Lijin Jacob Tom from the Fair Trade Alliance Kerala is all facts: the alliance has about 4,500 members. They are organised in cooperatives and farm small plots, between 0.5 and 1.5 ha in size, and they are spread over the four northern districts of the southern Indian state of >Kerala. You may not have heard of Calicut or the Wayanad district, but you probably have a good idea what the landscape looks like: this is Jungle Book territory, and though you probably won’t meet Mowgli, as a visitor you’re likely to see tigers, cobras and most certainly wild elephants.
This area is also known for its spices, black pepper, cloves and vanilla, for its coffee, coconuts and cashews. But that’s where the Disney version ends. Lijin hesitates a moment when he recalls how the Fair Trade Alliance started. ‘It was at the height of the agriculture crisis in Kerala in the late 90s and the first few years of the new millennium. Commodity prices for coffee, nuts and spices totally collapsed’, he says. ‘At the time more than a thousand farmers committed suicide.’
It took time and effort to put an organisational structure into place, but in 2006 the Fair Trade Alliance Kerala got its Fairtrade certification. And the Alliance is going organic too: 65% of all farms are already certified organic, the rest is under conversion. Most of the farmers have some coconuts palms, but the palms grow best in the low-lying, coastal region. The coconuts are harvested every six to eight weeks throughout the year. This is done by skilled pickers who climb the palms which often reach a height of 25m to 30m. The farmers de-husk the nuts, the husk is an excellent fertilizer, and then sell their harvest to the Fair Trade Alliance. In 2010 when coconuts first came under the Fairtrade scheme, a kg of nuts sold for as little as 5 or 6 Rs in the open market, while the Fair Trade Alliance bought for 14 Rs per kg. At present the market price (for organic nuts) is about 30 Rs per kg, plus a Fairtrade premium of 3 Rs. The coconuts are processed into coconut chips, powder and coconut oil.
While education and student grants top the list of many Fairtrade committees elsewhere, that’s not the case in Kerala. ‘Our literacy rate is above 90%’, says Lijin proudly, ‘schools and healthcare are excellent’. The farmers have therefore decided to use the Fairtrade premium towards three major goals: increasing biodiversity, food security and furthering gender equality.
Microcredits help to pay for seeds and seedlings, some land is farmed jointly which provides opportunities for women, training programmes teach farmers about food security and the importance of not solely relying on cash crops like coconuts, but to grow their own vegetables and a surplus that can be sold in the local market. A big annual seed festival encourages the farmers to grow local, well adapted varieties and to save the seeds – at the festival they can not only show off their produce and swap seeds, there’s also the chance to be nominated as the best grower of the year. The Fairtrade premium and the Fair Trade Alliance have helped farmers to make agriculture viable again – for themselves and their families and for the future.