The Periyar Tiger Reserve, sprawled over an area of 777 sq. km at Thekkady in Kerala's Idukki district, is home to Adivasis, or original inhabitants, as well as some 25 tigers.
Once a hotbed of poaching and smuggling, the reserve now houses an ambitious project run by the state forest department that aims to turn around the livelihood and lives, of these tribal families by engaging them in commercial pepper production.
As part of a government initiative launched last year under the Periyar Foundation—which is privately funded but implemented by the Kerala forest department—the organic pepper grown by some 700-odd Adivasi families is sold directly to buyers at a price that is almost twice the current market rate.
This eliminates the role of local traders, or loan sharks, who lent the tribals money and bought their produce when they couldn't repay their loans.
On a visit to Thekkady last week, their second in two years, officials of Ecoland Herbs and Spices, a German consortium of farmers, promised to buy all the pepper grown by 67-odd Urali tribal families, said J. Sumi, an eco-development officer with the forest department at the reserve. With the market price of pepper at around Rs100 a kg, the consortium has promised to pay Rs190 a kg. There is a likelihood of farmers shipping out at least 5,000 tonnes in the next few months, she said.
The Periyar Foundation, which was founded in 2004, collects and grades pepper dried by the Urali families comprising 300 people in the village of Vanjivayal—which falls inside the reserve—as part of the people's participatory management programme. Pepper vines have a four-year maturity period.
Farmers may ship out at least 5,000 tonnes in the next few months, a Kerala forest official said
Aimed at empowering the locals and forest conservation, the foundation raises funds through fees collected from tourists visiting the reserve.
Around 60-70 families come together to form an eco-development committee, or EDC, and elect a member to head it and a forest department official is made the secretary. The activities of the committees are coordinated by the foundation.
In two nearby villages— Manakudy and Paliankudy— members of the Mannan and Palian tribes, with at least 600 families, collect unripe green pepper, also known as light berries, and sell them at auctions, to be used for spice oil extracting. Already, 105 tonnes have been sold at Rs45 a kg this harvest season against just 93 tonnes all of last year, said Sumi. The harvesting season lasts December through March.
Exports began last year with the German consortium but the venture incurred losses of Rs200,000 despite selling about 4,000 tonnes at Rs230 a kg. The losses were largely on account of getting the organically grown pepper certified by international agency Lacon Quality Certifications India Ltd and from building storage facilities and shipping.
"But things will be different this year since there is no additional expenditure for certification…the infrastructure is in place and the foundation has overcome the teething problems," said Sumi. "Additional expense has been incurred this year for putting up driers and export in all likelihood will be a profitable venture very soon."
P. K. Panjan, president of the Manakudy eco-development committee, says the marketing of organically grown pepper with the support of the forest department has raised the income levels of the families who grow vegetables, herbs and collect honey outside of the harvesting season.
Earlier, he said, the tribals would borrow money, often in the thousands, and when unable to repay, would give away the pepper.
Things are different now.
"Our communities which have been at the lowest levels have seen terrific transformation happen at astounding pace," said Panjan. "We follow an auction system where buyers come to our village and offer a price. If we feel the price is acceptable, we pluck whatever material is available the next day and give it to them for which we are paid immediately."
The intervention of the forest department has also meant that the locals are now aware of such essentials as the price they earn and the amount they actually grow, said Panjan, who was a watcher with the forest department before joining the EDC as a volunteer. Watchers are in charge of keeping track of the forest conditions and are the lowest job grade in the department.
The new system, he says, has effectively ensured a regular income for families. The more tangible benefits, of course, are the education of the children, with some going on to college and at least one girl pursuing studies in medicine. "It's all a family activity with everyone, including women and children, take part in the activities," said Panjan. Sumi said the department "has made (it) very clear" that families should not encourage children to work.
Meanwhile, the department is in talks with external organizations which can take over some of the foundation's activities such as training tribals in farming activities, soil and water conservation and storage, said O.P. Kaler, director, Periyar Tiger Reserve, since this will allow department officials to focus on their primary task of forest protection.