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INDIA: Spice Farmers in Misery

by Sunil RamanBBC news
May 13th, 2005



Thousands of spice farmers in India are in the midst of a major crisis, threatening one of the country's best known trades.

The worst affected are black pepper farmers in the southern state of Kerala.

The picture postcard scenery in the state's Wayanad district has charmed tourists for long.

The sides of hills are dotted with farms growing cardamom, pepper, cloves, vanilla and many other spices.

The Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama had landed on the Kerala coast in the late 15th century and opened the sea route for spices.

Pepper is grown on 70,000 hectares of land, although most farmers have small holdings of less than one acre.

But a drop in global prices and competition from Vietnam has made them vulnerable.

Outrage

Last year, around 100 farmers in Wayanad committed suicide after being unable to repay their debts.

Media publicity and political outrage brought pepper farmers some relief with the state government offering to buy pepper at above the market price.

But a further drop in world prices and government's inability to procure more pepper has meant that the situation remains the same.

Biju, a young farmer spends most of his day chatting with friends in the market square of Sultan Bathery.

"I borrowed 25,000 rupees ($578) from a private bank but do not know if I will be able to repay it on time. The prices are too low for my condition to change," he says.

"How do I take care of my family?".

The crisis is also hitting the Church which also owns spice farms.

'Offerings down'

Mullankolly and Pulpally are dotted with churches most of which were constructed in the boom phase a few years ago.

Father George Vettikatil heads the Malankara Catholic church in the region.

Returning from Sunday mass he says: "Church means people. If people are struggling, the Church is struggling. Offerings have come down by over 10%."

There was a time when one quintal of pepper could fetch 27,000 rupees ($625).

Now, the price has fallen to 5,000 rupees ($116) a quintal.

There are 45 parishes in the Wayanad area that used to contribute to the Diocese centre.

Father George said all these parishes have three to four acres of land on which they grow pepper. Now they look to the Bishop's House for financial help.

The drop in earnings has forced a halt to the reconstruction of 10 parishes.

"We could complete only four buildings and others will have to wait," he said.

Globalisation hits home

Around 45% of India's plantation crops are grown in Kerala.

Many of the spice farms are homesteads.

When global prices were good many farmers began growing more pepper. Little did they realise that the boom would be short-lived.

Changes in the global economy have led to the present crisis.

Vietnam has become the biggest competitor for the Indian spice farmer and is now producing all the spices traditionally grown in India in large volumes, as well as coffee, tea and cashew nuts.

Indian pepper exporters say new global trading rules are responsible for the plight of spice farmers.

Kishor Shamji heads the Indian Pepper Exporters Association in Cochin and he holds the government responsible for unhindered imports into the country.

A free trade agreement with Sri Lanka has led to dumping of pepper by third countries, he says.

"There has been a quantum jump in import of pepper.

"India imported 600 tonnes in January 2004 and in the same period this year around 1,300 tonnes of pepper was imported," he said.

The government has not helped the farmers and the industry, he said.

The problem of pepper farmers is symptomatic of what the Indian farming sector is going through.

Farmers increase the area under a certain crop if global prices go up but do not know how to deal with a situation when prices fall.

In the last few years rice fields have been turned into banana plantations in Kerala. Crop failure in Madagascar saw many take to vanilla cultivation.

The government says Indian farmers need to meet the new global challenges posed by free trade.

But it has not been able to tell them how to meet the challenge.

Until then, farmers like Biju will continue to live in debt and more may take their own lives.








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