The Forest King

It was bred to aid the rural poor, but one bird is also helping break industrialised farming’s stranglehold on India. Andrew Wasley meets the remarkable Giriraja

To the casual passer-by, the sleepy ambience of Bangalore’s University of Agricultural Sciences seems an unlikely place for a revolution. But pioneering academics from the university’s Department of Poultry Science have placed themselves at the centre of India’s growing resistance to intensive farming and corporate control of the food chain.

Scientists at the institution have developed a unique strain of poultry they claim offers hope to the country’s heavily impoverished rural communities, and directly challenges those advocating industrial livestock production, which has swept across the sub-continent in recent years.

Bred to require little paid-for feed or medication, the Giriraja – or Forest King – chicken is based on an ancient breed of south-Indian fowls and is highly adapted to free-range husbandry.

A scavenger bird, sturdy and naturally resistant to many diseases, the Giriraja does not demand sophisticated or modernised rearing practices. Fully grown, it weighs 3- 3.5kg, as opposed to the 1.3-1.5 kg of other varieties, and it also produces a high yield of eggs. Thus in addition to providing an essential source of protein from its meat, it offers an income supplement for its keepers in rural villages and indigenous communities.

Such has been the success of the Giri Raja ‘miracle fowl’ project that international campaigners are now hailing it as a model for sustainable development, and a weapon in the
fi ght against the current food crisis.

The corporate fightback

The twin threats of corporate takeover and avian influenza loom, however. A signatory to the WTO, India’s burgeoning poultry industry is under pressure to become more competitive on a national and international scale. Not surprisingly, a number of food corporations have already expressed interest in buying into the Giri Raja breeding programme – moves so far thwarted by the university, which wants the breeding programme to remain independent and the birds in the hands of rural people.

Earlier this year, millions of poultry birds were controversially slaughtered in India following fresh outbreaks of the deadly H5N1 virus. Pressure groups say it is small backyard
poultry farmers – often reliant on chickens for essential food and income – who are wrongfully blamed for outbreaks and who bear the brunt of such culls, as they cannot afford to replenish liquidated bird stocks.

‘[Giri Raja] is truly the king of the forest,’ Dr S Abdul Rahman, secretary of the Commonwealth Veterinary Association, told the Ecologist. ‘It’s king in all aspects because it helps the farmer, it’s environmentally friendly, it’s organic and it’s an answer to the farmers’ problems. Over the past 40 years, industrialised farming has taken over the livestock sector in India, replacing backyard poultry farming, [but] the increasing monopoly [of poultry production] has left many farmers high and dry.’

Dr Narasimhamurthy, head of Bangalore University’s Poultry Science Department, adds: ‘Today’s system of [vertical] integration [in the poultry industry] has made it diffi cult
for marginal farmers to raise birds [economically] and to their taste, but Giri Raja has the capacity to scavenge and thrive and does not cost farmers any initial investment.

‘[It has] helped the farmers in income generation and in their social activity, and also with food security. It has increased their protein consumption through eggs, both children and adults. This way it has had an all-round effect on the rural poultry families.’

Across India, small-scale backyard poultry farming has been practised for generations, playing a vital role in sustaining poor, rural communities, providing employment and income opportunities, particularly for often marginalised women and young people.

In recent decades, however, the Indian countryside has become increasingly littered with factory farms and processing facilities, using highly mechanised production processes to churn out thousands of birds a day – a picture being played out across southern Asia.

By consolidating their grip on the entire poultry chain from rearing to slaughter, the large integrated poultry companies – often financed, in part, by foreign capital – have been able to undercut small-scale producers and effectively take over the market.

Many traditional poultry farmers have faced a stark choice: to pack up and seek alternative employment or become ‘contracted’ to one of these integrated poultry firms. Although the system of contract farming is supposed to guarantee producers a decent price for their produce – in return for standardised stock, feed and other start-up materials from their employer company – research shows contract farmers are often crippled by low incomes and long working hours, and are frequently unable to repay their ‘debt’ to their employer company.

The misery and deprivation that has come to characterise much contract poultry farming inevitably results in disputes, yet there is virtually no independent mechanism for resolving them, meaning many farmers are trapped in a relentless cycle of poultry production with little financial or other reward.

As well as the arrival of industrial farming, some of the strains of poultry traditionally kept by rural communities were found to be vulnerable to disease, difficult to breed, and frequently supplied low yields of eggs or poor volumes of meat. It was in response to these challenges that experts from Bangalore University set out to develop Giri Raja.

The chicken that laid the golden egg

The university now supplies breeding birds to hundreds of people living in the countryside near to Bangalore, and offers ongoing advice and support with husbandry techniques. Others travel as far as 500km to collect Giri Raja birds – one farmer from Honnavar told the Ecologist he was collecting 1,400 birds for more than 200 people as part of a trust scheme. Local farmers speak of Giri Raja transforming their lives; of how they now have staple food supplies, the means of generating some income and an increasing sense of empowerment.

When the Ecologist visited, stocks of Giri Raja had run low and university officials were turning customers away. It is this success that has attracted global interest from campaigners.

John Callaghan, of UK-based NGO Compassion in World Farming, said: ‘This is a great example of a local breed with local strengths being adapted to that environment, raised and improved to provide good-quality, local food for local people.

‘I’m not surprised when developing countries have the solution to their future – they’ve had it for a long time. There is huge knowledge contained among people living in rural locations around the world. They, after all, have developed and worked with breeds of animals that survive in those conditions.’

Compassion in World Farming believes that combining such local knowledge with international expertise in sustainable farming methods can provide food security and avoid intensive farming systems that are detrimental to people, environment and animal welfare.

Indeed, conditions at some intensive poultry farms in India have been found to be ‘appalling’. Footage obtained by activists at a number of locations in West Bengal shows what campaigners say are ‘crowded, filthy and unhygienic conditions’ – a scenario common to industrial poultry farming around the globe.

It is claimed antibiotics are ‘routinely fed’ to healthy poultry to make them gain weight faster and to compensate for unsanitary living conditions, and that chickens are forced to reach their slaughter weight in just 40 days, which means that their legs, heart and lungs cannot keep pace with their rapidly growing body weight. Leg problems are so severe some are unable to reach food and water, say campaigners. During transportation to slaughter – which involves long rides in all weathers – broken bones commonly occur.

At abattoirs, chickens are shackled and hung by their feet from conveyors in mechanised slaughterhouses. Many are often dumped into scalding-hot de-feathering tanks while still conscious. Activists say there is a link between intensive poultry farming methods – and poor husbandry at large-scale farms – and the spread of avian influenza.

After outbreaks of the H5N1 form of the virus earlier this year, the authorities embarked on the slaughter of millions of poultry birds. Small-scale backyard producers have repeatedly been cited as a major vector in the origin and spread of H5N1 whilst the role of intensive factory farms is often downplayed, despite significant evidence linking ‘closed’ industrial scale poultry production to the spread of animal diseases.

After the slaughter, a blanket ban on small-scale production was imposed in some regions. Campaigners say the authorities and agribusiness used the pandemic’s arrival as a pretext to undermine the rights of traditional farmers and bolster the industrial sector.

Although outbreaks have so far been reported in only a handful of states, including West Bengal, the emergence of avian flu in the south could spell disaster for the Bangalore University programme, the Giri Raja birds and the hundreds of communities reliant on them.

For now, however, these remarkable chickens – and those credited with their development – continue to offer hope to India’s poorest communities, and to those searching for genuinely sustainable solutions to the growing international food crisis.

Andrew Wasley is a journalist and producer with investigative agency Ecostorm

The Ecologist Film Unit visits southern India to find out more about the remarkable Giri Raja chickens and their role in combating food shortages. Watch the film

This article first appeared in the Ecologist August 2008

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