Plan­ta­tions are the back­bone of Ker­ala's farm econ­omy, but af­fect its ecol­ogy

Down to Earth - - COVER STORY -

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

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