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Trek to Nepal Yields Cross-Regional Exchange of Ideas

By Chris Schmidt, Director of Conservation

Every region of the world requires unique solutions to building and sustaining its own system for seed security, but practices that work well in one context can often be informative in others. With such cross-pollination of ideas in mind, I recently had the great fortune to visit the stunning nation of Nepal to exchange experiences with farmers, community seed bank members, and staff of local and international NGOs.

Thanks to connections made in Rome by NS/S directors Bill McDorman and Belle Starr, and at the invitation of Bioversity International and Local Initiatives for Biodiversity, Research and De-velopment (LI-BIRD, a local NGO doing ground-breaking work), I travelled to Nepal in late July and early August to participate in a pair of workshops aimed at strengthening capacity within Nepal for on-farm conservation.

The workshops were set in the beautiful city of Pokhara, where water buffaloes freely roam the streets, verdant sponge gourd vines drape over buildings, small rice paddies compete for space with germinating apartment buildings, the peaks of the incredible Annapurna Range of the Himalayas rise in the distance, and colorful boats grace Nepal’s second largest lake, Phewa Tal, in sight of the serene World Peace Pagoda. Through these workshops I not only learned about several novel approaches to on-farm conservation and was inspired to consider their potential in the Southwest, but also provided insights from the experience of NS/S and training to Nepali NGO and community seed bank staff.

The effective deployment of agrobiodiversity is fundamental to food security, the reliable access to sufficient and appropriate nutrition by all people. The conservation and use of that diversity has revolved around two complementary strategies: ex situ, in which diversity is maintained in genebanks as an insurance against genetic erosion and to facilitate its understanding and broad accessibility; and in situ, in which the dynamic process of continuous adaptation and experimentation is maintained on farms to generate new diversity and encourage the preservation and use of traditional knowledge.

The role of genebanks in supporting agrobiodiversity has received a great deal of focus from the global community, but in situ approaches are generally more poorly developed despite their critical importance. The inherent challenges are enormous, considering the many forces that have disfavored the traditional, small-scale, diversified farming model that an effective in situ program requires. How do you, on a local, regional or even global scale, support a large number of farmers to continually grow and save seeds from a diverse portfolio of crops, exchange and back up these seeds, and maintain traditional knowledge while simultaneously supporting their rights and livelihoods? The complexity of the challenge is enough to send your mind reeling.

Fortunately, pioneering initiatives around the world have attempted to address the urgent need for on-farm conservation. Nepal has been at the forefront of these efforts since 1997, when Bioversity, the Nepal Agriculture Research Council (NARC), and LI-BIRD initiated a research program on the implementation of in situ conservation as part of a broader global effort. Their work in Nepal eventually produced an integrated approach called Community Biodiversity Management (CBM) that is now being taken as a model for other countries. Featuring a number of concrete steps that create strong connections among institutions from the community to the national level, and a range of innovative on-the-ground practices, CBM provides a strategy to build local capacity for supporting crop conservation, seed sovereignty, and farmer livelihoods. These practices include ideas such as diversity fairs, demonstration plots (“diversity blocks”), diversity kits, custodian farmer networks, community seed banks (CSBs) supported by revolving trust funds, biodiversity registers, participatory breeding, even support for rural poetry and drama about crop diversity. Look for more consideration of these ideas from NS/S in the future.

The first workshop, entitled “Enhancing the contribution of custodian farmers to the National plant genetic resources system in Nepal,” brought together custodian farmers from throughout Nepal (plus a few from Bhutan and India) along with LI-BIRD staff, key people from the National genebank and Ministry of Agriculture of Nepal, Bioversity scientists, and foreign NGO staff such as myself. The concept of a “custodian farmer” is an interesting one that highlights the important roles of particular farmers in the maintenance, adaptation and promotion of crop diversity within their communities. While we certainly have many custodian farmers in the U.S. and Greater Southwest, I believe that we lack a cohesive framework for understanding who these farmers are, what motivates them, and how we can support their efforts. Such questions were central to this workshop and yielded insights such as the varied motivations of the farmers, from a desire for control over their own seed supply and future options to the desire for greater recognition within their community (“Saving agrobiodiversity makes us feel special, like we are movie stars,” said one participant). I presented on the history, mission and strategies of NS/S and the custom platform we are developing to publically share and crowd-source information about Southwest agrobiodiversity (look for more on this in the future).

I had the great honor to lead the second workshop, which was specifically for LI-BIRD and community seed bank staff. While Nepal has among the best national systems for on-farm crop conservation that exists anywhere, they recognize areas for improvement and sought inspiration and training in three areas: better management of crop diversity within their community seed bank system; marketing of seeds to support their conservation activities; and strategies for crop improvement through simple breeding practices. Through a series of lectures and focused group discussions, participants developed plans of action to strengthen their efforts on these fronts. Perhaps the most surprising idea to emerge from the workshop was a strategy to discourage rhinos from ravaging a community’s lentil fields by planting a trap crop of a native grass.

We are grateful to the wonderful staff of Bioversity and LI-BIRD for making this invaluable trip possible and facilitating the mutually beneficial exchange of ideas. We will be working hard to adapt some of the strategies used in Nepal and elsewhere to improve the conservation and use of crop diversity in the Greater Southwest.

I was inspired by the sophistication, eloquence and commitment of the custodian farmers and CSB staff, the dedication and professionalism of the LI-BIRD and Bioversity staff, the often supportive policies of the national government, and by the amazing open dialogue among them that has made Nepal a global innovator in in situ conservation. In a sentiment that NS/S strives to engender through everything we do, one custodian farmer in the first workshop stated that “because of LI-BIRD I have become intoxicated with agrobiodiversity, and am now trying to spread that to others.” May we all strive to thusly intoxicate the whole world.

Useful References

The following publications are fantastic sources of information about Community Biodiversity Management and the Community Seed Bank system in Nepal.

Walter Simon de Boef, Abishkar Subedi, Nivaldo Peroni, Marja Thijssen and Elizabeth O’Keeffe (editors). 2013. Community Biodiversity Management: Promoting resilience and the conservation of plant genetic resources. Published by Earthscan.

Pitambar Shrestha, Ronnie Vernooy and Pashupati Chaudharu (editors). 2013. Community seed banks in Nepal: Past, present, future. Proceedings of a National Workshop, 14–15 June 2013, Pokhara, Nepal. Published by LI-BIRD. 

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