A Wayanad farmer tills his land near a highway. (photo: Peter Lemieux)
Women sow rice fields near the town of Mananthavady. (photo: Peter Lemieux)
A Wayanad farmer works in his banana grove. (photo: Peter Lemieux)
Father John Choorapuzhayil meets with organic farmers. (photo: Peter Lemieux)
Alcoholism is a major problem within Wayanad’s farming community. (photo: Peter Lemieux)
Mr. and Mrs. Abraham Alunkal stand outside their home. (photo: Peter Lemieux)
Laborers from Wayanad lift lumber onto a truck. (photo: Peter Lemieux)
Organic spices from Wayanad are displayed at a district fair in Kalpetta. (photo: Peter Lemieux)
A Wayanad resident tends to the bitter gourd in her vegetable garden. (photo: Peter Lemieux)
From the Vellankal family farm in Keralas northern district of Wayanad, life appears the perfect picture of pastoral prosperity. On the front steps of the tidy red brick farmhouse sits Mary Vellankal, the farms 38–year–old proprietor and mother of two, bantering with her friend, Rosa Puthenkalayal. Nearby, a healthy pregnant milking cow rustles in a neatly kept barn. Fields of coffee bean and peppercorn plants, clustered in tight circles, soak the suns afternoon rays. Undulating groves of green banana trees stretch out to the horizon, enveloping the scene in lush warmth.
It is said every picture tells a story. But pictures are sometimes deceptive. For Mary Vellankal, life on this farm is hardly picture perfect. In fact, it is harder than ever.
Above the houses entrance hangs a photo of Marys late husband, Mathai. He was a hard–working, active fellow with a well–maintained pepper garden, says Mrs. Puthenkalayal, who serves as a community facilitator for the Kerala Social Service Forum (K.S.S.F.), the development ministry of the Kerala Catholic Bishops Council.
But as is the case of so many family farmers in Wayanad, no matter how hard Mr. Vellankal worked he could not keep himself and his family afloat, much less provide the good life he desired for his family.
Then, in 2005, Mr. Vellankal took a chance. Despite high interest rates, he borrowed about $900 from banks and local moneylenders and leased 2.5 acres of low–lying paddy fields along the banks of a nearby river. He quickly converted the land to make it suitable for bananas. But unlike rice, bananas are not indigenous to the region. Both the soil and the saplings require careful nurturing from planting until harvest, involving the regular use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
It was an honest roll of the dice, a high stakes bet to extricate the family from the clutches of living hand to mouth. But the gamble served as just another cautionary tale for Wayanads struggling farmers.
Shortly before the harvest, the worst possible case scenario unfolded before the 35–year–old farmers eyes. Heavy rains and strong winds wiped out his banana trees, taking with them any hope of economic prosperity for the family. Overwhelmed by despair, Mr. Vallankal did what many farmers in Kerala have done; he drowned his sorrows in alcohol. One night, drunk and depressed, he downed a bottle of pesticide and ended his life, leaving behind his wife to manage the household debt and rear their two young children. If not for the support and friendship of Mrs. Puthenkalayal, Mrs. Vellankal admits she, too, may have taken her own life.
From 2002 to 2008, 1,690 farmers committed suicide in Wayanad — a staggering number considering the districts total population numbers around 670,000. And while many of Indias agricultural regions face equally tough economic times, Keralas Wayanad district boasts the highest per capita rate of agriculture–related suicides in the country.
In Wayanad, 90 percent of people depend on agriculture for their livelihood, explains E.J. Jose, lead editor of K.S.S.F.s study Wayanad Suicides: A Psycho–Social Autopsy. He is also the project manager for a program sponsored by a Catholic charity, Caritas India, which helps small farmers increase the profitability and sustainability of their farms. There are no other means of income. Agricultural failure means life itself has failed.
Particularly hard hit is Wayanads Christian community. Christians and Muslims, for instance, respectively represent about a quarter of the districts total population. But according to the K.S.S.F. study, more than 15 percent of all reported suicides came from the Christian community, compared to 6 percent from the Muslim community.
The reasons for the high rate of suicide are multiple and complex. For sure, poverty, economic hardship and household debt top the list, but other less obvious factors, such as the lack of a social safety net, cultural values and family pressures, also contribute to the crisis.
Perhaps nowhere is the complexity of suicide more evident than within Wayanads Christian community. The K.S.S.F. study asserts that Christians make up one of the most organized, well educated, politically and socially elevated groups in Wayanad. Their progression and achievements on socioeconomic and cultural fronts have always been splendid.
However, the study also claims that where people are better educated, rich and affluent, politically strong, communally organized and socially secure, there are larger and deeper vices like consumerism, greed, social extravagance, alcoholism, mental disorders, marital discords, family feud.
The Catholic community, specifically with all its socioreligious supported systems, seems to have failed to design appropriate responses to a hazardous situation that has direct bearing on Christian belief and life, the study continues.
Published in November 2009, the K.S.S.F. study served as a wake–up call to church leadership. In each panchayat [a group of villages], weve trained one social worker just like Rosa Puthenkalayal who belongs to that particular area, explains the studys editor.
This ‘community facilitator has clear access to that village and people in distress — suicide victims families and suicide–prone families. She befriends them and supports them in their stress management and problem–solving efforts so they will feel listened to and release their wounded feelings.
They call Wayanad Gods country because of its beauty and greenery, explains Father John Choorapuzhayil, director of Wayanad Social Service Society (W.S.S.S.), an agency of the Syro–Malabar Catholic Eparchy of Mananthavady that offers support to struggling farmers and their families, promotes and trains local farmers in sustainable farming methods, runs an agroprocessing center and markets its members products domestically and internationally.
But at the same time, the people on this land, theyre Gods people and theyre suffering like never before, continues the 35–year–old priest, who began serving Wayanads farmers as a young priest in 1996, offering free legal advice.
Perhaps the agencys most successful suicide prevention strategy has been its network of eparchy–run self–help groups. Each group consists of 10 to 20 entrepreneurs who work together as a council and offer struggling farmers financial, professional and often desperately needed moral support.
When the suicides started happening, the church was in darkness, admits Father Choorapuzhayil. We didnt address the problem in the appropriate time. But now the self–help groups have helped the people to share their worries and get financial support. Im proud of that intervention.
The seeds of Wayanads agricultural crisis were sowed in the early 1980s, when local farmers began converting their traditional, more diversified rice paddy farms into fields of one or two perennial cash crops, such as coffee, pepper, tea, cardamom, rubber and areca palm. From 1982 to 1999, land used for traditional paddies shrank by about 75 percent. Today, cash crops cover more than 80 percent of all agricultural land in the district.
While the conversion has made some farmers relatively rich, the trade off has been disastrous for most as well as for the districts entire agricultural sector. In 1999, the Indian government began to liberalize its trade policies, opening its markets to international competition. Almost overnight, farmers in Wayanad witnessed the prices of chief crops, such as pepper, coffee and tea, plummet as cheaper produce from other countries, particularly Vietnam, flooded the market. In that year alone, pepper, a crop grown by most farmers in Wayanad, suffered a price drop of 76 percent.
To keep their heads above water, farmers began altering their methods in whatever way possible to maximize crop yields in the short term, depleting the soils fertility and wreaking havoc on the environment. Many simply treated their crops more frequently and with greater amounts of pesticides and fertilizers, which have seeped into the ground and polluted fresh water sources. They also deforested most of the regions remaining virgin jungles to make room for more crops, inadvertently destroying the ecosystems natural valve in conserving both fresh and groundwater.
Farmers here cultivate the same crop on the same land, explains Father Choorapuzhayil. They cant change the land from one crop to another very easily. If the same crop is cultivated in the same area for a long time, then the nutrients necessary for the growth of that crop are depleted.
In order to improve the situation, they apply chemical fertilizers. And every year, they have to increase the count of the chemical manure. So nowadays, the level of application is much too high for what is expected. At the same time, the attack of pests also has increased. So every year, they have to apply more and more pesticides in order to protect their plants. Its an unsustainable agricultural model, the priest concludes.
On a whim, he visits the Alunkal family farm unannounced. He knows well the elderly couple who own it as well as their children and grandchildren. Recently, he helped arrange a scholarship for one of their granddaughters to study nursing in Bangalore.
The Alunkals are all too familiar with the consequences of the Faustian bargain made by the last generation of farmers. Slumped in a chair in the living room and surrounded by children and grandchildren, the 86–year–old Abraham recalls the good old days.
We used to plant two or three varieties of seeds for paddy cultivation. Thats all, says the patriarch. Previously, disease didnt affect the plants. No pesticides were necessary. We used manure, cow dung and leaf compost. And we relied on ourselves to make our own decisions in the fields.
But now we have so many new varieties, he says whimsically, gesturing toward the door that opens onto his fields. Theyre high yielding, supposedly, but theyre unable to resist diseases. And the other big change is mechanization. Now farmers are getting advice from outside. Mechanization and science have taken over.
As if on cue, his 82–year–old wife, Mariam, interjects with what she sees as the driving force behind these changes.
Our demands and desires were much less when I was young, she explains. Nowadays, people are spending more money on the bombastic life. They want tip–top clothes and all the ornaments. The younger generation doesnt want to be in farming. They want white–collar jobs where the attitude is for minting money not for earning a livelihood.
Ever since Keralas agricultural sector hit rock bottom, experts have been debating the economic and systemic causes for its collapse. However, an indisputable fact remains: Keralas farming has yet to recover.
While the local churchs interventions and self–help groups no doubt ease farmers emotional and financial troubles, these programs alone cannot heal Wayanads wounded land. For that, Keralas entire agricultural sector requires a well–coordinated and carefully implemented overhaul that would make both individual farms and the industry as a whole sustainable in the long term.
To this end, the Wayanad Social Service Society of the Eparchy of Mananthavady has championed organic farming for more than a decade. It has not been until recently, however, that their efforts have gained any traction and organic farming techniques taken root.
In 1999, when the W.S.S.S. first began to promote organic farming, few farmers showed interest. At the time, the eparchys social service agency managed to convince one village, comprised of 106 farmers, to utilize organic methods. But after little more than a year, most participants dropped out of the program.
The expectations were too high, explains Father Choorapuzhayil. Organic farming is not easy. Farmers have to work harder to prep the manure and care for their soil and crops.
If they had the money, he continues, they would go to market and purchase chemical fertilizers. Its easier. So farmers, though they were getting proper education and awareness in the preparation for the manures, were not willing to spend time for the same. So they dropped out early.
Systemic change is notoriously difficult. But with persistence, patience and education, Father Choorapuzhayil believes it is possible.
First we have to convince the people, says the priest. People are stratified into particular ‘isms. There are many who want to exert their influence, make problems, create confusion and misguide the people. But later, after seeing the benefits and advantages, many farmers are practicing organic farming.
Our goal is to guide the people, Father Choorapuzhayil continues, to hand over knowledge, provide training, equip people to address problems and issues by themselves.
Currently, the eparchial organic farming cooperative has 2,200 members, divided between 19 local chapters — the largest and best–coordinated network of organic farmers in Kerala. A registered fair–trade exporter, the cooperative sells its produce at a premium price and is able to purchase members produce at 30 to 40 percent above the market rate for comparable nonorganic goods.
In three to five years, our expectation is to reach 10,000 farmers, adds the priest. The Wayanad Social Service Society also administers the complex certification process by which a farmer can officially market his or her produce as organic. At present, the W.S.S.S. has certified as organic only 5 to 10 percent of Wayanads farmers, though significantly more use organic farming techniques.
Today, thanks to pioneers such as Father Choorapuzhayil, Wayanad leads the way in organic farming. But no matter how much he and others promote organic farming, the reality is that the critical mass needed to convert the entire agricultural sector requires proof of concept — and that can only come from success in the marketplace.
Farmers in Wayanad are well aware of the risks of chemical application, the high incidence of cancer and other killer diseases due to chemical–orientated farming systems, says the young priest.
But, at present, many see no other viable option for cultivation. With organic farming, they say productivity is affected; it goes down.
The prices fetched arent high enough to make up for it. And organic manure is not enough for new branches. So theyre taking a ‘wait–and–see approach.
But Father Choorapuzhayil has no time for a wait–and–see approach. Even as the sun sets, the dynamic priest continues his rounds. He leads a staff meeting at a radio station operated by the eparchy in Mananthavady, then heads to the agroprocessing center that prepares cooperative members produce for market. There, cooperative farmers bombard him with questions on how to improve their productivity and better market their produce locally.
The young man listens carefully. He knows their livelihoods hang in the balance.
Award-winning journalist Peter Lemieux reports from Africa and India for ONE.