Bio-resource and sustainable agriculture

[Egam Basar]

The policy conclave themed ‘Dream change Arunachal 2027’ held on 8 and 9 December, 2017 in Itanagar was a commendable attempt to begin inclusive planning process in the state. It brought economists, academicians, scientists, farmers, entrepreneurs, development agencies and all other stakeholders on a single platform to identify, discuss, and propose priority areas of development – a total departure from the previous practices.
The conclave, with six thematic areas of discussions and deliberations – economy and development; expanding agriculture and allied sectors; challenges of education; skilling for future; health service delivery; and protection and continuity of tangible and intangible heritage and cultural expressions – aimed at deriving policy suggestions in various sectors of development, based on realistic assessment of ground-level needs, and to guide future developmental agendas. It implies that the government is serious about the planning process and from now on will prioritize policy-driven development.
It may be too early to comment on the outcome of the conclave, but we must appreciate the good intention of the government, more specifically of the Planning, Finance & Investment department, for the initiative, making the state the first among the Northeastern states to adopt participatory planning in the development process.
It was heartening to see farmers, entrepreneurs and the public presenting their perspectives on development, and contributing in policy suggestions. Even a lower-rung officer like me was invited to be one of the speakers, and I spoke on the topic ‘From bio-resource to bio-enterprise – sustainable and eco-friendly agriculture by harnessing indigenous bio-resources of Arunachal Pradesh’.
The central theme of my presentation was that our state needs not only agriculture development but a sustainable and eco-friendly agriculture development in which the state’s rich plant bio-resource can play a vital role. With huge forest and bio-resource wealth, the state may not follow agricultural development strategies similar to those adopted by other states, having no or lesser of such resources.
Being a major carbon sink of the country and having an ecosystem service value worth Rs 1518 billion per year, the state has an important responsibility to strike a balance between agriculture expansion and maintenance of forest cover, as we receive huge green funds from the central government for the development of the state.
Clearing of forest areas for agriculture not only reduces the forest cover and threatens the state’s rich biodiversity but also results in ecological imbalances which cannot go beyond certain limits in the situation in our state. With a fragile eco-system, and natural calamities like flood and landslides, we cannot afford to adopt agricultural development strategies involving much denudation of the green cover, as it would aggravate the calamities.
As there is heavy rainfall in the state, ranging from 2500 mm to 5000 mm per year, the denuded landscape will render not only more flood and landslides in the monsoon but also cause drought-like situation in the dry period, leading to drying up of streams and rivers.
According to a 2012 report from the Public Health Engineering department, water supply for a total of 733 habitations in the state has been affected by drying up of sources due to cultivation and other deforestation activities in the catchment areas. Already there is severe scarcity of water for irrigation, leading to abandonment of many wetland rice cultivation (WRC) fields and declining of fruit orchards. This is not a good sign for sustainable agriculture development. This is a clear signal to draw the line as to what extent we can go to for horizontal agriculture area expansion, compromising forest cover and water security.
The need of the hour is perhaps to increase the productivity of the current cropped areas to their optimum level first, rather than indulging in new expansion, and also to diversify our agricultural activities towards vertical expansion and value addition for generating more income per unit area.
To diversify our agriculture, one of the important strategies could be vertical expansion by introducing high-value, low-volume crops in the multistoried agro-forestry model. Fortunately, our rich bio-resource has much to offer in this regard, which we seldom realize. For example, we didn’t know about the existence of the herb Paris polyphylla until some six years ago when some foreign pharmacological agencies, believed to be Chinese traditional medicine agencies, started to smuggle it by offering a price as high as Rs 7,000 per kilogram of dried rhizome to our local people. This led to large-scale wild extraction, and now this important herb is hardly found in our forests.
We have also plants like Aconitum heterophyllum, which is prone to wild extraction and illegal trade. It is priced at Rs 10,000-15,000 per kg. There could be hundreds more unexplored ones, having much higher economic value, as the state is a mega biodiversity hotspot. It is believed that some of our rare medicinal plants and orchids have already been stolen away by bio-pirates who come in the disguise of tourists and researchers.
What needs to be done is to explore our rare and valuable plants, preserve them, and develop cultivation technologies through research and development programmes, so that we can offer ultra-high value, low-volume crops to our farmers and make them realize how important their forests, in terms of richness in economic plants, are. If concerted effort is put in, it is not impossible to give our farmers such ultra-high value, low-volume crops to fetch an income of Rs 5-10 lakh from just per quintal produce, given the rare kind of genetic resources we have. It could also suitably replace the traditional crops of bulky and perishable nature which are actually a mismatch to our ground situation of geographical isolation and severe lack of marketing and post-harvest infrastructures.
This could change the whole dynamics of our agriculture towards agro-forestry in the future, which will not only multiply farmers’ income but also help us secure our forest and water resources. When we make a SWOT (strength, weakness, opportunities and threat) analysis of our agriculture, one of our strengths is our rich plant bio-diversity. We should use them judiciously. Our weakness lies in geographical isolation, transportation bottlenecks, and lack of marketing and post-harvest facilities, while among the threats is the entry of foreign plant diseases to which our crops like orange and large cardamom are prone, resulting in large-scale devastation. Hence, shifting towards crops of high value and low volume, less perishable and storable, could be the best option to our current circumstances.
It is high time we realized that we stand to lose our future bio-resource based trade interests to others if we fail to act now. As seen in the orchid trade, Arunachal Pradesh, despite having the highest number (568) of orchid species in India, is still buying the flower imported from Singapore and Thailand (who have only 260-300 orchid species) and loses multi-billion Indian orchid markets to these Southeast Asian countries. These countries have developed their wild orchids into elite hybrids and exotic varieties, while Arunachal orchids remain in the forests, only prone to bio-piracy.
However, the silver lining is that, on the basis of recommendation of the conclave, the government seems to be serious about taking up a major long-term policy decision on our bio-resource development, as indicated by Deputy Chief Minister Chowna Mein in a recently held meeting. If it comes about, it would be a real time ‘dream change’ for our farmers as a far-reaching outcome of the unique policy conclave. (The author is Head, State Horticulture Research & Development Institute, Chimpu, and can be contacted at [email protected])