|"My neighbour killed himself by swallowing his own pesticides... the land can no longer support us"
||[Jul. 27th, 2009|01:00 pm]
Rainspotting in Bangalore
|Mutai came to Kerala, to this farm, on January 21st, 1951. He was eleven years old then, and has lived here ever since. He’s dark-skinned, white-haired and wearing a bright blue check lunghi [a wrap-around piece of material worn as a skirt], as all the farmers here wear. A granddad vest, a shirt and an excellent pair of 1980’s NHS-style bifocals: on paper he’s not too dissimilar from people I used to know in Shoreditch.
In 1966 he married a girl called Mariakkutty and these few acres of land have been their livelihood through forty-three years of marriage and five children. When the first agricultural settlers came here in the fifties, they razed the land of forest and planted lemongrass oil seeds that they had bought with them. The initially small-scale production was fruitful in the rich biodiversity of Wayanad, and the farms grew. Rather than planting a variety of crops for food, the farmers chased the money they could make from exporting cash crops such as pepper, coffee and plantain. Now the combination of years of monocrops, coupled with the rising temperatures and reduced rainfall caused by climate change has made the unthinkable a reality: the fertile lands of Wayanad are going dry.
“The problems really began when the price of pepper dropped,” explains Mutai. “Because of foreign imports, the value fell from Rs. 20,000 per quintal [about £2.50/kg] to just Rs. 6,000 [75p]. It’s at Rs. 9,000 [£1.13] now, which is still too little for a family to support themselves with.
“Then three years ago the price of coffee fell too, and on top of that our yields reduced: the lack of rainfall has starved the crops. That’s when the farmers had to start borrowing money – nearly 90% of the people here have taken out loans.”
Mariakutty brings in glasses of hot coffee, grown in the garden. Despite the problems the cash crops have bought the land, we still drink the sweet dark liquid from glasses engraved with the red logo of a rubber company.
“The land is so hard these days that it is unturnable in the summer season, and our ginger grows as little stubs where it should be two foot high,” she says. “This year again there is much less rain. Look –“ She gestures out of the open door, when a thin drizzle is falling on the lawn. “You can see out there it is limited again. Five years ago we had to take a loan from the bank to install an irrigation system to artificially water the coffee plants. We never had such problems before.”
Unable to support themselves from the land, the people of Wayanad have started to turn to dairy farming, and most families in the area now have one or two cows. Of course, crops are also needed to feed the animals and the farmers have to purchase grass from their already narrow funds. Defaulting on their loan repayments and under growing financial pressure, many farmers feel they have no choice but to end their lives, and Wayanad has seen a spate of suicides in recent years. In a macabre final remark on the state of their professions, many of these men kill themselves by swallowing their own pesticides.
“One of my neighbours [killed himself],” remembers Mutai. “Abraham. He had three children; two daughters whose marriages he needed to pay dowries for. Three years ago there was a drought, and the price of pepper dropped to Rs. 6,000 [per quintal]. They couldn’t exist on the money they made.
“He was sixty when he committed suicide. The Government writes off the debts of dead people, so the only way for a family to survive is if one dies.”
As were leaving, one of Mutai’s sons arrives with his wife and kids. They crunch up the driveway in a little gold car, all bright urban clothing and shy sons in Levi’s shirts. None of the five children work in agriculture, choosing more lucrative professions such as teaching and the military instead. When the old couple die, the farmland will be sold for whatever it can fetch and the proceeds divided up between his children.
“Young people today should work somewhere else,” says Mutai, shaking his head.
“No-one will come back to agriculture.”
Top: Mutai, left, ad his brother in front of the family lands
Middle Right: Mutai and two of his grandchildren in their home in Wayanad, Kerala
With thanks to Anil Emage and Suneesh Chittilapalli