On-Farm Conservation of Plant Genetic Resources: A Case Study from Wayanad District of Kerala, India



  • M S Swaminathan Research Foundation


  • 02/02/2012

  • REGION :

  • Southern Asia


  • India (Wayanad, Kerala)


  • This paper describes the plant genetic resources of food and agricultural value that occur in Wayanad district - a hot-speck in the world biodiversity hotspot of Western Ghats. About 75 rice varieties were once grown in the district, suited to the land classification and geo-climatic peculiarities, but this has now narrowed to around 15-20 rice varieties. The genetic diversity of the rice in the district is known for its specialty varieties, which have aromatic and medicinal properties. Roots and tuber crops occupy a prominent place in edible crop diversity. Traditionally, a wide range of landscapes, mostly outside forests, have been accessed by tribal communities for a wide range of food and edible products. Wild food collection varies from trapping small animals or digging root tubers to cultivating greens in agricultural fields and catching fish and crab - major sources of animal protein. The Kattunaikka community possesses knowledge of 177 wild food species, while Kuruma, an agricultural group, knows some 88 species/varieties. The study reveals that traditional land use is a sustainable pathway for protecting genetic diversity of crop plants and the diversity of available wild food plants. Enhancing on-farm diversity is important in view of not only improving food security, but also for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural landscapes.


  • on farm conservation, agro-biodiversity, wild foods, traditional knowledge and biodiversity hot spot


  • Dr Nadesa Panicker Anil Kumar is the director of the Biodiversity programme of M S Swaminathan Research Foundation. He was the recipient of the Watson International Scholarship of the Environment in 2006 and Alcoa-IUCN Conservation Fellowship in 2008. Dr M K Ratheesh Narayanan is the leader of biodiversity conservation programme of MSSRF’s Community Agrobiodiversity Centre.

  • LINK:

  • Swaminathan Research Foundation Community Agroforestry Centre
    Swaminathan Research Foundation


India is a Centre of Origin and Centre of Diversity for crops like rice, Indian dwarf wheat, kodo millet, legumes like black gram, green gram; spices such as black pepper, turmeric, cardamom and ginger; and fruits like jackfruit and mango. This important food and nutritional resource is a major component of agrobiodiversity in India and is viewed as a link with the ethnic and cultural diversity that encompasses over 550 tribal communities living in diverse agro-ecological regions across the country.  Since the 1970’s the change in land use practices and land cover of agro-ecosystems has been rapid and rampant across the country, and has resulted in heavy losses of genetic diversity in all the indigenous crops and breeds, in addition to drastic degradation of major ecosystem services like soil building, water purification, seed dispersal, pollination, etc.  To cite one example, Kerala, which covers hardly 2% of the land area of India, has recorded nearly 25% of the country’s biodiversity. But various reports show that in Kerala there is a high degree of degradation along different biodiversity levels, most importantly in terms of agrobiodiversity, and in most ecosystem services categories. For example, almost all of the narrow endemic species of plants or animals have degraded populations. The fresh water recharging capacity and soil formation in most of the mountain regions has been drastically reduced, and in the case of agrobiodiversity, near depletion has been reported in traditional crop and breed diversity and services of marine and fresh water ecosystems.

Threats ranging from habitat destruction to biological invasion, commercial exploitation and pollution continue to pressure such services in the state. In regards to the example above, it is almost certain that climate change can cause further degradation to all these goods and services, in particular those of forests, fisheries and the agricultural sector, as Kerala is one of the most vulnerable states in India in terms of climate change impacts. Many biologically diverse regions like the Wayanad-Silent Valley region, Cardamom Hill region, etc. continuously experience unprecedented and irreversible changes to the structure and functions of their ecosystems, including the associated bio-geo chemical cyclic functions.

This paper examines the case of the Wayanad district of Kerala with reference to how much diversity is present there in terms of plant genetic resources of food and agricultural value, and what is happening to this diversity and the landscapes where it is located. MSSRF efforts to conserve such diversity on-farm are also highlighted in the paper.

Agrobiodiversity of Wayanad

Wayanad is located from 110 26’ 28’’ – 110 58’ 22’’ N latitude and 750 46’38’’ – 760 26’11’ E longitude. It is a hilly terrain at the southern tip of the Deccan plateau covering an area of 2136 sq. km with an average altitude of around 750 m. The district is unique for its rich wealth of flora and the diversity of its ethnic cultures.  The low altitude hills are filled with plantations of tea, coffee, pepper and cardamom, while the valleys are dominated by paddy fields. From the highest altitude of the Western Ghats on the western border of the district, the plateau of Wayanad gradually slopes down towards the east. Further from Mananthavady, it becomes a common plain of paddy fields with the swift flowing Kabani coursing through it.

The district is a natural habitat and one of the state’s biggest producers of spices, beverages, fruits, vegetables, medicinal and aromatic plants, and NWFPs. The district (ca. 2136 sq.km in size) contributes significantly to the state’s foreign exchange earnings through most of its spice crops. The district’s traditionally managed landscapes used to be habitats for endless genetic diversity in cultivated food crops and plantation crops.

1. The Case of Traditional Cultivars of Rice

Records reveal that in the past, approximately 75 traditional rice varieties were in cultivation in Wayanad district, and were suited to various land types and agro-climatic peculiarities of the region. Most of these varieties were marked by distinct functional traits that assured stability of the population and by better suited mechanisms for dealing with various biotic and abiotic stresses. The traditional rice genetic diversity of the district has now been narrowed down to less than 20 varieties (Photo 1). Many of these varieties provide several kinds of insurance against crop failure to the farmers. Cooking quality, grain colour, aroma, calorie content, feeling of stomach fullness, medicinal qualities, high fodder and grain yield are some of the main attributes that influence the choice of a variety from among the traditional rice cultivars of the district. There are also varieties with fine aroma and medicinal qualities. One of the varieties of rice with special significance is Navara, a variety known for its medicinal value and extensive use in Ayurveda for treating problems related to rheumatic complaints. These varieties become extremely important as an adaptation option for farmers facing imminent climate change impacts. (Photo 8,9).

Photo1. The Rice cultivars that are being protected

Photo8: Rice cultivation- a fading tradition in Kerala

Photo9: A Paniya woman in Rice bed preparation- a fading tradition in Kerala

The following twenty varieties are now in cultivation in the district, largely in the tribal areas.

Veliyan (Mannu Veliyan): Drought and flood tolerant, source of high calorie energy, used in the brewing of home liquor, the burned husk is highly regarded for making homemade tooth powder; Chettuveliyan: Flood resistant, comparatively high yield, bold and red coloured grain, nutritious and tasty rice, it gives a feeling of fullness when consumed, resistant to various biotic and abiotic stresses, high fodder yield as well as grain yield; Palveliyan: Highly preferred for rice gruel (’Kanji’), white kernel; Thondi: Tasty rice, red kernel; Palthondi: Highly preferred for rice gruel, white kernel; Marathondi: Red and stiff rice; Chennellu: Holy and medicinal rice, used as a cure for stomach ulcers, vomiting etc; considered as the king among traditional rices; Kaima: Scented rice, preferred for preparing breakfast dishes and ghee rice; Urunikaima: Scented, preferred for preparing breakfast dishes; Mullankaima: Scented, used for special family occasions; Poothadikaima: Scented with strong aroma, preferred for preparing beaten rice; Gandhakasala: Scented, preferred for Biriyani and Payasam on special family occasions; Jeerakasala: Scented, preferred for Biriyani and Payasam on special family occasions;  Mullanpuncha: Drought resistant; Thonnuran Thondi: Short duration, traditionally treated as famine crop, harvested under emergency circumstances during scarce periods; Kalladiyaryan: Highly drought resistant, suitable for valleys and terrains; Onavattan: Tasty rice, introduced variety; Chempathi: Scented rice; Chomala: Highly tasty rice, white kernel, preferred for the preparation of breakfast dishes during special occasions; Chenthadi: flood tolerant, tasty grains.

2.  The Case of Traditional Cultivars of Legumes

Local communities in this district have been using different wild and traditional legume cultivars for food and medicinal purposes for a long period of time. Looking at the importance of such biological resources, efforts have been made to identify and conserve such species and cultivars on the basis of their relative importance to the food and nutritional security of low-income forest communities. The tribal communities of the district have been conserving over 20 different legume cultivars. These genetic variations are of prime importance for successfully breeding improved cultivars with added value and desirable resistance to disease and pests.  These varieties need to be continuously cultivated by providing proper recognition and rewards to the individuals conserving them (Photo 4).

Photo4. Legume cultivars-the major source of protein”

3. The Case of Traditional Cultivars of Yams

Yam root has been cultivated as an agricultural crop and eaten for centuries in many cultures. The importance of yam diversity in Wayanad has been historically recognised by the native inhabitants, and this diversity has been used in various ways to meet their food requirements and other cultural/ spiritual needs. However, many of the cultivars of edible Dioscorea have now been discarded mainly due to the advent of potatoes in the food table and also due to cultural erosion. In order to address this situation, MSSRF has intervened with the objective of establishing community seed banks integrated with in situ on-farm conservation that allows for long-term conservation of cultivated yam varieties. Most yam varieties and species do not produce seeds and therefore cannot be conserved in conventional gene banks. Twelve varieties of yams were collected from the district, and all these varieties are maintained at the Community Agrobiodiversity Centre’s Field Gene Bank (Photo 2).

Photo2. Yam cultivars  for wider promotion

4. The Case of Wild Foods

The consumption of wild plants seems more common and widespread in food insecure areas, where a diverse range of species is consumed. Many tribal and rural families of Wayanad still conserve a wide range of plants for their food needs. For some of these communities, the consumption of wild-food plants seems to be one of the important local survival strategies, and many of these species are not just consumed during periods of drought, food scarcity and other hardships, but also form part of their regular dietary intake. Narayanan et al., (2003) reported the food use of about 343 taxa by 3 different tribal communities from this district (Photo 5). The study sought to focus its attention on the wild food management practices of three prominent tribal communitiesof Wayanad, namely the Paniya, Kattunaikka and Kuruma. The Paniya are predominantly a landless group working as wage labourers and living close to agricultural landscapes, particularly the paddy fields. The Kattunaikka are traditionally a food-gathering tribe and live close to the forests. The Kuruma are a settled community, living together in joint families and engaged in agriculture.

Photo5: Wild edible Mushrooms- major source of nutrient supplements   in tribal community dietary

There is remarkable variance in how different communities access different landscapes and their consumption patterns of wild food. The Paniyas provide a fine example of a community that depends heavily on the semi-wild environment for their food and other needs. Historically, they were bonded labourers, who were involved in strenuous labour in their masters’ fields from dawn to dusk. In the past, the wages were paid in kind (a fixed measure of paddy, most often), and along with the food gathered from the wild, contributed to their diet. They continue to live neither as a purely forest-dependent community nor as full-time agricultural producers. They are efficient in managing the disturbed semi-wild environment that traverses paddy field-margins and bunds, irrigation canals, thickets, road-sides and home gardens, containing a  substantial number of species and varieties. The men and women of this community have acquired knowledge on 222 wild edible species, most of which are accessed and utilised from this disturbed environment. Traditionally, they accessed the forest ecosystem to trap small animals or dig root tubers, and the agricultural fields to gather greens or to catch fish and crab, which constituted a major source of their animal protein. The Kattunaikka who live in the forest environment are on the same level with the Paniya in terms of their knowledge and dependence on wild food for sustenance. They possess knowledge of 177 wild food species, while the Kuruma, an agricultural group, know only 88 species/varieties (Photo 3).

Photo3: Wild yams –an important emergency food

An examination of the patterns of accessing wild food from various landscapes by different communities indicates the following: It is evident that the Paniya access almost all types of landscapes for wild food, and the Kattunaikka have greater access to forests and rivers for wild food collection. Except in the case of the Kattunaikka, the landscapes accessed by women are closer to their homes, while the ones farther away are accessed by men.

An attempt was made at Muthanga of Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, in the dry zone of the district, to study the social hierarchy among the four socio-cultural groups- Kattunaikka, Kuruma, Paniya (the tribal communities) and Wayanadan Chetty (a non-tribal community) – in their consumption of different wild foods. The study shows that different communities have varied preferences towards different wild food species and attach values to them based on their social status. Kuruma and Kattunaikka know that Noonji (a kind of snail) is a safe and edible delicacy and is available in large numbers in wet areas like paddy fields and shallow streams, but they do not include this in their diet. When asked about this, they replied that ‘only the Paniya consume Noonji’. It is considered a matter affecting social prestige to consume it as food, but when prescribed as medicine for certain ailments, other communities show no hesitation in consuming it. Such differences were also observed in the case of some leafy vegetables, mushrooms, tubers and crabs. Maracheera (Embelia tsjerium-cottom) is a kind of green widely consumed by the Kattunaikka, but no other community in this area eats this species, despite its availability in their vicinity. Likewise, the Kattunaikka only consume tubers such as Dioscorea pubera and Dioscorea hamiltoni. These are instances that reflect how a landscape is accessed and managed in different ways by different communities during different seasons (Photo 7).

Photo7:A kattunaikka couple with their wild yam harvest

However it has been observed that Wayanadan Chetty families consume many species that are also consumed by the Paniya. The fact that both of the communities use the same nomenclature to describe many wild food species is, in a way, indicative of the common knowledge that they share about the use of these species. But the Chetty avoid certain species consumed by the Paniya, which require strenuous processing to be rendered edible. It has been observed that the Wayanadan Chetty encourage the Paniya to catch crabs from their paddy fields as a crop protection mechanism, because the crabs damage the paddy seedlings. It was not very evident from the survey, whether the Paniya have been privy to any knowledge that was the preserve of the Chetty. The Chetty women, however, whom the study records to have knowledge of about 19 leafy greens, acknowledged that they came to know of the uses of several herbs from the Paniya women. But in the case of mushrooms, the Chetty do not rely entirely on the Paniya’s knowledge, and many varieties of mushrooms that the Paniya women render edible through processing are considered deadly poisonous by the Chetty women. Similarly, the Chetty are indebted to their Kattunaikka labourers for much of their knowledge about edible tubers, and they identify most wild tubers by the names that the Kattunaikka use for various Dioscorea species (Photo 6).

Photo6: A paniya tribe woman holding her yam harvest from  the garden

There is insufficient sharing of knowledge among various forage communities regarding wild food. The reasons for this are not yet clearly understood. It may be an indication of cultural and social identity of each community, and group rivalries may also play a role. This was more evident among powerful and autonomous clans belonging to the same socio-cultural group, like the Kuruma. It is also possible to view this as some kind of a management approach for the allocating and accessing of different resources by different communities. No doubt, social hierarchies among tribal communities and between tribal and non-tribal communities do play a role in traditional knowledge remaining, by and large, the preserve of each community.

III. What is happening to the Agrobiodiversity of Wayanad?

 1.      Changing  Land Use

Today, the agrobiodiversity of the district is experiencing tremendous transformation due mainly to changes in land use practices and the preference for high yielding varieties. The neck-deep marshy lands, which were cultivated with rice in the past once or twice a year, have now been transformed into fields that can be ploughed by a tractor. As a consequence, swift surface water depletion and draining takes place, particularly when banana or betel nut palm cultivation is replaced with rice crops. Conversion of land for non-farm use and erroneous land management practices have negatively impacted natural resources. The intensive cultivation practices and manuring patterns adopted in the plains were copied as such, without consideration for the fragility of the soil or the topography of the district’s highland. The heavy land tilling on the slope resulted in serious soil erosion, and the absence of soil conservation measures heightened the pace of soil erosion. During the monsoon season, runoff rates increase and soil erosion rates reach their highest point. The result is that the fertile topsoil is washed off every year causing nutrients to leach and wash away from the agricultural fields.

The indiscriminate use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides poses a number of problems. The replacement of paddy cultivation by banana plantations, accompanied by the liberal use of chemical inputs, has annihilated the soil’s micro flora and fauna, and has posed serious threats to the typical wetland ecosystem and biodiversity. The toxic residues reach kenis (shallow, unprotected wells for drinking water dug near paddy fields) and contaminate these sources of drinking water depended on by small and marginal land holding communities, especially tribal communities. The careless handling of pesticides and chemicals can open the door for many diseases. Used pesticide bottles also get thrown into water bodies like streams and canals, which causes water pollution and harms innumerable aquatic organisms. The chemicals used in the upland areas reach the low-lying areas through run off and leaching processes, and contaminate the streams and rivulets in valleys. It magnifies the spread of toxic residues to all those who depend these water sources and causes health hazards.

2. Changing  Perceptions in Wild Food Consumption

Until about two decades ago, wild food made up the greatest portion of the Kattunaikka community’s food intake. Men and women played a near equal role in every dimension of wild food collection and management. The income earned from the marketing of wild foods like honey, garcinia, gooseberry, etc. was spent to benefit the family as a whole.  The Kattunaikka were once a group solely dependent on foraging in which men and women contributed equally to the collection of greens, digging of tubers, hunting, fishing and other jobs.

The trend has changed steadily since the 1980’s though. Changes in land use patterns, restrictions on forest access, developmental interventions, etc. have been cited as the causes. It has been observed that gender roles shift in relation to changing socio-economic contexts. Gathering greens is now generally women’s work, as in the case of the Paniya, Kuruma and other settled communities.  However, in certain study sites, for example in Muthanga and Aranamala, the Kattunaikka women are now engaged in food production. They tend small home gardens where wild food species collected from the forests have been introduced. They are aided by the men, who collect various wild species from interior forests.  In Aranamala, the food basket of the Kattunaikka settlement has been considerably reduced as a result of the people devoting their entire land holdings to the cultivation of cash crops. In terms of wild food management, this trend has ultimately resulted in various plants and animals being discarded, although they were once relished portions of their diet. The cash crop economy has also resulted in mainstream patriarchal society seeping into all the associated structures of property owning in the community.

The tubers that the Kattunaikka women have sought to introduce in their fields also bear out the truism: what is conserved is related to who collects it. The preference is for varieties fit for making side dishes and not for those varieties that are good for roasting or steaming, which constitute full meals in themselves. Women also place emphasis on species that are not commonly found in the vicinity of their habitats.  It has been noted that the Kattunaikka women take a special interest in collecting Cheruthen, a highly nutritious and medicinal honey that is ideal for infants. It was never a practice to sell this rare variety of honey, which entailed great pain and intense labour by the Kattunaikka women during the collection process. Women’s perceptions about the value and usefulness of a product play a significant role in the effort they make towards its sourcing, preservation and management.

The Kattunaikka are prominently involved in wild food marketing. Nellikka (Emblica officinalis), Poopal (lichen species), kodampuli (Garcinia gummigutta) and honey are the most widely collected non-wood forest products, and are important sources of income for families. Both women and men are engaged in the collection of all these products, with men taking a leading role in their collection and sale. While competition for accessing these products has increased, it has not pushed the Kattunaikka men and women to resort to unsustainable harvesting practices habitually engaged in by the mainstream communities. They would not, for instance, cut down the entire fruit-laden branch of a gooseberry tree, just because it is convenient to collect the fruits from the grounded branch.

 3. Declining Knowledge of Wild Foods

The decline in knowledge related to wild foods across successive tribal generations is a reality amongst all the communities, including forest dwelling communities like the Kattunaikka. An exercise carried out with three generations of the Kattunaikka community revealed a trend not very different from what was obtained in a similar exercise with the Paniya. Ten attributes were tested among the respondents by asking direct questions about their knowledge related to identifying, accessing, processing and management of wild food. The sample included a total of 120 individuals.  The knowledge providers were divided into three age groups:  5 to 18, 18 to 40, and above 40.  The results show a sharp decline in knowledge transfer between the 2nd and 3rd generations.  More than seventy percent of the children pleaded ignorance for every single attribute tested. The girls showed marginally better knowledge compared with the boys, and were better informed about mushroom collection and processing. The sharpest decline in transfer of traditional knowledge was in the identification of edible yams, processing of root tubers like colocasia, extraction of palm powder and the art and technique of tree climbing. It was surprising to note that the majority of the boys could not even climb short trees, in light of the fact that they belong to a community in which the men climb dizzying heights to access honey.  It was also noted that children who attend school are barely aware of most wild food species, except for fish and crabs. The limiting role of school in the transfer of traditional knowledge in this community was similar to that for the Paniya children. A relatively high percentage of the second generation (age group 18 to 40) of Kattunaikkas were knowledgeable about most of the attributes and continue to prefer wild foods to those available at the market. More than 80% of men and women of this age group were equally knowledgeable about attributes of honey collection and yam management. They were also quite conscious of the reasons for depletion of wild food resources. But many of the men and women in this age group did not know how to extract sago (palm powder) from Arenga and Caryota palm, or how to identify epiphytic edible mushrooms. Women in this category were better informed than men on techniques like the catching of crabs and processing of colocasia and mushrooms. The respondents in the over 40 age group did relatively well in all ten attributes, except for tree climbing. As expected, women across all age groups did not report any expertise in this area.


The study shows that traditional land use is a sustainable pathway for the protection of genetic diversity of crop plants and the diversity of wildly available food plants. Enhancing on-farm diversity is important for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural landscapes. In addition, such practices also increase habitat value by maintaining ecosystem heterogeneity and restoring wild vegetation for carbon sequestration.  Reduction of chemical fertilizer use through traditional cultivation practices and use of alternate methods like INM and IPM result in a minimization of pollution and thereby contribute to the overall health and well-being of the dependent communities. Promoting ecologically sound agricultural practices that concurrently ensure both crop productivity and biodiversity conservation therefore take on greater importance. MSSRF has worked with this rationale since 1997 in the Wayanad district to promote integrated management of agrobiodiversity, particularly the conservation of plant genetic resources. Activities have been concentrated primarily in the area of agricultural landscapes and wilderness areas accessed by tribal communities for wild foods. For the past 14 years, CAbC has been committed to working towards conservation and sustainable use of landscapes outside forests in the Wayanad district, which are vital for protecting conservation sites like the Western Ghats.


Ratheesh Narayanan M.K., Swapna, M.P., & N. Anil Kumar. 2003. Gender dimensions of wild food management in Wayanad District. MSSRF/RR/04/12.

Ratheesh Narayanan, M. K. & N. Anil Kumar. 2007. Gendered knowledge and changing trends in utilization of wild edible greens in Western Ghats, India. Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge, Volume 6 (1).

Anil Kumar, N., Girigan, G. & P. Prajeesh. 2009. Genetic Erosion and Degradation of ecosystem Services of Wetland Rice Field: A Case study From Western Ghats, India, Earthscan, London.

Anil Kumar, N & V.R Volga. 2011. Community based Strategies and Action Plans for Promoting On-Farm Conservation of PGRs for Food security and Agriculture. Climate Change and Food security: Challenges and opportunities for Tuber crops, Proceedings of the National Seminar on Climate Change and Food Security: Central Tuber Crops Research Institute. pp: 41.