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The Future of Food: Seeds of Resilience

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Commentary:Strengthening Community Based Seed Systems in Tajikistan

Muhabbat Mamadalieva is one of the first women in Tajikistan to have earned a PhD in Plant Genetics. In 1999, together with other professional women, she founded Zan Va Zamin (Women and Earth), an NGO dedicated to tackling issues facing rural women, including land rights, livelihoods, and environmental degradation. Under Mamadalieva’s leadership, the organization won the Equator Prize in 2012 for showing leadership in promoting innovative ways to build resilient communities.

Kubonali Partoev is the Head Potato Specialist of the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Tajikistan.

Makhmadzamon Sulangov is the Director of the Vegetable Department at the National Centre for Genetic Resources of the Republic of Tajikistan.

Shoista Mubalieva is the Director of the Fruits Department of the National Centre for Genetic Resources in the Republic of Tajikistan.

The mountainous region of Tajikistan has its own peculiarities, both geographic and climatic. For centuries, Tajik people were engaged in gardening; growing vegetables, legumes and wheat. During the Soviet period, however, cotton became a monoculture and intensive mechanization in agriculture was used. The system of seed for all crops was centralized, and there were large collective and state farms that specialized in seed production and mainly relied on government policy support. As such, the traditional and farming system of agricultural seed crops didn’t exist and only a few farmers engaged in the preparation and storage of vegetable seeds for future planting. With no need to grow grain, the experience was forgotten, and some local varieties of wheat, fruits, disappeared. In addition, traditional knowledge on biodiversity, accumulated for centuries, began to disappear, and along with it went community based seed systems.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a period of reorganization of collective and state farms began, and farmers got their land returned to them. However, there was intense use of hybrid seed and varieties imported from other countries, instead of the local varieties that had been adapted to grow in local conditions. This led to a reduction in the nutritional value of our crops. Many valuable local varieties, as well as their wild relatives, are now on the endangered species lists in our country. In order for restoration and rehabilitation of traditional forms of agriculture to happen, and for local varieties of agricultural products to return, it is crucial to form and develop a new system of community based seed cultivation.

“The Tajik community has just barely begun to establish a network of seed-growing farmers, who use seed mainly for vegetables, wheat and melons. The cultivation of fruit varieties by budding and the preparation of saplings or transplants has a longer history of success; however, establishing this has still been difficult because it requires that people learn to value and recover information that they may have heard from their grandparents.”

The Tajik community has just barely begun to establish a network of seed-growing farmers, who use seed mainly for vegetables, wheat and melons. The cultivation of fruit varieties by budding and the preparation of saplings or transplants has a longer history of success; however, establishing this has still been difficult because it requires that people learn to value and recover information that they may have heard from their grandparents. Through this process, rural inhabitants, farmers, and women have started to preserve some species, such as different varieties of tomato, onion, carrot, and beet, etc. Some varieties of fruits have been saved with the help and support of government and donors. It is very important to indicate that the budding of fruits at the community level has been considered one of the best means of cultivation.

Ways to protect and strengthen community based seed systems

It is important to raise the community’s awareness of the importance of seed systems based in the local community for the conservation of agrobiodiversity. It is also important to enhance the role of farmers—and particularly, savers of seeds—among the members of the community through promotion, encouragement and support. In order to strengthen community seed systems, it is critical to identify the farmers who are involved in local seed preparation. It is very important that their knowledge is shared with other farmers so as to improve the seed-growing process in the wider community. The first step in this very important action is to identify those farmers who produce high quality seeds of different species, and then to prepare them to teach others these skills.

In order to bring real change in society, it is important to change people’s thinking. We must convince specialists and the public that it is critical to save the agrodiversity in our country. At the same time, we need to use some of the forgotten and traditional methods of farming to establish local kinds of crops more adapted to Tajikistan’s unique climate.

Barriers to success

“Farmers who grow local varieties argue that their products are unable to compete in the market. Since consumers pay more attention to the appearance of products, preference is given to the imported and industrial varieties.”

The major barriers to expanding community based seed growing systems can be considered as follows:

  • Local farmers and the general population have an insufficient level of knowledge about the genetic and breeding quality values of local varieties of crops.
  • At the same time, even government officials and authorities at the relevant ministries do not have the required level of information and understanding of the importance of community based seed breeding to be clear on the necessity of its further development and strengthening.
  • There is a lack of a clearly defined policy to establish and develop agrobiodiversity and conservation in a community based seed production system. There are no special state programs on the development of community based seed systems.
  • Local varieties can’t compete with the hybrid and industrial varieties. Farmers who grow local varieties argue that their products are unable to compete in the market. Since consumers pay more attention to the appearance of products, preference is given to the imported and industrial varieties. Although the local varieties possess valuable nutrition and have better tasting qualities, people still do not value these factors and their importance for human health. Subsequently, they do not value the importance of local agricultural products and their preservation.

As a result, farmers continue to grow local varieties, but only for their own use. As for the market sale, they mainly grow varieties that are more attractive in their appearance and are better in terms of yield. Farmers usually pay attention to the productivity of species rather than their biological diversity. Hybrid seeds usage for obtaining the greatest profit from the land is also an important barrier for development of community based seed production.

Many international organizations that have been working in Tajikistan provide support for agriculture by providing farmers with seeds for wheat, potatoes, and other staple foods, in big amounts mainly purchased abroad. These organizations are mostly focused on poverty reduction, and introduce mostly imported hybrid seeds.

“The wide availability of hybrid seeds creates a kind of dependence which has gradually led to farmers no longer preparing and storing seeds for future planting. Instead many just hope for humanitarian assistance that provides seed from international organizations.”

The wide availability of hybrid seeds creates a kind of dependence which has gradually led to farmers no longer preparing and storing seeds for future planting. Instead many just hope for humanitarian assistance that provides seed from international organizations. Now that this has become a kind of habit for them, they have lost their desire, skills and knowledge of seed preparation for future planting.

The government and large enterprises and corporations use the same approach, purchasing seeds and transplants from abroad, which reduces the motivation of local farmers to produce local seeds.

Where funders can intervene

This is what is required to develop favourable conditions for strengthening the conservation of agrobiodiversity of community based seed systems in Tajikistan:

  • Carry out a study to assess the current situation. Assess what is required to preserve agricultural biodiversity of seed produced by local farmers in the country, assess those seeds’ potential, and work out recommendations and proposals for strengthening community based seed production.
  • Develop and adopt a special program in the country for agrobiodiversity conservation of seed produced at the community level with the involvement of specialists, experts, experienced farmers, and agricultural scientists.
  • Provide information to the public and private sectors—including community members such as women, leaders, and schoolchildren—about the conservation of agrobiodiversity in the local seed production system, its value and importance, and the need for distribution of seeds.
  • Promote the creation of various forms of organization of local farmers engaged in the production of seeds, such as seed keepers’ networks, associations, cooperatives, women’s groups and men’s groups at the community and district levels.
  • Organize study groups and the exchange of experiences between seed keeping farmers of different regions through mobile seminars and meetings.
  • Introduce local farmers to the best, most successful practices used in other countries in terms of community based seed systems, including ways to store seeds, how to create a network of seed keepers, how to create a gene bank, and how to generate funding for seeds. India, China and other countries have preserved a large variety of crops through seed production systems based in local communities.
  • Increase the interest of seed-keeping farmers by supporting and stimulating them to obtain certificates and patents for their invention of new varieties, seeds, seedlings, etc. We need to create forms of public recognition for seed savers for invention, so that they can benefit financially. Then these gains associated with local innovation will spread. This is, in fact, the action of strengthening of natural resources in agriculture.
  • Hold trade exhibitions and innovative festivals, where the variety of seeds of local farmers can be displayed at the village, district and regional levels to encourage farmers and raise awareness about local seeds.
  • Enhance the role of women and their involvement in the conservation of agricultural biodiversity. The lifestyle of rural Tajik women is designed so that they are always an active participant in the process of family agricultural activity.

“Farmers who are producing seeds need to be trained in the relevant skills and knowledge needed to prepare various contracts and other documentation for the distribution of seeds, and to create seed banks in local communities.”

Women have traditionally saved seeds during meal preparation using various plants and vegetables. They kept the seeds for the next planting season and because of their efforts, families never went without seeds and produce. This made it possible for women to know these varieties and increase their knowledge about seed growing.

Now many men are migrating to Russia to find jobs and almost all the work in the field is done by women. Many women are engaged with budding seedlings and are able to do budding.

Farmers who are producing seeds need to be trained in the relevant skills and knowledge needed to prepare various contracts and other documentation for the distribution of seeds, and to create seed banks in local communities.

Examples of success

With the support of the Christensen Fund, our organization, Zan va Zamin (Women and Earth) works with the local communities of the mountainous areas of Tajikistan—Khovaling, Muminobod and Shuroabad—to conserve agricultural biodiversity of fruit crops (mainly local varieties of apples). We have arranged expeditions to the most remote mountain villages in the country just to identify the farmers who grow rare, valuable, local varieties of apples.

Through this process, we have identified more than 60 fruit farmers who are growing valuable and rare local varieties of fruits, such as apple, pear, and peach. These farmers have served as holders of gene banks in situ, and subsequently, they have been selected as a source of materials for budding local varieties.

In order to conserve, reproduce and distribute these local rare varieties, we created a nursery where we now have about 10,000 seedlings. In order to produce the seedlings, we traveled to the places where we had previously detected rare varieties, and gathered the required material for budding. In this way, we were able to collect scions from various local varieties and produced seedlings in the nursery. We also acquired the materials to produce peach, apricot, pear and cherry seedlings.

Through this process, over 20 different local varieties of apple were cultivated and distributed, including pashmak, kosimsarkori, Nosirboy, Lattase, Surkhseb, Safedse, Bekmatkhur (kandilsnab), Shohiseb and many others. We also produced local varieties of apricot, peach and almond.

The next year, we took the seedlings from the nursery and created a collection garden in the mountain regions of Khovaling and Muminobod. This grew in popularity, so that the seedlings were growing in the community and in schoolyards. Now we have a total area of seven hectares under cultivation.

We have found people in the communities—after many years of providing themselves and their close friends with seeds—to be very interested in supporting this process. As an example, Nazriev Ubaidullo, from Vakhsh district, has been engaged for many years in seed production. He provides people from neighbouring farms with seed material, mostly free of charge. He is engaged in growing, on two hectares of land, multiple varieties of potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, pumpkins and sweet potato. We can find other such people in different areas who grow seeds of various crops and connect them to a small range of producers.

In Romania, an organization called Eco Ruralis is working effectively with farmers’ unions in producing local vegetable seeds. Eco Ruralis was founded in April 2009 by farmers from all regions of Romania. It is a grassroots association made up of over 500 small farmers who practice organic and traditional farming based on environmentally conscious principles. It stands for farmers’ rights to practice sustainable agriculture. This includes the right to use, multiply and distribute traditional seeds, the pursuit of food sovereignty and respect for consumer health.

How to promote researcher-farmer collaboration

“It is important to strengthen cooperation and communication between scientists and seed growing farmers by organizing meetings, field days, field schools, trainings, round tables, and the publication of recommendations, brochures, manuals, etc.”

Researchers, with the help of farmers, can organize a science-based seed production system that will efficiently distribute high-quality seeds among the local population and farmers so that the diversity of types and forms of different cultures can continue to be preserved. It is important to strengthen cooperation and communication between scientists and seed growing farmers by organizing meetings, field days, field schools, trainings, round tables, and the publication of recommendations, brochures, manuals, etc.

This can be done through the development of curriculum, training courses and seed production guidelines, based on the community. It can also be done through supporting the creation of demonstration and pilot fields for the cultivation of local varieties, and the creation of local seed banks. It would be important to create a special course on the preservation of local seeds to be taught in the country’s agricultural universities.

Researchers can describe the local varieties, hybrids, and grafts that are cultivated by local farmers and keepers of seeds. They can facilitate the obtaining of a patent and a certificate by local farmers for the invention of varieties. All the new invented varieties need to be recognized by the ministries, agencies and the scientific community. This is, in fact, societal recognition.

“Agricultural research institutions need to study the possibility and potential of community based seed production in the country in order to develop proposals and recommendations.”

It is important to conduct research to find and identify a variety of local crops and to create seed banks for their further reproduction, dissemination and preservation. Agricultural research institutions need to study the possibility and potential of community based seed production in the country in order to develop proposals and recommendations for the development of community based seed production.

Young professionals, graduate students, and graduates of higher education institutions should be involved in the study of the preservation of agricultural biodiversity of seed systems based in the community. Agricultural universities need to offer specific subjects or courses on the importance and necessity of community based seed systems, and their development and strengthening. Likewise, special classes devoted to the issues of preservation of a variety of seeds should be introduced into the curricula of secondary schools.

It is important to create a database of local farmers and gene banks to both conserve local crop varieties and document the biodiversity of community based seeds.

The role of public health institutions

“Institutes of public health and nutrition can contribute to the conservation of biodiversity and the distribution of fruits, melons, potatoes, cereals and legumes, etc., through the dissemination of booklets and posters about a healthy lifestyle based on proper diet.”

Institutes of public health and nutrition can contribute to the conservation of biodiversity and the distribution of fruits, melons, potatoes, cereals and legumes, etc., through the dissemination of booklets and posters about a healthy lifestyle based on proper diet. This includes providing information on the nutritional value and high vitamin content of local varieties of produce, and their use in traditional culture to promote robust human health.

It is necessary to impact the public consciousness and bring awareness to people about food from local agrobiodiversity and its for human health benefits. One way to do this is through offering traditional meals made from diverse local ingredients for meals in schools and preschools.

Learning from traditional cultures

Every scientifically based discovery has its roots in local knowledge. Therefore, institutions must learn the knowledge and culture of the Indigenous Peoples and the local community for the purpose of study, creation, promotion, preservation and enrichment of biological diversity.

The role of policy advocacy

It is important to promote regular coverage of local farmers and seed growers’ activities in the mass media. This can include the preparation and presentation of a series of broadcasts on the importance of community based seed systems, and how this can greatly improve both human health and food security in the region.

The role of development agencies and government institutions

Tajikistan’s Ministry of Agriculture, National Center for Genetic Resources, the Conservation Center for Biological Diversity, the Academy of Sciences, the Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Tajik Agrarian University, and the Committee for Environmental Protection should all develop a policy for the creation of community based seed systems.

It is necessary to develop and adopt special programs for the formation and development of agrobiodiversity conservation seed production at the community level with the involvement of specialists, experts, experienced farmers and scientist–agrarians. The government needs to develop and implement support programs to create favorable conditions for strengthening the conservation of agricultural biodiversity of community based seed systems in the country. At the same time, it is necessary to make some legislative changes and amendments to establish knowledge-based seed systems based on community experience.