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Cardamom Hills: A Boom In The Shadow Of A Looming Disaster

As one travels from Muvattupuzha to Idukki district of Kerala, winding up the five hairpins that separate the mountains from the foothills, vegetation on either side changes form from coconut, banana, jackfruit, papaya and rubber to cocoa, coffee and later, patches of cardamom squeezed in between all of the above.

Travelling uphill one is met by the descent of cardamom, plants proudly standing outside houses, shops, down the slopes, by the roadside – brave farmers testing adaptability. And for a reason.

“It is a lottery”, Jeevan M, a marginal cardamom farmer from Pazhayarikandam, is unable to hide his delight.

“One acre of a good crop can earn as much as Rs 50 lakh,” he repeats the math he has done many times over by now.

Pazhayarikandam is a non-traditional cardamom farming area falling outside the Cardamom Hill Reserve. But calculation such as the one above has seen people like him taking to cardamom inspite of not having the ideal climatic conditions.

Freshly slumped land oozes water on the road just above Jeevan’s house. A further slip and Jeeavan’s house would be obliterated, a scene so common in Idukki that it hardly demands attention nor raises alarm. The dirt cleared, traffic resumes.

Shijo, who runs a small coffee stall by the road, at the tip of a hairpin lined with wild ginger on one side and Elephant Yam on the other says, “It is too hot here for cardamom. We can only do mixed cropping with some land being assigned for cardamom.”

Inspite of his own admission, Shijo’s family land, above his shop sharing a wall with the house, grows cardamom alongside cocoa and a few coconut trees.

Cardamom, the third most expensive spice in the world, after saffron and vanilla, is in short supply worldwide. Prices have skyrocketed and what used to be an all season high of Rs 1000 per kg or thereabouts in previous years has breached Rs 5000 per kg this year, an upsurge of 400% year on year. But many like Jeevan in Idukki district of Kerala are left itching for a harvest to match.

Jeevan was until a few years back a cardamom cultivator with more than 300 plants. Landslides and family partition shrunk his landholding considerably. Now left with far fewer stalks, he desires for more.

Cardamom Trade

World over, small cardamom, as the green variety of cardamom is referred to, is grown in a handful of countries.

Guatemala is the leading producer followed by India. Other producers include Tanzania, Sri Lanka, El Salvador, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Honduras and Papua & New Guinea.

Although there are no official estimates available, world cardamom production is estimated to be over 55,000 MT. Of the total, Guatemala accounts for nearly 30,000 MT followed by India with about 15,000-22,000 MT.

The Indian small cardamom has higher oil content and better aroma and is sought after in the market. 90% of it is consumed within India, the biggest consumer of the spice. The Guatemalan cardamom, introduced from India by a German coffee planter around the First World War, is of lower quality and fetches a lower price. For the past few years, Guatemala has been plagued by falling yields owing to rising temperatures.

In India, small cardamom is grown in the three states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Out of these, Kerala accounts for 88% of all the production.

The reason for this peculiar concentration is that the agro-climatic conditions favouring growth and flowering of cardamom exists only in this small region of the Western Ghats to which it is a native.

“Like One Nurses A New Born”

“Farmers tend to cardamom like one nurses a new born,” says Benoy Jacob a cardamom farmer in Vellayamkudi near Kattappana, at the heart of cardamom riches. “Every day, every hour,” he adds.

It is a phrase that gets repeated often when talking to small and marginal farmers.

“One has to water the plants when it is not raining, provide mist spray to keep the environment humid when the climate is not, weed out old tillers and stalks when they become weak, spray pesticides every 15-18 days, feed them fertilizers and organic manure every now and then; it is like looking after a child,” says Benoy.

“You really can’t do anything else,” a former college lecturer and KSRTC employee, Benoy quit his jobs to tend to his plants.

Price Discovery

The cardamom capsules once harvested by hand have to be dried using either “specially made smoke rooms or in drying centres using electric dryers which charge Rs 15 per kg,” says Jeevan.

“Upon drying 3 kg cardamom harvest gives one kg of dried cardamom.”

“One kilogram of dry cardamom needs 700 capsules on average. With prices at Rs 5000 per kg that comes to Rs 7 or Rs 8 per capsule,” he lays down the math.

Once dried, the cardamom is taken to auction centres run by the Spices Board of India where lots are allotted and samples taken. It is there that the prices are determined.

On the day when the lot comes up for auction, the farmers can see the bidding live online through YouTube links which are shared.

“Usually only those with big enough produce send their produce to the auction centres themselves,” says Jeevan citing the high transportation charges. “Others just call up the local trader who will arrange it to be picked up at the paper rate,” he says, referring to the daily rates published in newspapers. “No farmer wants to hold on to the produce for fear of prices dropping.”

Until sold, the farmers cannot relax.

Cardamom theft is a real concern. “With these prices, cardamom is more profitable than marijuana,” says Jeevan, referring to Idukki Gold, one of the cannabis strains from the region grown by those trying to make a quick fortune.

“The prices are so high now that fresh cardamom without drying is being sold for Rs 500 per kg!”

A few years ago, it was the rate at which dried cardamom traded.

“Even at the earlier rates, cardamom was always a very profitable crop,” says Akhil Lal whose family owns a plantation in Poopara in Devikulam taluk of Idukki and trades in the spice in Munnar. “Any price above Rs 700 is enough to fetch the farmer a good profit,” he adds. The high returns though have led to a gradual increase in the intensity of farming.

“Earlier, cardamom as a crop was just about collecting capsules from the plants sown in the wild rainforests,” says Ushakumari S, Director of Thanal, an organisation promoting sustainable agricultural practices . “With profits driving farmers towards intensification, practices have changed irreversibly.”

Intensification: Beer, Eggs & Endosulfan

“Intensification of cultivation in cardamom really started in the late 1990s and the early 2000s”, notes Ushakumari of Thanal.

Today, this has reached absurd levels.

“Some farmers pour beer while the plants are growing to increase their yield,” says Nithish, an agricultural officer with Government of Kerala and now pursuing his PhD in Trivandrum.

“Some bury eggs around the plant in the belief that it increases production,” he recounts another practice. “It is all their individual beliefs, of course, mostly based on hearsay.” But not all such practices are passable as naive.

“A few buy endosulfan from across the border.” Endosulfan which acts as a contact poison for a wide variety of insects and mites was banned by the Supreme Court of India after its usage led to widespread health problems and birth abnormalities. But it continues to be available for those who seek it in nearby Tamil Nadu, with which Idukki shares a boundary.

Extremely high pesticide usage has been a cause of concern for cardamom in the very recent past.

“Saudi Arabia Food & Drug Authority (SFDA) had detained four import consignments of cardamom (small) from India due to the detection of pesticide residue above the Maximum Residue Level (MRL) specified by the SFDA in April-May 2018,” said Union Minister of Commerce and Industry, Piyush Goyal in a written reply in the Lok Sabha on 24 July 2019 over fears that Saudi Arabia and Japan had imposed ban on Indian cardamom.

In 2018, Saudi Arabia, the biggest importer of cardamom, had in fact shortly banned cardamom imports from India citing high pesticide residue. The ban was lifted after assurances from the Indian side. But those at the ground are far from concerned.

“Unlike other spices or crops which are predominantly exported, cardamom faces no real regulations to its high pesticide content as it is not export driven,” says Usha of Thanal. 90% of Indian cardamom is consumed within the country where food quality control and regulation is still largely fiction.

“It is usually the shops which push use of pesticides and fertilizers,” says Nithish. “They will say whatever is new is good for the crop and the farmers will add that and a bit more just to be sure.”

“Use of pesticides really started since the introduction of ‘Njallani’ variety,” says Usha, tracing the origin of intensive cultivation of cardamom.

The ‘Njallani’ Variety

“More than 90-95% of cardamom cultivation in Idukki is now done using ‘Njallani’ variety,” says Dr M Murugan, Station Head of the Pambadumpara Cardamom Research Station.

“Njallani revolutionised cardamom cultivation. The increase in productivity that Idukki has achieved since the 1990s owes it to Njallani,” he adds.

The Njallani variety of cardamom was produced by Sebastian Joseph, a small farmer, by selecting good berries and cross-pollinating them. Since the early nineties, the variety spread fast across plantations owing to its high yielding capabilities.

The ‘Njallani’ variety produced 120-160 capsules compared to 30-35 in the ordinary Mysore Vazhukka variety which had been prevalent then. The variety produced yield within two years and responded well to inputs. In turn, the per hectare (around 2.5 acres) yield increased from 200-250 kg to 1500 kg and more.

“The more fertilizer you feed them, the more capsules they grow. The more light they get, the larger the number of tillers become.”

But their susceptibility to pests and diseases meant that they needed increased use of pesticides.

“‘Njallani’ is an outstanding and widely acclaimed variety for its prolific suckering, flowering, high yield and bold green capsules under remarkable input responsiveness, its weakness lies in susceptibility to all major fungal diseases and insect pests,” noted a study submitted by the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation.

“Introduction of Njallani not only increased use of fertilizers and pesticides but also led to deforestation, excessive pruning and clearance of undergrowth; changing microbial activities, increasing soil temperatures and exacerbating soil erosion,” says Usha, director of Thanal.

The Cardamom Hills & Cardamom: The Hotspot Which Is Growing Hotter

Cardamom cultivation was once restricted to a highly concentrated agro-ecological pocket of the Western Ghats, in and around the area which is today known as the Cardamom Hills. It was here that the plant was naturally found.

Requiring year round rain and naturally growing under the shades of the rainforest canopy above, cardamom, a member of the ginger family, thrived under the shade of the high altitude rainforests.

With the introduction of high yielding Njallani, productivity increased. But it came with its own problems.

“While productivity increase of cardamom had been steep, the environmental productivity and the natural forest’s productivity deteriorated, if not completely arrested,” says Dr Murugan.

“How can a tree perform its ecological function if all its branches are cut off and little is left at the very top?” he asks. “Where is the forest when trees are not allowed to flower or bear fruits?”

As the Njallani variety responded to increased light, unlike its predecessors which thrived only in shade, farmers cleared canopies, frequently pruned forest cover, cut down trees and cleared undergrowth to weed out any competition to the crop.

The region, one of India’s most sensitive ecological hotspots, once classified as the hottest of hotspots in the world, has now begun to witness the effects of these changes.

“Regions which grew cardamom earlier were traditionally rainforests with rainfall above 2.5 cm in all twelve months,” explains Dr Murugan. “For the past several years, these very regions have been seeing rainless months. There has been a regularity of three to four rainless months in the Cardamom Hills. That is almost 120 days of lean periods in an equatorial rainforest,” he explains.

The Cardamom Hill Reserve (CHR) had been formed to allow cardamom cultivation in its natural environment without destroying the environment. But with the newer plantation practices, it has come to adversely affect the very environment.

“Streams have now started drying up in November and drought follows naturally,” says Dr Murugan. “The new intensive varieties of cardamom for which the canopies were cleared cannot withstand the high temperatures as much as the older varieties with thicker leaves,” he continues. “So they dry up and burn easily during summer months.” Crop loss ensues.

“Without a thick canopy to protect loss of moisture from the soil and humidity from the air, the plants now require mist and sprinkler irrigation,” he says. “This increases cost of cultivation”.

Nija KC in her paper titled “Problems of cardamom cultivation in Idukki district, Kerala” notes that an “expert committee appointed by the Government of Kerala headed by V Gopinathan, then Conservator of Forests, had in 1996 warned about the adverse ecological impact of clearing undergrowth and shade regulation in Cardamom Hill Reserve Area.”

“Another expert Committee headed by N Chandrasekharan Nair also repeated this warning in 2002. Later reports of Gadgil, Kasthurirangan and Swaminathan commission showcased the requirement of vital policies and immediate actions to save the district from ecological deterioration.” Actions were hard to come by and today the chickens are coming home to roost.

“The maximum temperatures have been increasing consistently for the past several years,” says Dr Murugan. His paper Climate change and crop yields in the Indian Cardamom Hills has laid this out in detail.

The temperature rise is also something which is borne witness to by farmers like Benoy Jacob and Jojo Mathew.

Low Yields & High Prices

“We have had very low yields for two years now,” says Jojo Mathew, a cardamom planter. “Last year it was the floods.”

“The first crop of this year has failed because of climatic reasons. There were no showers in the summer,” he says. “And when it did rain eventually, it was only in August.”

Idukki district still shows deficient rainfall to the extent of 20 percentage points. As opposed to a seasonal normal of 1993.5 mm the district has only received 1603.1mm.

“The low yields have caused shortage in supply and is pushing the prices upwards.”

“The summer rains as well as timely rains in June and July are crucial for a good crop,” he adds. “We had neither. Overall, the dry months are increasing. Temperatures have been exceptionally high this year.”

“Temperatures soared well above 35 degree Celsius in summer causing considerable damage to the crop,” said Benoy Jacob. “Without adequate shade the leaves burnt.” Temperatures above 30 are seen as uncharacteristic in regions where cardamom has been traditionally cultivated.

“Uncharacteristic rains last year caused rotting of stalks and capsules making the plants vulnerable to diseases. Landslides as well as washing away of the top soil by rainwater means the soil is no longer fertile enough to ensure growth in many plantations,” he adds.

“To be honest, the yield has been well less than half of what it normally is,” says Benoy. “At this time auctions normally see trade of 1 lakh kgs every day. This year it is in the 10,000s.”

Today, Idukki is unable to produce as much as it used to. The recent floods of last year and the droughts are cited as the main reason. Anthropogenic climate change is the elephant in the room.

The Way Ahead

In Idukki, in the shadows of the largest arch dam in India, many a quiet hill has grown into towns. Newly laid roads neatly tuck away within their white lines any signs of the past forests which have disappeared from its sides. With newly built houses competing for attention by the hillsides, the transformation seems less obvious.

“Concrete buildings spread across lakhs of square feet are being built every year. The growing number of roads too adds to the heat,” says Jeevan. “People here know deep down that what Gadgil had recommended is the right way forward. I support restrictions,” he adds.

With undergrowth cleared frequently for transplantations, the slopes weaken and easily give away under torrential downpours. For those living under such slopes like Jeevan, the cause and effect relationship is clearly visible.

“Tourism has affected Idukki adversely,” says Usha S of Thanal. “So have unsustainable agricultural practices.” Tourism was the reason why most roads in Idukki came to be well laid.

Idukki district is today almost exclusively made up of migrants from the plains of Kerala who took refuge in the mountains, most recently after Independence, in search of land and livelihood. The many tribes who once lived on these lands are now faded memories etched into the past, occasionally reminded by the unusual place names paying adage to the many Moopans (forefathers) of the once tribal hamlets. While the tribes belonged to the land, the migrants looked at the land as belonging to them.

In every corner with something remotely scenic, worthy enough to look at momentarily, hotels and resorts have been springing up; piling up concrete pillars, clearing vegetation and loading the hill slopes further. In places where that is not a possibility, unsustainable farming has ensued by pumping in fertilizers and pesticides like steroids.

The erratic climatic events and the failing crops are seen as gentle reminders of climate change by some. Cardamom being the most sensitive of tropical plants, perhaps the frequent crop failures, they say, is a message that the uncertainty is here to stay.

“There is no doubt that there has been climate change in the region,” says Usha. “For the past many years, the north east monsoon has been weak. Now we have fairly frequent unusual weather incidents too.”

“The main reason why monocultures succeeded in tropical regions was because of the uniformity of weather conditions. With that gone, it would become unsustainable to grow plantation crops,” she says.

So have we reached a tipping point? “This has been going on for some time now. Cardamom was being sustained solely with the aid of external inputs. With that becoming inadequate today, crops may fail altogether in the future,” she says.

“We cannot allow that to happen as, with increasing failures, people may opt to sell off lands which may then be turned into quarries or other commercial activities, leading to further changes in land use patterns. Agriculture, thus, has to continue to be in place.”

“A new crop management system which can promote multi-cropping is the need of the hour. But as things stand, cardamom farmers are the most resistant to such changes. The greed of high returns makes them persevere with more and more intensive practices.”

While there are no doubts that cardamom cultivation has moved into all the wrong places from a sustainability angle, the farmers have their own reasons to persevere.

“It is easy to recover from a loss with a crop like cardamom,” says Benoy Jacob. “If I lose a crop this season, I can still make enough money in the next. That is why it is difficult to leave cardamom once it is started,” he reasons.

“Yes we need to move towards organic farming. What is practiced now is not sustainable but it requires additional labour as well. Organic manure is voluminous and requires more hands, roads big enough to reach the plantations and much more,” he explains. “A simple comparison of one sack of inorganic fertilizer and its equivalent in organic manure can demonstrate the difference. And the yield too reduces considerably.” Convenience and economics favours the present trend.

“The government has to incentivise organic farming in the future,” says Dr Murugan. “Any loss the farmer faces on this front has to be compensated. There is no other way.”

The high prices of today are a respite for the farmers and a certain hope for those who have suffered crop loss.

Many are upbeat in the hope that they can make up for it in the next season with the mouth-watering prices prevailing now.

What if they don’t?

What if the weather Gods fail them again?

It is a question many are not ready to consider.

Man lives on hope and greed.

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