CHENNAI: Paddy carpets the plain. The slopes are dotted by banana and the hills are draped by tall, sleek arecanut trees around which peppers creep. Trees bearing fresh jack fruits, pamplemousse fruit, lime or coconuts offer contrast to the landscape. With over 50 acres of cultivated land in his backdrop, Gangadharan looks puzzled when asked about pesticide.
“Oh. No no. We don’t have pest infestation here,” he said. The farmer in his early forties, is a member of the Kuruchiya tribe which practises traditional agriculture in Wayanad and Kannur districts of Kerala. Wayanad alone is home to 13 of the 36 tribal communities in Kerala, making it a biodiversity hotspot for tribal communities.
Three large houses with a common cement courtyard watch over the cultivated land. About 80 people populated these houses five decades ago and today only 15 live there with the others building their own houses within the clan’s land.
Gangadharan lives in Anerimuttil, a village on the outskirts of Kalpetta, that houses his Tharavadu — the joint family headquarters of his clan.
Between the trees and in the slopes or on top of the hills, small clusters of houses hide in the foliage of trees and shrubs. Tens of bright red buds pop out of a shrub; there are Kantharimilaga (a chilli) and Amla trees, whose branches bend in the weight of the fruits; bright yellow lemons peep from behind the thorns, vegetables to cook and casual flowers that their locals deities love, border their houses. The Kurichiyas are known for their self-sustained lifestyle. They even sell their surplus produce sometimes.
Yet, they have never used artificial fertilisers or pesticides to grow their crops. The soil beneath Gangadharan’s feet is rich orange and the water gushing in the pathways has a colourful sheen to it. The iron-rich groundwater sparkles on exposure to the atmosphere. It originates from a sacred grove beyond the cultivated land. The local nature gods are said to reside there. The water absorbed by the forest lands gushes down the slopes filling the village’s head pond with water.
A water snake interrupts the smooth surface of the pond. It dives inside and preys on a fish. The Kuruchiyas grow select fish, including certain kinds of carp in the pond.
“The fish’s excreta will nourish the water,” claims Gangadharan. The mineral-rich water then flows through a narrow channel to another irrigation canal driven by gravity alone. It is then used to irrigate their crops through natural waterways.
“Chomala, Ganthakashala and Athira... These are the three types of rice we grow in the village,” he said. Cow dung is their primary manure along with the rich soil and water.
“On some years, we collect dry jack fruit leaves and spread it on the fields before ploughing,” Gangadharan said. Every person of the tribe in Anerimuttil work on each other’s field and harvest their crops collectively.
Over a decade ago, all members of the clan shared the land and its produce, with the Karanavar (oldest member of the Tharavadu) holding the ownership for the land. However, the lands have been split among nuclear families now.
These days, the women have started taking to MNREGA work during the day and the kids go to school hoping to find a future different from their ancestors. While their ancient farming practice has seen the test of time, their demographics are changing.