FLOURISHING AT A COST?
Plantations are the backbone of Kerala's farm economy, but affect its ecology
Kerala’s plantations account for about 40 per cent of the area under plantation crops in the country (see ‘Kingdom of plantations’. Every year, they produce commodities worth about ` 18,000 crore, says Vijayan Rajes of upasi. This is 46 per cent of the value of the country’s total annual plantation produce.
According to Kerala Economic Review 2013,the average annual return per hectare of farmland in Kerala is ` 97,200—this is three times the national average.Return from plantations of tea, coffee, rubber and cardamom is ` 2.3 lakh per hectare. At least 1.2 million people—half of them women—depend on these plantations for a living.As R Hailey,former director of the state agriculture department, puts it, “Plantations are the engine of the farm economy in the state. ”Any fluctuation in the production or price of these crops will have a big impact on the farm economy of the state as well as the country’s supply of commodities.
For instance, this small state shoulders the burden of supplying natural rubber to the nation. It accounts for 83 per cent of the country’s natural rubber production and 74 per cent of the area under rubber, according to the Rubber Board. Thanks to Kerala, India also achieved the number one status for productivity during 2006-2012, although its agroclimatic conditions are not best suited for rubber.
India, with 77,400 tonnes of natural rubber production in 2013-14, was the fifth largest natural rubber producer. Unlike other major producers that grow rubber for export, India consumes a large portion of what it produces with a minimum of exports, and has become the second biggest consumer of natural rubber after China. Only 34 per cent of the rubber consumed in India is synthetic, produced from crude oil through a highly polluting process.
“Rubber is not just a cash crop, it is a strategically important commodity used in crucial sectors, including defence, transport, communication, energy, health and birth control,” points out James Jacob, director of the Rubber Research Institute of India in Kottayam. Over 50,000 products are made from rubber. According to Jacob, a direct correlation exists between economic growth and consumption of rubber in fast-growing countries such as India and China, unlike the highly developed countries where the two have stabilised. “The faster the gdp growth, the more the rubber consumption,” says Jacob.
Both price booms and price crashes of these cash crops are affecting good agriculture practices, Jacob
Decades of mono-cropping has reduced soil fertility, and hence the yield. Excessive use of pesticides, fertilisers has severely contaminated soil and water bodies, turning the high ranges into toxic hot spots
points out. Most plantations in the state are now aged. Yet, replanting is taking place only in a small way. During the price boom, growers are reluctant to remove their plants, and during the price crash, they lose the enthusiasm to replant the old plantations.
In Idukki’s cardamom plantations banned pesticides such as endosulphan are used. Excessive use of pesticides, fungicides, weedicides and fertilisers has severely contaminated soil and water bodies, turning the high ranges into a toxic hot spot.
Besides,decades of mono-cropping has reduced soil fertility and hence the yield.The productivity for rubber has declined from 1,931 kg per ha in 2011-12 to 1,907 kg per ha in 2012-13.
Long-gestation mono-crops have also affected the region’s rich biodiversity. “Planters often say they have created a green paradise in 70 per cent of the Western Ghats in Kerala,”says M K Prasad, ecologist expert on the Western Ghats. This means that natural forests have been cleared in 70 per cent of the Western Ghats for growing rubber, cardamom, tea and coffee. This has led to large-scale biodiversity loss.
The loss is the highest in rubber plantations, which do not allow any other plants to grow under them, says R K Dhiman, vice-chancellor of Dr Y S Parmar University of Horticulture and Forestry in Solan, Himachal Pradesh. Many important shrubs and herbs have disappeared from rubber plantation areas, says Dhiman. He suggests that rubber plantations should not be promoted in a biodiversity hotspot like Kerala. It should be allowed only on degraded land.
Anil Kumar, director, Community AgroBiodiversity Centre (cabc), Kerala, cautions against latex-yielding plants like rubber. These plants have less number of stomata, responsible for transpiration, which leads to dry climate. Rubber plantation is also a breeding ground for mosquitoes, he says. cabc is working with farmers and trying to evolve a system where crop diversification get its due attention to conserve natural resources.
Jacob suggests that plantation crops should be integrated with local food crops, tree species and natural flora for better conservation of biodiversity. Maybe, Kerala should go back to its age-old practice of mixed farming, which proved beneficial for its surrounding ecology. The government should introduce a policy for sustainable promotion of plantations, he says.
Officials in Kerala say they cannot do much to improve the situation because rubber, tea, coffee and cardamom, being trade-oriented and earners of foreign exchange, are managed by commodity boards, and do not come under the state’s agriculture department. “The state cannot make major policies regarding these four crops,” says R Ajithkumar, director of the state’s agriculture department.
The planters are bitter about the fact that even though they contribute about 20,000 crore a year to
the state exchequer through plantation tax, building tax, sales tax, value added tax, property tax and professional tax, the state government is indifferent towards them. “Those owning big plantations, with an area more than 20 hectares,have to pay 50 per cent agriculture tax, which is one of the highest in the country.Yet the government does not do anything to protect our interests,”says Vinayaraghavan ruefully.
Cheap coconut from Sri Lanka flooded Keralan market after the Indian government signed the South-Asian Free Trade Agreement with Sri Lanka in 2006. The state's coconut sector is yet to recover from the shock