Back to the roots: Siruvani's Irula farmers return to organic farming and reap a great bounty

The tribal communities were trained to prepare biopesticides and insecticide using local resources.
Back to the roots: Siruvani's Irula farmers return to organic farming and reap a great bounty
Back to the roots: Siruvani's Irula farmers return to organic farming and reap a great bounty

Armed with a sickle, Vellingari, an Irula tribal, walks quietly on a long, narrow stretch of road in Singampathy village of Siruvani hills. “That is Kalkothi mountain from where we get water,” says Vellingari, as he looks at the vast expanse of mountains behind him. 

Located 35 kilometres from Coimbatore in Tamilnadu, Siruvani’s global popularity is for the second sweetest water in the world.

Here, there are six tribal hamlets, where close-knit Irula tribal communities live.

These tribal hamlets are remote, and disconnected from outside world. Though buses sporadically ply into these hamlets, they are open only for the tribal community. As access to these hamlets is limited, bringing in any development initiative here is a serious challenge. 

The communities practice agriculture, collect non timber forest products (NTFP), and work with the forest department during summer for their livelihood. In some villages like Sadivayalpathy, people are traditional farmers.

Chemical farming was unknown here. However, from the last 30 years, communities here are using chemical inputs for farming. Siva Patti, as she is fondly called, is a 58-year old tribal woman from Singampathy village. She recalls, “We never knew what chemicals were. In earlier days, we prepared the land for farming only with cow dung and leaf litter. People walked into our villages and told that unless we use chemicals, productivity will not increase. Chemical farming, over time, has degraded the soil here.” 

Vellingari concurs, “I have been using chemicals since 15 years. Over the years, the soil quality has gone down. The productivity is falling each year.”

Maya Mahajan, Associate Professor from the Centre for Sustainable Futures wing of the Amrita University initiated a project to bring farmers back to their traditional farming with funding from the Department of Science and Technology (DST), Government of India.Thanal, an NGO from Kerala, who has previously worked in Wayanad, were roped in to train the communities. 

The tribal communities were trained to prepare biopesticides and insecticide using local resources. Farmers in the hamlets of Sadivayalpathy, Singampathy and Sarkarporathy were trained in organic cultivation of turmeric, vegetables and rice. Ten training programs, (including field-based training) on organic farming were conducted in Singampathy, Sarkaraporathy and Sadivayalpathy hamlets. Sadivayalpathy has a population of 170, whereas Singampathy and Sarkaraporathy has a population of 210 and 65 respectively. 

Farmers produced organic vegetables like ladies finger, cow pea and tomatoes. Compost pits were setup in all the hamlets. The farmers were also trained to build these pits. 

Vellingari attempted organic farming of turmeric in half an acre of land last year. 

“As farmers were sceptical about suddenly shifting to organic, they did organic farming in one portion of the land. Once the harvest is good, then, they will be convinced to convert into organic farming,” says K Kalidas, Research Associate, Amrita University.

The tribal communities have no salary or initial investment or funds for ploughing the land, or for mechanised farming practices. Farmers also do not openly talk about their issues. 

Working with the tribal communities was a challenge. Kalidas says, “Organic farming takes a lot of effort. The manure needs to be applied consistently. Some farmers were not willing to work on the farm. Also, they were sceptical about pest attacks during the farming process.”

Vellingari says, “The shift to organic was challenging as we need to procure all the resources, wait for two weeks and then spray them on farm. With chemicals, we need to just buy and throw them in the farm. However, the inputs cost reduce significantly with organic farming. The chemical cost for turmeric farming is high.” 

He applied panchagavyam (made of cow products), asafoetida and bijamrutham (a natural seed treatment method) on his farm. . 

Vellingari says, “The idea is to become self-sufficient over time. Next year, we should be producing crops with the training we received now.”

The main issue here is elephants and wild boars raiding the farm. Vellingari says, “I want to grow millets, but my only fear is elephants. I am going to attempt growing millets next year.”

For Kalisamy, a farmer from Sadivayalpathy hamlet, organic farming gave good returns. He was the first farmer to start organic farming in his village. After witnessing good harvest and financial gains, he resolved to continue the organic farming practices, and encouraged farmers in his villages, and the neighbouring villages to do the same. 

The initial produce was purchased in the local markets for a premium price. Now, they have a tie-up with organic marketing companies to pick up the produce from farmers here. Organic manure was produced right in these villages with local inputs. Goat pellets, cow urine, cow dung, leaf litter were used in the farm. “Land preparation was done with green leaf litter and cow dung. This was applied while ploughing the land,” says Mahajan. 

About 35 farmers in all the three hamlets are doing organic farming now. 

“People say organic farming gives lesser yield. On the contrary, farmers got a good yield here. We did mulching, added a lot of tonic to the soil, and enhanced the soil immunity,” says Mahajan.

Mahajan believes that farmers in Siruvani should switch to organic farming for three reasons--to protect the environment, for better health, and higher income through premium price for organic produce. The project will also prevent malnutrition as tribal communities can consume healthy organic vegetables. 

“In the days ahead, we want the community to grow less water-intensive and indigenous crops like millets. The next step is organic certification for the produce, which will take another three years,” says Mahajan. 

The fertile land has copious good water, soil, and plenty of leaf litter, and other local inputs to follow what the practices they abandoned earlier. Organic farming is not new here. It has been reintroduced here to save the protected forest land and the fragile eco-sensitive landscape of the Western Ghats.

Videography: Kalai Selvan and K Sakthivel

Video Editor: M Pradeep

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