Bijumon Kurian, MD-Plantrich, Speaks to Global Coffee Report (The intelligent magazine for the global coffee industry)

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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