This tribal farmer preserves 40 indigenous paddy seeds and incurs Rs 30,000 loss every year
According to Raman, climate change has been evident right from 1970s as water sources have been dwindling
“Should break their legs,” rages 66-year-old Cheruvayal Raman (fondly called Ramettan). He had bought some sardines from the market. The minute they were immersed in water to wash, all of them dissolved. “It seems they were called Oman sardines. They were full of chemicals and preservatives,” he says.
Ramettan indeed has the right to be angry because he has been toiling for the last 56 years to preserve traditional methods of farming. He never uses any chemicals. “We live for food and we do not get it without poison. Should break their legs,” his anger was not against the shopkeeper who sold the sardine but against the system.
In the Kerala farm sector, Ramettan, a Kurichiya tribe by birth, is leading a battle to preserve age-old traditions of cultivation that were prevalent among the Adivasis of Wayanad. But it is not an easy one. And therein lies his relevance.
“With the Green Revolution the focus was on increasing the yield. This resulted in death of many indigenous seed varieties that had medicinal and other qualities. Ramettan has been in the forefront to preserve many such varieties of the Wayanad region. Inspired by him, there are many such groups in Kerala now. The awareness has increased,” says Illias KP, secretary, Kerala Jaiva Karshaka Samithi, explaining the significance of Ramettan’s life and work.
Ramettan, who lives in a hut that could be 150 or so years old near Valliyoorkavu, knows Wayand inside out. “It used to be terribly cold in December-January in those days. You would feel your blood is freezing. There used to be rains almost every month. Winds used to blow from east, west, north and south. These are not there now. The climatic balance has been disturbed. And we are responsible for that. In Wayanad, one major reason is the settlers. They bought land and the aboriginals were ousted. Those who settled here did not follow the traditional way of farming,” he says.
Here are edited excerpts of an interview:
What is the most bugging problem for you as farmer now?
Climate change. Wayanad has deformed. The forest has disappeared. Thick forest was the peculiarity of this region. I started farming when I was 10 years of age in 1960. Wayanad in those days used to have forest, rivulets, streams, marsh lands. There were many types of animals, birds, insects, dragon flies and moths. Fish were in abundance. All of them have disappeared. We used to have joint family system and joint farming. Everybody used to help each other. They are all gone. All these are big challenges.
In those days we never had any expenditure, not even 10 paise. Everything was done collectively. But now-a-days there is nobody to work in the fields. Along with that comes the changes in the climatic conditions which have made matters worse.
When did you start feeling the pinch of climate change?
Climate change has been evident right from 1970s. In 1950s and 60s, there used to be natural springs in all the corners of fields. Water used to gush out as if from a 5-10 hp motor pump. Now you don’t see such springs anywhere. These springs have been drying up for the last 35-40 years. I could feel the decline every year. The ecological system of Wayanad has gone for a toss. Things have gone out of control now. Wayanad used to be different from other districts because of the biodiversity. There used to be 90 types of fish in the Mananthavady river. But today where have they gone?
The question is how should we see 'development'? Development is when we are self reliant, not dependent on others for anything. Good food, soil, air, clothes, water all should be made, cultivated in our own region. We should grow without being dependent on others. I am not saying roads are not required. We need roads. We need hospitals to cure deceases. But that is not what we got.
How should our country exist? How should we attain food security? These should have been the issues highlighted by the political parties in their election manifesto. They promise food for all. But where do they get rice from? I just cannot believe what they say.
Who is responsible for this situation?
We cannot accuse any single person or entity as the reason for this kind of downfall. It is the society that has brought about this change. The people, the rulers are all part of it.
The biggest problem with Wayanad is water. Secondly, the agriculture sector is dying. I am not saying there has not been progress at all. We have the countries of the world on our finger tips. That is good. But such development is all being misused.
How are you coping with the climate change?
It is a gamble. We calculate. For example, this year the rain has had a two month gap. The summer rain should have started in the beginning of March. But this time it started by April 26-27. So we calculate that the rain will continue until November-December. That is how we calculate. So we sow accordingly. But there is no guarantee that this will indeed be so. When the calculations go wrong everything loses balance. When agriculture loses balance, human beings will also lose balance. It impacts everything you do, including love. We are going into deeper darkness. I have no clear answers for questions on climate. It is all based on my experience.
What do you think is the way out?
The only way out is control our show-off. Why do we need 4-5 cars in one house?
What do you think the government should do?
The government should devise policies for the indigenous cultivation methods. Only individuals won't do. I inherited some 5-6 indigenous seeds from my uncle who died in 1989. It is in 2004 for the first time the world came to know of my farming methods and seeds. But until now nobody from the government has ever approached me with any help or enquiries about how to protect or preserve these items. I incur huge losses for preserving this. I lose around Rs 20,000-30,000 yearly for preserving the indigenous seeds. This is not profitable. I cannot sell and make money out of seeds. Nobody in this country has ever felt that he should ask how I am doing this and what are the losses that I suffer on account of my work or felt that that he should help me continue the work. (Ramettan is a recipient of many awards, including Kerala Biodiversity Board’s green award in 2012).
Have you approached the government?
Why should I go to the government? My story is all over the net. You can see that in Youtube. Is there anybody who doesn't know about it?
One Rajesh Nair from the US once sent me some money, some Rs 13,000. That was in 2012-13. He saw on the TV about my story and the toil that take. I have carefully kept all his details and the letter he sent as a monument. He is the first one to help me financially.
Tell us about your work.
I preserve 40 indigenous seed varieties of paddy. I cultivate all those every year. I visit colleges, schools across the state to give lectures on agriculture. Students come here to learn, do research. Now inspired with my work, there are a few others in Kerala doing similar work.
Of the 40 acres I own, I cultivate only 3-4 acre. The balance is taken up by my family members. Of the 3-4 acres I do, one-one-and-half acres is only for seed preservation. Moreover, I have given away seeds to many people. Not for money. My only condition is that they should cultivate and return the seeds. But nobody does that. I do this to protect the seeds – so that even if something happens to the seeds that I have, it is safe with somebody else.
Does the agriculture department or university do something like this?
No. However, the agriculture department has given me a laptop to conduct Krishi Patham (lessons in cultivation). The plan is to impart classes on cultivation to students via video. The department had given me Rs 50,000 for the project. I am spending another Rs 20,000. I had to buy some chairs and an almirah to keep the lap top.
How do you think this can be sustained?
I should get some help which need not be repaid. This is not a business. I cultivate each seed in 3-4 scents. I keep aside some of the produce for my own use at home. I can do only one crop, not two. So I cultivate and keep aside some for my own use at home. Everything else is to preserve seeds. So I sell nothing. Then how do I go ahead? I should get at least Rs 30,000 every year without repayment obligation. That will not help me make any profit. But I need that much to sustain this.
What all plants do you preserve?
My focus is on paddy seeds. That is because once you lose paddy seeds, you never get it back. I think the seeds that I preserve should be at least 500 years old because they were inherited over generations. But which institution does preserve such things now? Everybody utilises the maximum and destroys.
Have you preserved pepper seeds?
Pepper seeds won't last. We had various types of pepper such as Karinkotta, karivalankotta, Vellavalankotta, Uthiran, Upputhiran, Kallyvally, Cheruvally and others. All these are lost completely. Now we have only hybrid items. Coffee and pepper are completely dependent on climatic conditions. One reason we lost all these varieties is the change in climate. Another reason is the use of pesticides. That has affected pepper very badly.
Have you taken patent for any of the seeds?
I haven't but some 20 seeds have been patented by MS Swaminathan Foundation. They have taken patent for seeds preserved by Kuruchya-Kuruma Adivasi tribes.
Isn't that a problem?
Ideally it is. But we are not aware about these things. How to do it? Whom to approach? So they have done it as we may not be able to do it on our own.
Have you decided that you will not allow anybody else to take patent for the remaining seeds?
Though I have decided not to some gene banks have approached me. They say there are chances of these seeds getting lost. So don't you think they should be preserved? I thought so too. So I have taken a decision in favour of that.
Is there a danger that they may take patent for those seeds?
No. I have asked them to give me the certificate. I have insisted on creating my record there accurately. They will give me a certificate and an agreement. Another of my condition is that I should get back the seeds whenever I ask or my inheritors ask. This I did only because I am worried that I may lose these. I have also kept a record of all these in writing with me too.
Are your children following in your footsteps?
I have two sons and two daughters. But they are following today's generation. Everybody imitates now-a-days. If your son is buying a bike, my son would also want to. If your son is buying a computer, my son would also want to. I can't complain or accuse anybody of anything. Attempt to bring them back has to be done by the society.
Editor's note: The graphic has been corrected to say that this is the rainfall data collected at Muttil in Wayanad. Vimalkumar, a coffee grower, recorded this data daily for 28 years and is available online now.