Farmers in Idukki lose the spice of livelihood

Unusually hot weather, coupled with the absence of summer showers, has left cardamom crops yellow and farmers in panic in Kerala’s hill district. Sandeep Vellaram visits a few plantations to take stock of the drought-hit sector 

Updated - May 10, 2024 12:17 am IST

Published - May 09, 2024 08:22 pm IST

The Agricultural department, Spices Board, and Cardamom Research Centre officials during their visit to a cardamom plantation at Kannikkallu near Pullumedu in Idukki.

The Agricultural department, Spices Board, and Cardamom Research Centre officials during their visit to a cardamom plantation at Kannikkallu near Pullumedu in Idukki. | Photo Credit: JOMON PAMPAVALLEY

T.K. Reji Thottuvashathu, 56, a resident of Kannikkallu a village in Kumily town, the gateway to Kerala’s Thekkady in Idukki district, has been farming cardamom on four acres for the past 20 years. In the undulating hills of the Western Ghats, approximately 1,500 metre above sea level, the plantations thrived in moisture-laden air and a temperate climate. Until last year, cardamom was profitable. 

In Idukki this year temperatures have reached 37°C, a change from the temperate weather the region usually experiences. Worse, the land is parched, with no rain for 120 consecutive days, which has contributed to severe drought. “Usually in the hills, we get rain every month or so,” says Thottuvashathu.

The plants, which would normally live for 10 to 15 years, flowering from July through the mild winter to the following February or March, have yellowed and wilted. The air is dry, and people remain indoors, unused to this weather. 

Data from Kerala’s Agriculture department say that over 41,000 farmers are engaged in cardamom farming in Idukki on 50,000 hectares. The average production of cardamom, in a normal year, comes to about 800 kg per hectare.  The Spices Board of India, an agency under the Union Ministry of Commerce and Industry, estimates a 40% drop in production in the coming season. (The board will submit a detailed report to the ministry soon.)

“Farmers are visibly frustrated and have said that no agency or weather station issued a warning about the current drought. Had they been forewarned, they could have better managed their water reserves and taken more necessary precautions,” according to an industry insider.

T.K. Reji  Thottuvashathu, a cardamom farmer in Kannikkallu, near Pullumedu in Kerala’s Idukki at his wilted cardamom plantation.

T.K. Reji Thottuvashathu, a cardamom farmer in Kannikkallu, near Pullumedu in Kerala’s Idukki at his wilted cardamom plantation. | Photo Credit: JOMON PAMPAVALLEY

“Two months ago, the land was filled with evergreen cardamom plants. It has become a pullumedu (grassland) now. I don’t know how to repay my bank loans,” bemoans Thottuvashathu, who had taken a loan of over ₹10 lakh, ₹3 lakh from a farm credit society and the rest agricultural gold loan, in 2023.

Pullumedu in Idukki is symptomatic of how prolonged drought and hot conditions have stymied the cardamom farming sector. The principal cardamom farming regions, including Vellaramkunnu, Pathumury, Pullumedu, Karunapuram, Chakkupallom, Anavilasom, Vallakkadavu, Mali, Vazhaveedu, Anakkara, Vandanmedu, Puliyanmala, Thopramkudy, and Marykulam, have been grappling with severe drought for the past four months, resulting in widespread devastation of cardamom farms. 

The withering of plants and capital

Vijay Bhagavathiraj, 28, came to Kumily from Gudalur in Tamil Nadu two seasons ago to cultivate cardamom. He took 23 acres on lease and managed a profit of about ₹10 lakh each season. But his outlook for the coming season is grim, because of the harsh summer and inadequate rainfall. 

“I secured the lease with funds borrowed from external [non-banking] sources and am burdened by hefty rates of interest — 18% to 25%. I never thought it will be this bad this soon,” he laments, adding that many leaseholders have already paid amounts up to ₹2 lakh per acre for the year to landowners, anticipating a prosperous harvest. “Now, most plantations need replanting,” cries Bhagavathiraj, estimating that it will cost him nearly ₹24 lakh.  

“To replant the wilted plants, the dried up leaves should be cleared and pits taken at a depth of around 3.5 feet. After covering the pits, new saplings should be planted in the first week of June. The cost of a single plant ranges from ₹100 to 200, based on the market rate. After applying pesticides, fertilizers, and water, the new plants will be ready for harvest in nearly two years. The average cost of replanting is around ₹3 lakh per hectare (2.5 acre)

Cardamom flourished in Idukki thanks to its forest loamy soil quality and cool, wet weather. Under favourable conditions, cardamom harvest begins towards the end of July or early August. The beans take about 40 to 50 days to ripen. The spices board data show that Idukki produced 22,328.5 tonnes of cardamom in 2023-24, which is well over 90% of cardamom production in Kerala.

“The plantation era started in the 1780s with large-scale planting of cardamom in Idukki high ranges and it flourished over time,” says botanist Jomy Augustine. He attributes the present state of cardamom to excessive tree felling and use of fungicides, insecticides, and weedicides on the soil, which he argues have destroyed the soil microflora and microfauna and bacteria which contribute to the water-holding capacity of the soil.

V Rajendran, a cardamom farmer in Kannikkallu, near Pullumedu, in Kerala’s Idukki at his cardamom plantation.

V Rajendran, a cardamom farmer in Kannikkallu, near Pullumedu, in Kerala’s Idukki at his cardamom plantation. | Photo Credit: JOMON PAMPAVALLEY

Prof. Muthusamy Murugan, lead scientist at the Cardamom Research Station under Kerala Agricultural University, at Pampadumpara village, near Nedumkandam town in Idukki, is alarmed by the unprecedented loss of cardamom. He and his team, at the airy double-storey building with sloping roofs built for rainy weather, have analysed data since 1958. They realised that this was the first time in 66 years that cardamom farmers faced such a crisis. 

“The optimal temperature range for cardamom growth is between 18 and 24°C. This April, the sunshine hours increased by an hour, the surface soil temperature rose to 46°C, and atmospheric humidity dropped considerably,” he explains. The temperature in these areas never crossed 31.5°C until 2005, he recalls. “We would also get summer rain in March and April that triggers the growth of new beans in May,” he adds. 

Benoy Nadooparampil, 49, a second-generation farmer at Vellaramkunnu, says he has never seen a summer like this one. The cardamom plants on his three acres have almost died. The ones that survive are barren.

Prof. Murugan says from 1958 to 2017, there has been a reduction of 19.75 rain days during the southwest monsoon, which begins in June and lasts for three months. “Moreover, rainfall during southwest monsoon has decreased by nearly 25 mm, while northeast monsoon has seen an 18-mm reduction. Summer rain has dwindled by 12 mm,” he says citing data to highlight the steady decline in precipitation. 

There’s more. Cardamom is a montane rainforest crop, he says. “The climate of this montane rainforest — characterised by cool, moisture-laden air — in Idukki has changed. Despite the introduction of new cardamom varieties, many farmers have overlooked the necessity to create tree shade for optimal cardamom cultivation. Cardamom typically flourishes in conditions with 60% shade,” he says. 

Destruction of more than plants

Shine Varghese, general secretary of the Vandanmedu Cardamom Growers Association, urges the spices board to declare the cardamom-farming areas as “natural-calamity hit” so that farmers are eligible for compensation. “We expect a staggering drop of over 70% in cardamom production next season,” he says, underlining the severity of the situation. The association has petitioned Kerala’s Chief Minister, demanding immediate steps to help the farmers repay their debt. “The government should immediately announce a moratorium on farmers’ loans,” says Varghese. 

Vince Joseph, an agriculture consultant at Anakkara, located between tea-gardened Munnar and wildlife-sanctuary Thekkady, says the actual damage to the plantations is much more than estimated by scientists. “Over 25,000 acres of cardamom has been fully destroyed and more than one lakh acres suffered partial destruction. There were farmers who bought water to irrigate the plants in their farms, but the intense heat claimed them too,” says Joseph.

The district agricultural office has estimated that crop loss has occurred in 16,211 hectares of cardamom plantations. “As of May 9, a total of 22,311 affected farmers have been identified, with an estimated loss of ₹11,354 lakh. The Agricultural department has recommended to the government that Idukki be declared drought-hit. The department, spices board, and cardamom research station scientists visited the affected areas on May 6 and 7 and submitted the report on May 9. The cardamom farming sector is facing a serious situation, and farmers plead for a package to protect their crop and to waive off the interest of their agricultural loans,” says Ambily C., Deputy Director of Agriculture in the district.

Climatologist Gopakumar Cholayil, based in Thrissur, points to the criticality of microclimate patterns in the cultivation of spices such as cardamom. “The rise in temperature and climate change will inevitably impact hill crops,” he says. “The rise in temperature in cardamom-growing areas will negatively impact farming,” he says, adding climate-dependent crops will be hit first, when there are long-term weather changes.

As per spices board data, cardamom worth ₹87,514.84 lakh was exported from Kerala in 2022-23. Farmers sell cardamom at spices board auction centres or through local vendors. The firms that buy the spice from the farmers sell it through other merchants across India or export it to countries such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, the United States, Kuwait, Bangladesh, Iraq, Malaysia, Canada, Australia, Afghanistan, Qatar, Iran, China, the United Kingdom, Oman, Jordan, France, Singapore, Nepal, and Egypt.  

Kerala Minister for Agriculture P. Prasad says the government is seized of the gravity of the situation. “The State government has decided to declare the agriculture sector in the State as drought-affected without considering the bacteriological parameters [water analysis]. A team of officials, including experts from the agricultural university and Agriculture department, has visited these areas,” he says adding that the team will submit its report in a week.

Prasad says the Centre will also be apprised of the situation. “We are cognizant of the crisis faced by the cardamom sector and will explore avenues to provide maximum financial assistance to the affected farmers,” he says. The spices board will submit a detailed report on the state of cardamom in Idukki.

The signs of a production decline have already jacked up the price of green cardamom, which is in short supply. The average price of cardamon in March was around ₹1,300 to ₹1,400 a kg, which has gone up above ₹2,000 now. The rates are likely to spiral upwards soon. 

Cardamom auction companies are also bracing for a potential crop failure in the coming season. Johny Vattathara, managing partner of Spice More Trading Company in Kumily,says the weather this year may not immediately hit prices. “The cardamom stored at present can sustain vendors and auction companies until July, thereafter, the market may face a scarcity of the product, leading to price fluctuations,” he says.

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