Cow dung and fruit trees: traditional wisdom helps Assam cope with climate change

Faced with more floods each monsoon season, farmers in Assam turn to indigenous technical knowledge from their forefathers to protect their livelihoods
<p>Women work in paddy fields in Assam after monsoon flood waters had abated. [image: Azera Rahman]</p>

Women work in paddy fields in Assam after monsoon flood waters had abated. [image: Azera Rahman]

Subhadra Kumari had to wait a nervous few weeks before the flood waters abated from her paddy field and she could start planting rice saplings.

“We are behind the ideal time for planting the saplings because of the floods,” says the 35-year-old farmer while working on her field in Assam’s Biswanath Chariali district. “But even so, we will be on time for harvest. The elders in the village have predicted more rains, but this local variety of rice will be able to withstand it.”

This local rice variety is bao, an indigenous, deep-water or floating river variety that fares better than hybrid varieties during intermittent submergence from flash floods. Bao is also more tolerant of drought-like situations — another common feature in India’s north-eastern state of Assam thanks to climate change. Faced with sudden and ruthless weather pattern changes that threaten their livelihoods, farmers like Subhadra have turned to what their forefathers relied on for centuries — traditional or indigenous technical knowledge.

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Today, indigenous technical knowledge in agriculture is being studied and evaluated the world over for scientific reasoning and better application. In Assam, returning to traditional varieties of rice has, for one, proved to be beneficial to farmers who face multiple floods, and who now must deal with drought-like conditions in equal severity. The present situation of three to five flash floods during the monsoon season – each lasting seven to 15 days – is likely to get worse in the future due to climate change.

“The advantage of traditional rice varieties is that they can be planted a little later than usual if there are floods, and even then they can withstand a submerged field,” says Dr Tomizuddin Ahmed, chief scientist at the Regional Agricultural Research Station in Jorhat, Assam.

Subhadra Kumari plants rice saplings in her field. [image: Azera Rahman]
Tea growers have also made a return to traditional knowledge. Tea is the most important cash crop in Assam – its cultivation occupies more than 200,000 hectares of land – but climate change has led to a surge in new pests and an increase in the use of chemicals to manage them.

Gobin Hazarika, who owns a two-acre tea garden in the Lakhimpur district, relies completely on nature to ward off pests. “I have planted neem trees, a natural pest repellent, amid the tea bushes. Sometimes I also burn tobacco leaves,” he says.

Planting fruit and berry trees has also proved successful for Abrar Choudhury, senior manager at a Goodricke tea garden and chairman of the Assam branch of the Indian Tea Association. “The birds prey on the pests in the tea bushes,” says Choudhury. “We have also planted rows of bright flowers such as marigolds which attracts the insects that are natural predators of the pests. Our pesticide use has come down considerably as a result.”

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Tea growers have also borrowed a part of indigenous technical knowledge for pest management from rice growers; digging in a T-shaped stick near the bushes which birds can rest on while they prey on the pests.

“We mostly put bamboo sticks in the field when the paddy ripens and pests come to feed on it,” says Hiren Gohain, a farmer in Tezpur village, Sonitpur district. Other traditional methods of repelling pests include spraying raw cow dung mixed with water or scattering slices of pumalo onto the paddy fields, or rearing ducks nearby, which are said to feed voraciously on the rice hispa pest.

In the absence of a reliable early warning system for floods, traditional wisdom is helping farmers be better prepared to face natural disasters. “When ants move to higher places, it indicates heavy rain, and heavy rains during monsoons warn us of a flood,” says Subhadra.

Traditional knowledge is also being used to cope with disasters in Dhemaji, one of the districts worst affected by floods. While the monsoons bring floods, the ponds people rely on for drinking water dry up in winter. To cope with this, fishermen have built shallow ponds in low-lying areas with tall embankments. The cost of construction is low but the method ensures better water retention. In areas where leaks occur – particularly those where a great deal of silt is deposited during the floods — a mixture of raw cow dung and water is applied to the bottom of the pond to act as a sealant. Plantain and betel nut trees are also grown on the dikes to minimise erosion.

“Our forefathers passed on these traditional wisdoms by virtue of their close understanding of nature and her creations,” says Pulin Borah, a 61-year-old farmer from Dibrugarh in upper Assam. “Had these been irrelevant, do you think people would still continue to believe and practice them? Our best bet is to rely on nature to cope with her ways.”