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A Wounded Land

Kerala’s Farmers in Crisis

text and photographs by Peter Lemieux

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From the Vellankal family farm in Kerala’s northern district of Wayanad, life appears the perfect picture of pastoral prosperity. On the front steps of the tidy red brick farmhouse sits Mary Vellankal, the farm’s 38–year–old proprietor and mother of two, bantering with her friend, Rosa Puthenkalayal. Nearby, a healthy pregnant milking cow rustles in a neatly kept barn. Fields of coffee bean and peppercorn plants, clustered in tight circles, soak the sun’s afternoon rays. Undulating groves of green banana trees stretch out to the horizon, enveloping the scene in lush warmth.

It is said every picture tells a story. But pictures are sometimes deceptive. For Mary Vellankal, life on this farm is hardly picture perfect. In fact, it is harder than ever.

Above the house’s entrance hangs a photo of Mary’s late husband, Mathai. “He was a hard–working, active fellow with a well–maintained pepper garden,” says Mrs. Puthenkalayal, who serves as a community facilitator for the Kerala Social Service Forum (K.S.S.F.), the development ministry of the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council.

But as is the case of so many family farmers in Wayanad, no matter how hard Mr. Vellankal worked he could not keep himself and his family afloat, much less provide the good life he desired for his family.

Then, in 2005, Mr. Vellankal took a chance. Despite high interest rates, he borrowed about $900 from banks and local moneylenders and leased 2.5 acres of low–lying paddy fields along the banks of a nearby river. He quickly converted the land to make it suitable for bananas. But unlike rice, bananas are not indigenous to the region. Both the soil and the saplings require careful nurturing from planting until harvest, involving the regular use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

It was an honest roll of the dice, a high stakes bet to extricate the family from the clutches of living hand to mouth. But the gamble served as just another cautionary tale for Wayanad’s struggling farmers.

Shortly before the harvest, the worst possible case scenario unfolded before the 35–year–old farmer’s eyes. Heavy rains and strong winds wiped out his banana trees, taking with them any hope of economic prosperity for the family. Overwhelmed by despair, Mr. Vallankal did what many farmers in Kerala have done; he drowned his sorrows in alcohol. One night, drunk and depressed, he downed a bottle of pesticide and ended his life, leaving behind his wife to manage the household debt and rear their two young children. If not for the support and friendship of Mrs. Puthenkalayal, Mrs. Vellankal admits she, too, may have taken her own life.

From 2002 to 2008, 1,690 farmers committed suicide in Wayanad — a staggering number considering the district’s total population numbers around 670,000. And while many of India’s agricultural regions face equally tough economic times, Kerala’s Wayanad district boasts the highest per capita rate of agriculture–related suicides in the country.

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Tags: Kerala Farming/Agriculture Economic hardships Socioreligious programs Alcoholism