ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

The maize fields of ‘Mini Swiss’: Tracing transitions in cereal farming among Tibetan refugees and host communities in southern Karnataka


Geschewski Hanna - Chr. Michelsen Institute, Bergen, Norway


07 – Towards Collaborative Research on Cereal Cultures in South Asia


 While covering only 14% of the cultivated area in the South Indian state of Karnataka, maize is the predominant crop choice of farmers residing in a pocket of arable land between two wildlife reserves, B.R.T and M.M. Hills, near the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu border.

The crop’s popularity arose following the arrival of some 3,000 Tibetan refugees in the 1970s, who were resettled in the area as part of a larger rehabilitation effort for Tibetans who had come to India fleeing Chinese occupation. At the time, foreign and Indian aid agencies had introduced hybrid fodder maize as an easy-to-farm cash crop intended to pave the way for Tibetan self-sufficiency. But soon, it was also adopted by nearby Indian farmers, including tribal communities, replacing the hitherto common cultivation of finger millet and local varieties of sorghum and coloured maize – a shift that continues to this day, despite gradual signs that the crop’s dominance is declining.

Building on insights from five months of field work, in this paper I trace the emergence of hybrid maize and the multifaceted implications of its spread among Tibetan and Indian farmers. Drawing on in-depth interviews, narrative walks, and crop surveys, I understand transitions in cereal farming not only as a lens to study agrarian change, but also as a valuable medium to comprehend the exchange of knowledge, labour and resources, as well as larger processes of socio-ecological adaptation and preservation between refugee and host communities.