One of the most interesting aspects of this research project also happens to be one of the greatest challenges, and that is to meet with farmers throughout India. Traveling across such a vast country to capture the agricultural diversity is both time-consuming and logistically challenging. I flew to Assam from Punjab and the contrast between the two states was apparent immediately. Punjab had a familiarity: the large tracts of agriculture land developed for conventional agricultural practices had similarities with Canada’s prairies or the landscape of Ukraine. By contrast, Assam’s capital Guwahati appeared to be a city that had sprung up out of the jungle. The monsoon rains had already arrived and the surroundings were lush and green.
From Guwahati, I decided to travel to Lakhimpur district. It turned out to be a more challenging journey than I had anticipated. I expected to fly between states, but once I was in a state, I thought I would travel by rail or automobile. Doing so in Assam would have taken 10-14 hours, so I opted to fly to Lakhimpur instead. From above, the landscape appears to be mostly water with the braids of the mighty Brahmaputra weaving through the floodplain. The environment well-suited for supporting livelihoods based on a mix of rice cultivation and fisheries. The importance of rice in the Assamese diet and culture was stressed by everyone I met. They eat rice at every meal, breakfast included, and if they have a snack it is based on rice.
My primary motive for going to Lakhimpur was to meet with three farmers who had received Genome Saviour Awards for preserving traditional varieties. My first meeting was with researchers at the Lakhimpur agricultural research station. Fortunately, the researchers at the station not only knew the farmers, but knew them well enough to have nominated them along with several other farmers for the award. The farmers were dedicated, knowledgeable and precise in how they maintained local varieties. One award winning farmer used traditional knowledge to preserve 16 varieties of rice on less than 3 hectares of land. I was primarily interested in rice and learned about aromatic varieties grown for personal consumption on special occasions. From another farmer, I learned about Bao, a floating type of rice that does well in deep water.
I was unaware of the rare golden silk that is produced only in Assam’s Brahmaputra Valley. Another of the award-winning farmers had worked to preserve several varieties of host plant for the Muga caterpillar (the only critter capable of producing golden silk). His interest and work in preserving traditional varieties began with Muga host plants, but he did not stop there. He has now preserving 18 varieties of rice and several varieties of mango. He introduced me to a few farmers belonging to a cooperative of golden silk farmers. Each farmer had different preferences for host plants as each variety had strengths and weaknesses. For instance, the broad leaf variety provides better protection in rainy conditions. The group of 80 farmers exchange seeds amongst themselves when they wished to have a different variety. In many ways, golden silk production is the ultimate picture of sustainable practices. The caterpillar is sensitive to the use of pesticides and air pollutants requiring a near pristine environment. The expression ‘canary in the coal-mine’ could be substituted with ‘the golden silk worm in the valley’. The host plants are native to the jungle, so silk cultivation does not disturb the natural habitat. Despite the challenges of cultivating golden silk such as pesticides contamination from neighbouring tea plantations and depressed prices due to competition from imitation products, the golden silk farmers believe that one-day golden silk will shine in the spot-light it so rightly deserves.
I cannot give a just description to the natural beauty of Lakhimpur. Rice fields with the Himalayan mountain range in the distance, lush jungle, and interesting homes built on stilts to deal with the rising waters during monsoons. Eager farmers were waiting to speak to us, so I did not ask my driver to stop the numerous times I could have taken a photo. Moreover, the Assamese people are as warm and welcoming as the landscape is beautiful, so I was keen to meet as many of them as possible as well.