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Published in Issue No.152, page 58 to 64
On-farm management of rice genetic diversity: understanding farmers’ knowledge on rice ecosystems and varietal deploymentR.B. Rana C.J. Garforth Bhuwon Sthapit A. Subedi P. Chaudhary D.I. Jarvis
The scientific community has come to realize the complementary nature of ex situ and in situ conservation methods in addressing different aspects of conservation of genetic resources (Brush 2000). As a result, there is an increased interest in understanding the functioning of in situ conservation in relation to agrobiodiversity. In situ conservation for local crop diversity effectively implies on-farm management, which has been defined as “farmers’ continued cultivation and management of a diverse set of crop populations in the agro-ecosystems where the crops evolved” (Bellon et al. 1997). Since in situ conservation of agrobiodiversity on-farm is a relatively new subject, limited experience exists concerning its management, both at national and international levels. There are gaps in understanding of the subject matter and also of the methods, tools and techniques, and institutional settings for conserving and utilizing agrobiodiversity for the benefit of farmers (Wood and Lenne 1997). With the implementation of an IPGRI (now Bioversity International) coordinated global project on ‘Understanding the Scientific Basis of In Situ Conservation of Agrobiodiversity On-farm’ in nine different countries, significant progress has been made in developing tools and techniques for conserving, monitoring and utilizing agrobiodiversity on-farm.
The rationale for studying farmers’ local knowledge of ecosystems and varietal (landraces and modern varieties (MV)) deployment rests on the tenet that agrobiodiversity and local knowledge held by farmers are two faces of the same coin (Rajasekaran and Warren 1994). Therefore, it is vital for researchers to document and analyse farmers’ local knowledge, not only in terms of ‘what’ and ‘how’, but also ‘why’, so that the blending of scientific knowledge and local knowledge is achieved for strengthening farmers’ capacity to continue growing landraces and to contribute to on-farm conservation. The present article deals with the methodological development of a rice (Oryza sativa L.) ecosystem classification and varietal deployment tool, and explains how the exercise contributes to on-farm conservation, varietal deployment and the monitoring of varietal dynamics on-farm over time by practitioners in the field.
The methodology adopted for the study comprised Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) tools—Focus Group Discussions (FGD), transect walks, and direct observations—that were employed to elicit farmers’ knowledge on rice ecosystems, varieties and their deployment in different ecosystems. The study was conducted in two contrasting ecosites: Begnas village, representing mid-hill (600–1400 masl) conditions characterized by limited intervention from research and extension agencies, with medium level of road and market access; and Kachorwa village, representing plain (<100 masl) conditions, with high intervention from research and extension agencies, and good road and market access.
FGDs conducted at site level were specifically used to identify different criteria used by farmers to delineate rice ecosystems. During FGDs, farmers were asked to list criteria they use to identify different ecosystems for rice in their locality. Once the group agreed with the criteria, then they classified and characterized different ecosystems based on the agreed criteria. After that the farmers discussed ‘how’ and ‘why’ they deployed different landraces and MVs in particular ecosystems, based on their experience and knowledge of the ecosystems and varietal performance. The FGD exercise was followed by a transect walk by a combined team of farmers and researchers to visit rice fields to verify on the ground the deployment of varieties to different ecosystems.
Farmers indigenous method of characterization of rice ecosystems
Soils at the study sites were generally clay for marshy lands, loamy to clay in irrigated lands, sandy loam to clay for rainfed, and sandy loam to loam for upland. The colour varied, with red soil in upland, black in irrigated and marshy lands, and grey or yellowish white in rainfed land. Water holding capacity refers to the duration one can observe water on the plots after rain or irrigation stops, and this trait is very important in distinguishing rice ecosystems. Different ecosystems within and between sites vary greatly for this trait, ranging from a few hours to whole seasons. Upland has the least capacity to hold water due to soil type, presence of pebbles and lack of bunds along the edge of the field, whereas marshy or pond fields hold water beyond the rice growing season. The amount of pebbles present in upland condition explains the better drainage of water, which implies that rice in upland suffers more frequently from moisture stress than in other categories of rice ecosystem. In general, ease of ploughing and ease of intercultural operations are important traits associated with irrigated land. Ploughing is most difficult in marshy land because of heavy (clay) soil with plenty of moisture, but weeding is easy as weeds are generally suppressed due to standing water throughout the rice growing period.
Apart from water holding capacity, fertility status and production potential of plots are the major criteria farmers employ when classifying their rice ecosystems. Across the sites there was agreement that inherent fertility of soil is highest for marshy plots (pond in Kachorwa) and lowest for rainfed plots. In terms of productivity potential, the farmers identified the irrigated ecosystem as having the highest potential, followed by marshy ecosystem in Begnas, but rainfed in Kachorwa. The rainfed ecosystem had the least production potential for rice in Begnas, whereas the deep-water ecosystem was the least productive for Kachorwa. The farmers estimated that about 65 to 70% of the total rice area in Begnas was irrigated (temporary), followed by rainfed lowland (20–28%), while marshy areas and upland accounted for 5 to 7% and 2 to 3%, respectively, of the total rice area. Similarly, for Kachorwa, 50% of the rice fields were irrigated, 25% rainfed, 20% marshy and the remaining 5% being a deep-water ecosystem.
Deployment of varieties across ecosystems
Analysis of varieties across ecosystems at Begnas indicated that there was no MV in rainfed upland condition, though numerous landraces existed for the ecosystem. In other words, available MVs were less competitive than the existing landraces in rainfed upland conditions. Under rainfed conditions, there was a dearth of both landraces and MVs. Only three landraces were prevalent in this ecosystem, though it occupied 20–28% of the rice area. In the irrigated ecosystems there were plenty of varieties (options) for the farmers, with over 25 different landraces and 4 MVs available. Similarly, in marshy ecosystems, a number of landraces and MVs compete. As a result, there is competition between varieties for space in favourable ecosystems, whereas in marginal environments the farmers face a lack of varieties.
Findings from Kachorwa also suggest that only a limited number of varieties exist for extreme conditions, whereas plenty of options exist for favourable conditions. There is not a single MV suitable for deep-water ecosystems and only a limited number of landraces exist for such conditions. In contrast, there are many landraces and MVs competing for space in more favourable environments. As in Begnas, farmers have a greater choice of varieties in favourable compared with marginal ecosystems. From both study sites, it could be seen that MVs are confined to more favourable ecosystems, and the number of landraces in marginal conditions is much lower, reflecting the problem of adaptation of the majority of these varieties. Farmers in marginal ecosystems have limited choice of genetic materials at their disposal, which greatly reduces their capacity to manipulate the production systems in such environments.
Based on analysis of the characteristics of different ecosystems across sites, and the distribution of landraces and MVs within and between ecosystems, an attempt has been made to develop a generalized model for rice ecosystems (Figure 1). In the following subsections, the characteristic features of the ecosystems are explained. Finally, we look at the implications of the exercise for conservation, variety deployment and monitoring of diversity on-farm.
Agromorphological characterization work by Bajracharya (2003) on rice landraces collected from the study sites revealed that principal component analysis (PCA) outputs grouped landraces according to ecosystems for Begnas and Kachorwa ecosites. Varieties falling within the same ecosystem are more likely to be similar in their genetic composition than are varieties from dissimilar ecosystems, as landraces have been conditioned over time by their continued cultivation and selection in specific ecosystems. Thus, they have developed adaptive traits that are unique to landraces of that ecosystem.
Farmers’ knowledge on rice ecosystems and variety deployment
Farmers use different varieties to manage ecological diversity present on their farm. Kieft (2001) reported that rice farmers in Timor use specific varieties for specific locations, and the decision on which variety to plant is very much based on the forecasts for the next rainy season. The process of allocating different varieties to different ecosystems affects the genetic diversity of farmers’ repertoire of varieties maintained on-farm (Cleveland and Soleri 2002). Analysis of varietal allocation across different ecosystems indicates that diversity of varieties is directly associated with diversity in ecosystems because of the specificity of most varieties. The absence of a specific ecosystem in a locality results in absence of varieties associated with that ecosystem. The finding also implies that changes in specific land use systems and practices might threaten the survival of some landraces as the landrace best suited to such ecosystems can be eroded due to lack of benign environment. This has been shown statistically significant in multiple regression models, with the number of varieties maintained on-farm directly corresponding to diversity in rice ecosystems (Rana 2004).
Monitoring varietal diversity on-farm
Delineation of rice ecosystems can be reliably done using focus group discussion with knowledgeable farmers from the given community. The ecosystems identified and the associated varieties in each ecosystem have to be verified through transect walks. Deployment of varieties in each ecosystem is the outcome of intimate understanding of ecosystem characteristics and varietal performance, and the interaction between the two, which represent the ‘best fit’ under farmers’ given circumstances. Because of the specificity of varieties to ecosystems, aggregated information at community or landscape level may not be very useful for making decisions pertaining to landrace conservation on-farm, diversity deployment or repatriation programmes. Ecosystem characterization and varietal deployment would contribute significantly in making conservation decisions, as well as to monitor varietal dynamics over time. For wider utility, the technique needs testing in diverse settings for different crops.
Authors are highly indebted to farmers of Begnas and Kachorwa for sharing their insights on rice ecosystems and varietal distribution across ecosystems. This work is an output of a PhD Study under the IPGRI [now Bioversity International] Global Project: Strengthening Scientific Basis of In-situ Conservation of Agrobiodiversity On-farm: Nepal Country Component funded by the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs Development Cooperation DGIS (Activity number: ww104801), and IDRC and SDC.
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