Idukki district gets its name from the Malayalam word idukku, which means gorge. Beautiful narrow gorges run across this hilly tourist destination in Kerala in south India. But the district is equally in news for its disasters. One of the four most landslide-prone districts in Kerala, its marginal farmers are often left hapless in the face of nature’s fury.
“Idukki district is part of the Western Ghats and is one of the key biodiversity hotspots in India. Its sloping terrain, combined with heavy rainfall has often led to soil erosion, landslides and consequent crop loss for the small farmers of the region. Around 75 percent of the farmers have a holding of one hectare or less and climate change has taken a heavy toll on them,” says Jacob Jose, 34, Manager, Peermade Development Society (PDS), an NGO that promotes sustainable farming.
Like several small-scale farmers in the region, Jose Thomas (60) has been farming spices like pepper, ginger and turmeric for close to 40 years, “There was a time when we did all kinds of farming here. But we are seeing a huge shift in climate in the last 10 years, the rains are less but when they come, it is unpredictable, like the heavy monsoon rains of 2018,” shares Thomas. Kerala faced the worst flood in over a century in 2018, killing hundreds of people and causing extensive damage. Thomas adds, “With such heavy monsoon rains, the top soil gets washed away, the plants become weak and the soil loses its fertility. As it is a sloping terrain, all the bunds get washed away. It was at this juncture that I decided to plant vetiver to prevent soil erosion.”
Vetiver (Chrysopogon zizanioides), commonly called khus is a perennial grass of the family Poaceae. Its roots grow upto 13 feet deep, aid in binding the soil and preventing landslides. The grass is native to tropical Asia and is commonly cultivated in countries like Haiti, India, Indonesia etc.
Farmers in the region have used vetiver in the past too for both its ecological service in binding the soil and to supply its roots for ayurvedic medicinal market. But with time, this traditional bio-engineering system lost its sheen.
The 2018 floods put the focus back on the crop, and at present, 2500 farmers are using it as border crops.
Farmers growing vetiver hedges claim to see a visible difference in their soil. “Farmers who grew vetiver hedges did not lose much soil fertility and we were able to go back our normal crops in shorter times, compared to our neighbours.” informs Thomas. Studies show that vetiver hedgerows can reduce sediment/soil loss by 90 percent and reduce rainfall runoff by as much as 70 percent.
Jose recalls how the Green Revolution had changed the way people farm in the region, saying, “The big farmers were reaping benefits but the small farmers were left behind because of their lack of access to technology. The fragile ecosystem was pumped with chemical fertilisers, polluting both the soil and water. The soil quality was highly reduced and we were faced with floods, droughts and landslides every year. In 1980s, our group was the only one in the region pushing for organic farming against the rising Green Revolution, our founder had been insisting that only organic farming would benefit the small farmers and this organisation was started to help them. By the end of ’90s, the government and other agencies too began to realise the need to go back to organic farming. By then, we had already established a network of 2000 organic farmers in the region.”
While exploring the need to revive traditional vetiver contours to prevent soil erosion in the slopy regions, the organisation realised that the only way the practice (of grow vetiver contours) could be sustained was to encourage an economic activity tied to it.
Though women and other family members worked together on the farms, it was the men who owned the lands. “The social situation was such that that the women were financially dependent on the men,” shares Jose. By bringing these ‘missing ‘ women into the forefront and by assigning some economic benefit to the process, there would be more encouragement to grow vetiver and in turn, combat the impacts of climate change on agriculture.
It was decided that the profusely growing vetiver leaves could be used by women to weave gift baskets to market the spices grown in the region. In 2012, PDS invited expert trainers from Thailand who taught their weaving techniques to 20 women from farmer families. These women then trained more local women in the process and created vetiver micro-enterprises. Vetiver slips were distributed to farmers to grow it along the slopes of their land to counter soil erosion and they entered into a contract with the women’s group to supply these vetiver leaves for their weaving units.
Betty Joseph (49) is busy taking care of her three children, “My husband and I, we rear goats, hen and rabbits. Weaving these baskets have really helped in getting some additional income for my family,” she says amidst her chores. The fact that she can do the weaving from the comfort of her home is what motivated her to join the self-help group in the first place. Women in this vetiver micro-enterprise earn around Rs.3500 per month by weaving these baskets, adding substantially to their meagre family income.
Close to 50 women in the villages of Peermade, Peruvanthanam, Murunjapuzha, Kanayankavayal, Kuttikkanam have taken to basket weaving.
“I come from a family of farmers. Whenever I get some free time at home, I weave baskets instead of merely watching TV. I am able to make Rs. 150-200 per basket,“ says Gracy Mathew (55). But she also gets the bigger picture, “Recently, in 2018 and 2019, we experienced heavy rains in our region. We noticed that the vetiver prevented soil erosion in our farmlands and it’s also profitable for us.”
Over the past years, the vetiver micro-enterprise run by the local women has been visiting several national and international exhibitions, taking their handicraft to the global market. Women leader Betty Joseph went on to receive International Micro Entrepreneurship Award in Paris in 2014 and select team members also attended an International conference on sustainable livelihood in Milan in 2015. Women from disaster-ridden villages of Idukki district have taken adversity and turned it into a profitable business. Currently, with the tourism sector and export market shutdown, the COVID-19 induced lockdown threatens their livelihood but these enterprising women are hopeful that in time, they will tide over this disaster too.