Linking Ex Situ and In Situ Conservation: Community Seed Banks Transfer 900 Local Varieties to The National Gene Bank

Community seed banks in Nepal perform three important functions: conservation of local crop diversity in farmers’ field, providing access and availability of diverse seeds and planting materials to farmer communities, and thus promoting seed and food sovereignty of the farming communities.

Although the first community seed bank was established in Nepal in 1995, with support from USC Canada Asia in Dalchoki, Lalitpur, community seed banks have become an intervention of interest for some I/NGOs and the government of Nepal only recently. Over a 100 community seed banks have been recorded in Nepal, but only a handful of them are able to put consolidated efforts in line with the aforementioned three functions of community seed banks.

In collaboration with Bioversity International and Nepal Agricultural Research Council (NARC), Local Initiatives for Biodiversity, Research and Development (LI-BIRD) facilitated the establishment of a community seed bank in Kachorwa, Bara in 2003. Since then, with support from various donors, such as the Development Fund (Norway), the European CommissionInternational Development Research Centre (IDRC)International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), and GEF/UNDP (Global Environment Facility/ United Nations Development Programme), LI-BIRD has facilitated establishment and strengthening of 14 additional community seed banks across Nepal. Among these, many are located in the flat land terai area where local varieties are disappearing rapidly. A few are in the mid and high-hills.

Altogether, these community seed banks have conserved more than 1000 local varieties of cereals, vegetables, legumes, root crops and spices. Despite these efforts on the ground, there has been no systematic effort to keep safety duplication of local varieties in the national genebank. There has been much talk about ex situ – in situ linkages, but there are scarce examples on the ground.

Dilli Jimi of the community seed bank in Tamaphok, Sankhuwasabha is busy filling up the passport information for the local varieties from his village.

On 29 December 2014, with the objective of safety duplication of local varieties conserved at community seed banks, LI-BIRD and the National Network of Community Seed Banks co-organized a seed transfer event at the Agyauli Community Seed Bank in the Nawalparasi district. This event was supported by the Community-based Biodiversity Management in Nepal project (funded by the Development Fund, Norway) and the Neglected and Underutilized Species project (funded by Bioversity International, IFAD and the European Commission).

Altogether, 15 community seed banks from 12 districts transferred 916 local varieties of 62 crop species to the National Gene Bank located at Khumaltar, Lalitpur for long term storage. The Chief of the National Gene Bank, Mr. Madan Raj Bhatta, received seed samples along with passport data from the representatives of the 15 community seed banks.

The Chief of the National Genebank interacting with farmers and apperciating the diversity of seeds.

The event was witnessed by the Regional Agriculture Director of the Western Development Region, Mr. Lekhnath Acharya; the Chair of LI-BIRD’s Executive Board, Mr. Krishna Prasad Baral; Regional Coordinator and Senior Scientist (In situ conservation) at Bioversity International, Dr. Bhuwon Sthapit; Senior Agricultural Development Officer from the District Agriculture Development Office, Nawalparasi, Mr. Yamnarayan Devkota; and representatives of 15 community seed banks across Nepal and the local community from Agyauli, Nawalparasi.

Currently, community seed banks, are supplying seeds of farmers’ needs at local level contributing to increase household food production both in terms of number of species and volume. In addition, the crop diversity conserved at community seed banks are valuable stock of genes for future research and development.

For instance, out of 308 local rice varieties sent to the National Gene Bank this time, 30 are aromatic types. Though, in-depth germplasm enhancement study is yet to be done, several years of farmers’ experiences tell us that some of these varieties have ability to tolerate diseases, drought, flood; some have good eating quality;  some can be grown in marginal environments and some have medicinal properties too.  Some of these varieties could be used as a local parent for developing new rice varieties to meet our future needs.

The community seed bank of Agyouli is becoming another learning centre (after the Kachorwa, Bara community seed bank) for community seed banking and the community-based biodiversity management approach.

There is risk in conserving high value varieties only at a community seed bank or at farmers’ field level. At the farmers’ level, farmers may choose to replace local varieties with more common varieties; they may lose the seeds or simply stop farming all together. Problems can arise at the community seed banks level as well. They may also face problem such as scarcity of fund for seed regeneration, or be affected by theft, accidents like fire or natural disasters of flood or landslides. Safety duplication of the seeds in the National Genebank is another layer of protection against the loss of genetic resources.

This is the first of its kind event and we hope it paves the way for further collaboration between the ex situ and in situ conservation efforts where knowledge, materials and recognition are exchanged in both directions.