamboo surface reminds one of the music which emanates from a rain stick. The regular and precise rhythm of this rolling sound inhabits the villages after harvesting season. After a few throws, the pieces of straw begin dissociating themselves from the seeds : they all gather close to the edge of the thresher. She gently removes them, and she resumes the threshing. Now her gesture is slightly different, the pace is slightly faster. The seeds land diagonally on the surface. Her sharp and skilled glance stares into the seeds, as if to discern the good ones from the bad ones. And indeed, within instants, a pattern begins to emerge on the thresher : all the full and healthy seeds are collected at the bottom while at the top, near the edge of the thresher, a number of small, shrunken or broken seeds have gathered. She delicately pushes them over the edge and begins a new round of throws.
What seems to represent an infinity of threshing techniques are put to practice by the women to remove the stones and straw bits from the seeds, to separate the broken bits from the whole seeds, the small and shrivelled seeds from the healthier ones, the coarser seeds from the finest ones.
The seeds that have been selected for sowing are handled separately. They have been gathered in the fields before harvest, according to a variety of criteria (size of panicles, pest resistance, height of the stem...). For preservation purposes, they are mixed with some ash, and then deposited inside bamboo baskets smeared with cowdung. The top will be covered with fresh mud, transforming into a hard cover when it dries. Seeds are also preserved in earthen pots or aluminum tins until the following season. The grain used for consumption is stored in large vessels kept in the corner of a room. A handful of neem leaves used as an insect-repellent ensure that the grain remains free of pests during the months of storage.
Preserving biodiversity is not merely about preserving the genetic make-up of traditional varieties. Human intervention has been crucial in the development of locally adapted varieties of rice, millets, or pulses. Linked to indigenous landraces is a large spectrum of knowhows and skills of seed selection, growing of crop, weeding, harvesting, threshing, seed preservation, and use of crop. As high yielding varieties and chemical pesticides become more widely used, the practices associated with traditional varieties fall into oblivion. Hence, the erosion of crop diversity is accompanied by a loss in cultural diversity.
Personal study on biodiversity in India. A book is on the point to be published in India. For further information, please contact the author (see address)or Fph.