Community Seed Bank: Beyond Preservation And Conservation

Community Seed Bank: Beyond Preservation And Conservation

This year the price of ginger seeds was exceptionally high at Rs 20,000 per quintal. If the 2000 small and marginal farmers, Oxfam India has been working with for the last two years, hadn’t preserved their own ginger seeds, this year’s cultivation would have been been near impossible. 

The community seed bank, promoted by Oxfam India-SDMC Trust project, ensured large scale exchange of quality native seeds. In the 40 villages and 2000 farmers that we work with, we have  ensured conservation and multiplication of native seeds at the community level through custodian farmers.

Seeds, one of the basic inputs of agriculture, play a fundamental role in meeting multiple challenges related to food and nutrition security, vulnerability to climate change and eroding natural resources, livelihood security of farmers especially small and marginal, and the faltering local economy. In other words, it is relevant beyond preservation and biodiversity conservation. It is also relevant to the economic empowerment of farmers.

Women from the indigenous communities have been playing a critical role in conserving the seeds. But they largely did it for themselves or shared with very close relatives. There was a fear of losing the seed if crop failed; the seeds were never exchanged or went outside the family or village. In fact, selected native seeds stand at par or perform better than certified seeds due to its resilience and productivity.

Saita Jaipuria, of the Paraja tribes, from Aligaon village had been a custodian of a native brinjal seed for the last thirty years. Laxmi Katabali, also from Aligaon, regularly produced tomato seeds. But both of them kept it for family use alone. Once we started working with them, they understood the importance of seed bank and they donated native brinjal and tomato seeds for the first time this year!

When we started work a couple of years ago in these 40 villages, we observed that where there was some semblance of an informal or a community-based seed system in Koraput initiatives were taken to conserve paddy, millets and oilseeds but no steps were taken for vegetable seeds. And this included ginger seeds.

Read the Ginger story here

Dependency in high yielding variety seeds is an economic burden on the farmers. The costs are high, there is no control over availability and affordability, there is no control over the quality of seeds and its resilience, and there is no seed sovereignty. The way most farmers deal with this situation is through collective seed purchases at lower prices (bulk rates) but it has its own limitations.

The community seed bank which the Oxfam India-SDMC Trust project evolved is a mix of ex situ conservation (off site conservation or conservation out of the natural place) and in situ conservation (conservation in the original place) approaches of seed conservation and preservation. Just having these two systems is not enough there is a need to identify, organise and enable custodian farmers and farmer breeders.

When the work on developing seed banks started a year ago, the proposition was to include the local knowledge systems—native seeds and best indigenous practices—to make villages and the whole farming community self-sufficient, independent of the market, strengthen local economies and make them resilient to climate crisis.

The community seed bank is not merely a storehouse of seeds. It is enriching and reviving best practices by improving the attitude, skill, and knowledge of the farming community.  The seed bank itself is a small-scale local organization that works as a network of farmers organised for the exchange of seeds, and information. The aim isn’t just agro-biodiversity conservation but also the economic empowerment of farmers, both at the family and institutional levels.

The Process of Forming Seed Banks

Women Farmer Producer Groups (WFPGs) is the base for discussion and collection of native seeds. We organised a seed festival to further collect and exchange the seeds. Seeds are given for free with a commitment to keep one fruit for self and the rest to share with other farmers within the group. Those outside the group can directly purchase it from the Seed Bank or the farmers. This process helps to conserve and multiply the native seeds.

The farmers follow different techniques to collect different types of vegetable seeds. For instance, the rules for beans are different for that of brinjal and so on and so forth. But the thumb rule is to select healthy plants and healthy fruits from the selected and marked plants. Then, it is treated traditionally with ash or a combination of ash, anthill soil and cow dung. It is then sun dried and stored in earthen pots or bamboo structures. It is kept in small glass bottles for display purposed at the WFPO office and Market Facilitation Centre.

80% of the farmers we work with are tribals. We have been very careful to align our project with tribal culture and their lifestyle. Through various approaches the income of the farmers from agriculture doubled in two years and reached about Rs 38,000 per annum. And of these different approaches, native seed banks have played an important role.

Sweet potato is widely grown in Koraput and 50% of its cultivation cost is the stem or the vine and the procurement of it. The farmers were dependent on other villages. Through the seed bank we have ensured that these vines are available in community and individual nurseries in the 40 villages  of Pottangi and Semiliguda blocks we work in. This has made it more affordable for the farmers who had to let it go due to high prices in the peak season. And now the farmers have been able to cultivate it just in time for Diwali to get a very good price.

Apart from the fact that 2000 farmers could grow ginger despite the adverse conditions and sweet potato vines are now available at the doorsteps, the community seed banks now stores, preserves and multiplies over 50 varieties of native seeds including vegetable and pulses. It has enabled the exchange of technologies of seed production, collection and preservation. In the last one year, we have identified 200 farmers as custodian farmers for the native vegetable seeds that they preserve.

One such custodian farmer is Raila Chopadi of the Gadaba tribes, from Bada Tema village has conserved seeds of native beans, bitter gourd, tomato, brinjal, cow pea, cucumber, ridge gourd, maize and three varieties of chilies.

The indigenous women farmers were already experts at conserve and multiply the native seeds, but now they believe in sharing and promoting this practice in the larger community for the greater good. According to them, the native seeds make the plants pest and disease tolerant, keeps the cost of cultivation low and margin profits high, is in high demand in the market and flies of the shelves in no time, the farmers have control over its quality, and there is immense satisfaction of growing crops with one’s own seeds. It is a win win situation indeed!


With an overarching goal of right to life with dignity, Oxfam India works towards reducing inequality and injustice by working with alliances of poor and marginalised people, especially women. SDMC Trust has supported Oxfam India to organise and empower 2000 poor and marginalised women farmers, mainly tribal women farmers in Pottangi and Semiliguda blocks of Koraput district. Oxfam India has partnered with Women Organization for Rural Development (WORD) and Prastutee to achieve the goal by initiating various economic activities, mainly related to productivity and profitability enhancement of vegetable and ginger, linking them with fair and larger market and need based convergence.

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