Living gene bank: Tribal farmer grows, preserves 52 native rice varieties

The clouds are set to burst again after an early morning spell of rain, and the mud road leading to Cheruvayal Raman’s home is slippery.

“Ramettan is in the farm,” says his wife, who shows the way to the paddy field through the backyard.

Raman, a sexagenarian tribal farmer known as a “living paddy gene bank”, is tending to freshly planted saplings in his three-acre land that resembles a green carpet. Two Class 6 students and their teacher from a nearby government school are asking Raman about the paddy varieties in the field in Kerala’s Wayanad district.

They are among the hundreds who come to take lessons in preservation of native paddy varieties and traditional farming methods from Thalakkara Cheriya Raman, aka Cheruvayal Raman or simply Ramettan, at Kammana in Wayanad’s Mananthavady taluk.

Raman grows 52 native varieties of rice in his field every year. “It is a non-profit initiative. I cultivate these only to preserve them and give their seeds to anybody who is interested. I don’t give more than 2-3 kg,” says Raman, who claims to have supplied the seeds of 30 traditional varieties to the Dr K Ramiah Gene Bank at Tamil Nadu Agricultural University in Coimbatore, named after the breeder and founder-director of the Central Rice Research Institute, Cuttack.


Lower yield but higher disease resistance The yield of the seed varieties preserved by the farmer is low compared to the 25-30 quintal average for the modern dwarf high-yielding varieties (HYV) and hybrids. However, the traditional cultivars are far more pest and disease resistant.

“Gene banks are fine, but the only way to really preserve native varieties is to grow them,” says Raman, who is from the Kurichiya tribal community that mainly inhabits Wayanad and Kannur districts of northern Kerala. Raman sows the seeds in plots demarcated for each variety. When he hands over seeds to interested farmers, the only condition he lays down is that they give back the same quantity as seed to him after harvesting their crop.

The varieties preserved by him include ‘Gandhakashala’ (an aromatic rice used in traditional biriyani preparations) and ‘Thondi’ (a red bold grain paddy). The paddy yields per acre from these tall indigenous varieties range from about 7 quintals for ‘Gandhakashala’ and 18 quintals for ‘Thondi’, with roughly five months of seed-to-grain crop duration.

“HYVs and hybrids give a bounty of harvest using chemical fertilisers and pesticides. But that is akin to getting drunk or smoking. We feel very excited, but once their effects subside we feel drained. Likewise, chemicals double the yields at the start, and then destroy our soil and environment. Farming native seeds using traditional methods will sustain the earth and the lives within,” says Raman.

In 2016, Raman received the Genome Saviour Award instituted by the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Authority under the Union Agriculture Ministry. In 2018, he was also invited to speak at a symposium in Brazil on challenges relating to indigenous people and sustainable use of biodiversity. It was organised by the Federal University of Parà and the Museum Paraense Emilìo Goeldi, along with the International Society of Ethnobiology.

But, for him, honours don’t matter much. “Instead of just giving awards, the government should help farmers continue their occupation,” he says, adding that farmers can help conserve the environment.

“My income is primarily from the well-wishers and people who come here to learn. I grow enough rice and vegetables to feed my family, and do all the work myself without employing labourers,” says Raman, who has two sons and two daughters, none of them into farming.

In 1978, Raman experimented with chemical-based farming. “I gave it up after noticing that all the fish, insects, earthworms, frogs and reptiles in my land had died,” he notes.

For Raman, the ultimate reward isn’t financial, but the fact that “people from huts to palaces are coming to me to learn about my work”. “It wouldn’t have been possible without my work,” he signs off.

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