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Horticulture project for Marayur

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Special Correspondent

Agriculture Department's novel attempt to curb sandalwood smuggling

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: Can sandalwood smuggling be fought through horticulture? The answer is in the affirmative.

The Agriculture Department plans to implement a horticulture project in collaboration with the Forest Department to provide jobs to local people at Marayur and nearby areas famous for their sandalwood forests. The project is the result of the realisation that unemployment is at the root of the problem of sandalwood smuggling. Though the Forest Department had been able to bring down the number of trees felled last year, the situation had worsened with more trees being lost to the smugglers recently.

The smugglers usually fell the trees and cut it into small pieces before carrying it to distant locations. Tribal people and other labourers are employed by the so-called sandalwood mafia to carry the wood. They are paid very low wages. It is the availability of these low-paid labourers that sustains the smuggling, especially when the smugglers are forced to operate from the interiors of the Marayur forests. Any gainful employment will wean away the tribals and others from smuggling as they get only a pittance for their hard work.

The Horticulture Mission and the Vegetable and Fruits Promotion Council Keralam (VFPCK) under the Agriculture Department will be taking up large-scale cultivation of winter crops in four villages of Idukki district in a month's time. The details were finalised at a meeting Forest Minister Benoy Viswom had with Agriculture Minister Mullakara Ratnakaran in the latter's office this week. The scheme will aim at generating a steady income for tribal farmers. Landless farmers will also be brought under the scheme.

The main functionaries of the scheme will be the members of the Vanasamraksha Samithis (forest protection councils) under the Forest Department. Farmers will be organised into groups of 25 for taking up cultivation of various crops. About 3,500 hectares in Marayur, Kanthalloor, Vattavaila and Kottakambu villages will be covered.

Besides winter crops, the promotional agencies have plans to diversify into bee-keeping, cultivation of ornamental flowers and mushrooms and production of jaggery. The State Horticulture Development Corporation will market the produce. A committee has been formed to oversee the marketing of the produce with VFPCK Director T. R. Gopalakrishnan as convener. Though horticulture will not eliminate sandalwood mafia, their reach will be reduced if workers, who will slog it out at low wages and risk arrests, are in short supply.

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