The ecological costs
In the last of his two-part article, PARSHURAM RAY looks at how the areca nut gardens have affected the ecology of the area and the lives of the farmers.
Ecological disaster and economic catastrophe: A ruined farm.
CHENNAGIRI taluka, Davangiri district, Karnataka, is now a classic example of ecological disaster and economic catastrophe wrought by commercial areca nut farming. The entire taluka, traditionally a prosperous and fertile zone, has turned into a "graveyard". The water table has gone below 1000-1200 feet, thousands of bore wells have dried up and more than 50-60 per cent of areca plantations have died. An alarming rise in debt burden among areca growers of Chennagiri has led many to commit suicide. The race to convert traditional foodgrain lands into areca gardens for the sake of profits led to a disastrous increase of acreage under areca nut in the taluka. In the last 10 years, there has been a six- fold rise in areca nut areas.
Maravanji village bears the brunt of water starvation caused by indiscriminate conversion of foodgrain lands into areca gardens. Of the 60 households in Maravanji, 30 are areca growers. B.M. Ishwarappa is a big farmer. He has an areca garden of 25 acres. Another 25 acres is under other crops. His outstanding loan burden is Rs. 7,00,000. Of the 25-acre areca garden, 12 are 40 years old while the balance was planted just three years ago. "Most farmers in my village are desperate. Out of 30 areca farmers, five were bringing water from other villages, 15-20 km away. The societies have stopped giving loans to areca farmers. Jewellery, house and land everything is mortgaged to banks. The areca farmers are in deep trouble. People have stopped going to the market. Even marriages are being postponed. Areca farmers have stopped sending their children to schools and colleges. Female education has been the worst affected. This financial distress is creating serious health problems too. Life of areca growers has become depressive and disappointing. Unbearable circumstances may force them to end their lives."
Pandumatti is a large village in Chennagiri taluka. Out of the 1,000 families in this village, more than 900 are areca farmers. With more than 2,000 acres of areca gardens, more than 50 per cent are small and marginal farmers, 40 per cent are medium and 10 per cent are big farmers with large landholdings. But all face severe financial distress due to the fast depleting water table, steep fall in prices and accumulating loan burden. Of the 2,000 acres, over 1,750 acres have dried up. More than 10,000 bore wells have gone dry in this village alone. The water table has gone below 800-1,000 feet. Villagers say that the financial distress is so severe that many may commit suicide. This year nobody has repaid even the interest amount; all are defaulters.
Gopenahalli, another big village of Chennagiri taluka, was also simultaneously struck by the "twin bullets of water scarcity and price-fall". Of the 800 households, 500 are areca growers fully dependent on gardens for their livelihood. The water table has fallen below 1,000-1,200 feet and more than 10,000 bore wells have gone dry in the last three years.
Rajasekhar is an areca farmer of Gopenahalli. His 10-acre garden is the sole source of livelihood for his 12-member family. He drilled 25 bore wells and all have dried up. Three years back, water was available at 600 feet. Now it is below 1000 feet. From last year, Rajasekhar is bringing water from Bettakadur village eight km away. .
Rajasekhar's outstanding loan is Rs. 14,00,000. He says, " If the situation continues, we will migrate to cities and work as labourers to save our lives." This village has a loan burden of more than Rs. 10 crores.
M.S. Eshwarappa, an areca farmer of Rajagondanahalli, lost his entire areca garden of five acres. All the nine borewells dried up and he had a loan burden of over Rs. 12,00,000. Unable to bear the burden, Eshwarappa committed suicide.
Rajagondanahalli village has over 200 households with more than 100 areca farmers. The total area under areca nut is over 400-500 acres. The water table has gone below 1,000 feet. More than 90 per cent of the bore wells have dried up. On an average, each areca grower has a loan burden of over Rs. 4-5,00,000. Five years ago, water was easily available at 400 feet, now the village is under the grip of water famine and no amount of money is enough to protect this village from the wrath of nature.
Shiva Kumar, an areca farmer from Sadhulingayat community in Garga village, committed suicide in 2003. He had a three-acre areca garden but all the bore wells dried up. His father, Shivappa, says, "He committed suicide because of loan burden and areca crop failure."
Rudresh, a small areca farmer in Bushenhalli, had an areca garden of 30 guntas. The yield from the six-year-old garden was not much and the intercrops were the sole source of income for his family. All three bore wells dried up. With two children and his wife to support and all sources of income drying up, and Rudresh committed suicide on August 30, 2003. The family is on the verge of starvation. Some relatives have been trying to get them compensation but bureaucratic wrangling is immune to the family's suffering.
The first part of this article appeared in The Hindu Sunday Magazine dated July 4, 2004.
The author is currently director of New Delhi-based Centre for Environment and Food Security. This article is based on the research carried out by him under an Oxfam GB Fellowship to study the impact of international farm-trade on the livelihoods of areca nut farmers.
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