Odishas near-extinct Kala Jeera rice is making a comeback, thanks to the tribal women who are cultivating and marketing it to the outside world from Machhara village in Koraput district with the help of MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF), Jeypore, and Odisha Rural Development and Marketing Society (ORMAS).

A traditional variety with a distinct aroma and nutty taste, Kala Jeera rice grains resemble cumin seeds. It has medicinal properties that help increase haemoglobin levels.

Researchers had warned that Kala Jeera rice would gradually vanish in 12 years, but the village women brought about the much-needed change. In fact, Kala Jeera seeds sowed by them also reaped the fruits of financial freedom.

Eight years on, over 100 women farmers in Machhara and nearby villages are now involved in Kala Jeera rice production. They have formed a collective - Sabari Producer Group - which not only cultivates the rice but also collects, processes, brands and sells it on the e-commerce platform Amazon.

Apart from Machhara, the group purchases Kala Jeera from farmers in over 10 nearby villages, including Mandia, Bajra, Suan, Dangarrani, Sukriguda, Bodapadar, Podeiguda and Mendhaguda.

"Most people in our village belong to Poraja, Godaba and Bhumiyan communities. Traditionally, we cultivate rice to feed our families. We also worked under the MGNREGA scheme. Even then, we could barely manage to keep ourselves alive," Machhara-based Chitta Chendia, who now has three acres under Kala Jeera rice cultivation, tells 101Reporters.

She says adopting Kala Jeera variety has enhanced her source of income as it is priced at Rs 25 to 30 per kg in the market against the Rs 15 of a basic paddy variety. "If you cultivate basic paddy on three acres, you get Rs 50,000 to 70,000 per harvest cycle (once in a year); for Kala Jeera rice covering the same area, you get around Rs 2 lakh per cycle," she elaborates, adding how she earns enough to send children to school now.

According to Daimati Chendy, not everyone was involved in farming Kala Jeera initially. But on realising the demand for the product on Amazon, many women joined the initiative. From just 30, the number of cultivators has grown to over 100 in the last eight years. "Even landless women now take up cultivation in plots on lease," Chendy says.

Sita Jani of Machhara expanded her Kala Jeera cultivation by getting another plot on lease, apart from utilising her small piece of land. Seeds are available easily and at affordable prices, and there is no struggle to sell the produce either, she says.

"Due to our successful enterprise, the women of our village are seen differently now. We got opportunities to visit big cities and talk to people as equals. Even men respect us more and want to help us so that we can bring in more money home," says Haribola Sukia.

Traditional farming practices are employed in Kala Jeera cultivation, which is fully organic. "Instead of chemical fertilisers, we make organic manure using readily available components such as cow urine and leaves of neem, papaya and pomegranate, among others," explains Jani.

Additionally, the researchers at the MSSRF have trained the villagers of Koraput district to enhance productivity while staying true to traditional methods. "Using our traditional knowledge, we could grow three quintals of Kala Jeera rice in an acre. After training, we now harvest 10 to 15 quintals from the same land," she says.

According to Surajita Turuk, the MSSRF field officer and officer-in-charge of Machhara village, traditional fertilisers and seed purification methods used by tribals for generations are the easiest ways to ensure organic farming. "We have branded them as Jibamruta and Bijamruta."

"Seeds for the seed bank are collected from relatives and surrounding villagers, and then distributed among beneficiary farmers. We have a special committee for the seed bank," Haribola Pitia explains.

Anyone who gets seeds from the bank has to return more seeds than they have taken. This is the rule, though it varies from village to village. "In Machhara, if someone takes 10 kg of seed, she has to return 12 to 13 kg. In Kundra, you have to return 14 kg for every 10 kg taken," informs Pitia.

Before the sowing season, villagers get together to identify good quality seeds and decide on the quantity to be distributed in each area. They will also reach an understanding of how to collect the seeds back from the beneficiary.

Due to these efforts, Koraput district today stands as a fine example of community participation for biodiversity conservation.