A community-led project has empowered smallholder farmers and transformed livelihoods in the Indian state of Kerala.
Kerala is well known around the world as one of India’s most intriguing and popular states.
While its beaches, food and culture draw masses of tourists to the area each year, to Indians its rich agricultural output has led it to be known as God’s own country.
However, for many farmers in the region, the reality was not so rosy.
According to Bijumon Kurian, who is the Managing Director of the organic farming supplies manufacturer Plantrich, the region’s farmers had a massive over-reliance on pesticides that was harming the local environment and affecting the viability of many local smallholders.
“A study showed pesticide use in cardamom plantations in the area of Idukki was one of the world’s highest,” Kurian says. “On an average, farmers were using 27 kilograms of pesticides in a hectare of cardamom plantation and nine kilograms per hectare of tea garden.”
This was way above the average use in the rest of India, Kurian says: “India’s average pesticide use is half a kilogram per hectare.”
Kurian says that this over-reliance on chemical pesticides was not just affecting the reputation of the produce coming out of Kerala, it was also having a huge economic impact on the smallholder farmers, who were struggling to pay for their over-use.
“In general, because of the small landholding, poor economic conditions, and non-affordability to buy seeds, inputs, labour charges, and inadequate logistics due to the hilly landscape, farmers suffered for many years and 90 per cent of them relied on hand loans with higher interest rates from local pesticide vendors and traders,” he says. “Because of such bonding, farmers were forced to sell their produce for lesser prices to local traders and ended up with no gain, or even losses due to the cost of servicing the hand loans with higher interest rates.”
This had negative social, environmental, and economic ramifications, Kurian says.
“It badly impacted their families including education for the farmers’ children,” he says. “Ultimately the farmers were suffering because of inadequate direct market access, dominance of local money lenders, traders, and vendors, and many suicides were being reported.”
In 2001, a group of 30 smallholder farmers from the region came together to form the Manarcadu Social Service Society (MASS), a small group dedicated to developing organic and fairtrade farming practices in the region.
Under the leadership of Kurian, the MASS set about educating other groups of farmers about the sustainable production of coffee, cocoa, and tropical fruits and vegetables, and helped those farmers to get Organic certification.
The MASS also led the way in encouraging the farmers to adopt the Fairtrade system, forming cooperatives and getting Fairtrade certification to guarantee a fairer price for their produce.
The project has been a resounding success, with some 2380 smallholder farmers now Fairtrade and Organic certified.
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FLO ID 19619
Fairtrade certified since 2009
Number of members 1628
Smallholders 1.6 hectares per farmer on average
Area under production 889 hectares Growing practices 100% organic
Coffee variety Robusta Parchment (meaning wet-processed), Robusta Cherry (dry-processed), Arabica (wet-processed) and Arabica Cherry (dry-processed)
Coffee quality Mild and low acidity, exotic full-bodied taste, fine aroma Harvest December – February
In 2008, recognizing the difficulties in farming communities, Manarcadu Social Service Society embarked on their Fairtrade project to help more than 1000 small-scale and poor farmers. Today, Manarcadu Social Service Society (MASS) is a 1st grade organization, located in the Kottayam and Idukki Districts in the state of Kerala. Kerala is a mountainous region; the Idukki and Kottayam Districts are home to many farmers and their families who are isolated from urban India with few communication and road links.
The cooperative began with a group of ambitious farmers who wanted to support their community to adapt to sustainable farming, increase market access and improve their livelihood. A network of 17 groups was set up by the Co-operative with the support of PLANTRICH who has knowledge in organic production and export. Since then, the cooperative has embraced the empowerment that organization brings: there is a bi-monthly newsletter ‘Jaivashree’ which gives a voice to the farming community, as well as monthly meetings and democratic decision-making. 20% of members are women.
The cooperative works with local NGOs and a government programme to promote organic farming in the region. They have worked hard to reduce waste, recycle, and implement energy-efficient projects. Farmers use biogas technology and ‘vermi-compost’ (worm composting) on their farms, which converts into bio-energy for household needs.
Coffee growing, processing and export
As well as Arabica and Robusta coffee, the members of MASS currently produce 12 other Fairtrade certified products: cocoa, cinnamon, black pepper, white pepper, vanilla, cardamom, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, turmeric, coconut and pineapple. Producers farm in the deep jungle, in fertile soils, using traditional farming practices. Their coffees are grown under a two-tier shade canopy made up of a variety of trees.
The cooperative runs a ‘Plant Doctor’ service to help farmers, and an internal control system to mobilize organic and Fairtrade certification. The ‘Plant Doctor’ team provides systematic advice on organic farming and climate change to the entire farming community. The MASS Bio Centre in Santhigram, Idukki District, is an organic training centre which attracts many bio-tourists.
The cooperative works with the company Plantrich to find markets for its produce, and obtain the best prices for farmers.
Benefits of Fairtrade
Members of the MASS General Assembly meet to make decisions about how to invest the Fairtrade Premium.
Quality and productivity
MASS has invested the Fairtrade Premium in various projects to increase the quality and productivity of all their products, including crop rehabilitation, crop renovation and soil conservation.
Sustainability: organic farming
MASS have focussed on promoting organic farming in the region. They run awareness programmes which highlight the issues of using chemicals and pesticides. They have invested the Fairtrade Premium in a programme to supply organic manure and pesticides to increase productivity. The cooperative has also supported farmers with the costs of organic certification.
Coffee and cooperative infrastructure
As the cooperative has grown, they have invested the Fairtrade Premium in both coffee processing equipment and upgrading the regional networks. They have purchased vehicles, weighing equipment and a coffee huller. They have set up 15 farmer-driven collection and knowledge centres and implemented other energy-saving equipment to make their process as efficient as possible.
Social: Education and health
MASS have awarded full scholarships to gifted children. A proportion of the Fairtrade Premium also goes into a fund to help farmers pay for their children’s educational costs.
As most of the cooperative’s farmers live in highland areas which lack proper medical facilities, MASS provides a health insurance scheme for 600 farmers and runs ‘pop-up’ clinics
The cooperative invested Fairtrade Premiums in a project to construct small ponds on farmers’ land so they could conserve water.
The cooperative is investing the Fairtrade Premium in building capacity among women farmers. They hope to attract more female farmers to join the cooperative.
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Women Farmer Mahalaxmi happy about fairtrade support
One has not to forget “The small farmers grow around 70% of the planet’s food which means 2 billion people dependent on small scale farming for their survival but same time 50% of the world’s hungry people are smallholding farmers”. It’s a quite challenging to address it.
Bijumon , MD, Plantrich.
Plantrich actively took part in the exhibition and many prominent & prospective clients visited the stall and expressed the requirements and appreciated the MASS & Plantrich activities from so long in organic farming.
At Biofach, it was too good sessions conducted by Fairtrade International by bringing representative of producers across the globe which helped to understand the regional strength of fair-trade system and challenges as well. It was amazing session by Harriet/Larry which opened up the strategy requirements for future of fair-trade system, kind of investment needed, areas of investment needed, development of producers communication tool effectively, strengthen of Regional and National organizations to transform the fair-trade ideas, approaches, current situations, supply chain, funds arrangements and marketing support and to support all the activities of producers group transparently.
Mr. Bijumon Kurien given a press note at press conference organised by Fairtrade International, how Indian producers groups straggle earlier days and how fair-trade make socio-economic changes in their life, premium projects including primary health, primary education, women groups empowerment etc. The MASS is ideal organization demonstration its best efforts to bring farmers under fair-trade system and show them sustainable agriculture for future.
He hails from Kottayam and has been part of the agrarian community since his childhood. At present Bijumon Kurian heads a firm that strives to supporting small farmers and help them live a better life.
Bijumon has now been honoured with Fairtrade Fan Award, the first Indian recipient. The Fairtrade Fan award is instituted by the Fairtrade International, a Germany-based organisation. The organisation offers an alternative approach to conventional trade and is based on a partnership between producers and consumers. This gives them the opportunity to improve their lives and plan for their future.
“I hail from a farmer’s family. Upon completing my higher education, I decided to do something for the benefit of the farming community. There is a lot that has to be done in this area. Only when we help the farmers, can we be assured of any form of development in the country,” commented Bijumon.
For over two decades, he has worked towards ensuring a better life for financially backward sections of farming community in Kerala. Moreover, he also focuses on areas such as organic and fair trade as well as empowering women in the sector.
He also added that his organisation would like to establish a an institute for the education of farmers. “Universities offer a wide variety of courses regarding agriculture. However, you need a structured programme that could teach you modern techniques and point you in the right direction. We hope to establish our institute soon,” explained Bijumon.
Most of the Bijumon’s initiatives have been implemented without much support from governmental bodies. “It is good to know that the Centre has finally allocated a significant sum of money towards the agrarian sector for its development. They seem to be moving towards a more favourable cause. This initiative would definitely help the farming community,” he explains.
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