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Search for saltwater paddy brings honour

A project to grow traditional varieties of paddy in Sunderban farmlands made too saline for the crop by Aila has won a city NGO the first prize in an international contest to identify local initiatives to adapt to climate change.

The Society for Environment and Development (ENDEV), which operates out of Jodhpur Park, was picked for the top honour by the jury for Solution Search: Adapting to a Changing Climate, sponsored by US-based NGOs Rare and The Nature Conservancy.

Organisations from 48 countries had submitted over 100 entries for the contest seeking local solutions to problems faced by various communities because of changing environment.

The judges included Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention of Climate Change; Naoko Ishii, the CEO and chairperson of the Global Environment Facility; and Elizabeth Kolbert, special representative of The New Yorker.

When Sunderban farmers failed to grow rice because of increased salinity in the soil following the Aila havoc in 2009, ENDEV took up the challenge of finding the types of paddy that would grow in such a soil.

“In many coastal areas, frequent storms cause flooding, which scientists attribute to climate change. This has a devastating impact on agriculture. Like Aila, which destroyed rice fields in the Sunderban delta in 2009. Our aim was to find paddy varieties that are saline-tolerant,” said Ashish Ghosh, the founder- president of ENDEV and a former director of the Zoological Survey of India.

Debal Deb, a member of the NGO who runs a farm in Odisha that tries to conserve India’s vanishing rice varieties, played a key role in the project.

Deb had seeds of a salt-resistant variety of paddy in his farm. Along with colleagues at ENDEV, he found seeds of five more varieties from remote villages in the Sunderbans and the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources, New Delhi.

“Our research revealed that Matla, Nona bokra, Talmugur, Lal getu, Sada getu and Hamilton can be grown in saline soil. Except Matla, we found seeds of the other types in Sunderban villages and The National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources. Matla seems to have been lost forever,” said Deb.

“I conducted experiments at my farm to test the salt tolerance of the five available varieties and found that Hamilton is the best.”

ENDEV’s next step was to multiply the seeds of the five salt-resistant varieties.

“It takes at least 250kg of seeds to cultivate an acre of land in any season. But the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources could only provide us with a few grams. So we adopted micro-planning for sustainable agriculture, which involves communities concerned in planning and adapting measures to their needs,” Ghosh added.

ENDEV, set up in 1997, will expand the scope of its project with the prize money of $20,000. “We intend to make the seeds available to other coastal regions in Bengal, like East Midnapore. If funds permit, we would like to carry the project to the Odisha coast, too. In fact Debal Deb is preserving the seeds at the farm in Odisha’s Raiyagada district,” said Ghosh.

ENDEV, which has worked on renewable energy and health care in the Sunderbans and other areas, has managed to reach out to half a million people in Sandeshkhali, Kumorpara, Rangabelia and Moushumi in the mangrove delta with its latest project.

It was helped by five other community-based organisations, including World Wide Fund for Nature-India.

The first harvest of the salinity-resistant paddy was in 2011. Villagers were ecstatic. Some residents of Mathurapur, a village in the Sunderbans, wrote a song in praise of the properties of the “miracle seeds”.

Raj Krishna Das, one of the farmers who has benefited from the project, is one of the many Sunderban residents who had been dealt a double blow by Aila — he lost his home to the cyclone and had failed to grow paddy or vegetables because of increased soil salinity.

The salt-tolerant rice varieties developed centuries ago by small-scale farmers are the only hope left for Das and other farmers. “These ancient seeds are the biggest resource I have got. It is more precious than gold,” said Das.

The other projects that made the cut in the global competition are SOIL from Haiti (people’s choice), Sociedad de Historia Natural Niparajá A.C. from Mexico (runners-up) and Community Based Adaptation to Climate Change through Coastal Afforestation Project from Bangladesh (runners-up).