Spice of life

  • It is imperative to investigate the diseases affecting cardamom to revive its cultivation in Illam
- Sony KC

Jul 26, 2015-

Nothing lasts forever. Times change and so do our crops,” lamented a farmer from Ilam district. He had lost his cardamom farm, which produced more than 1600 kgs of cardamom in a year, due to a disease in the past 10 years. To understand cardamom production and its impact on the livelihood of the farmers, I took a trip to the inexplicably beautiful and green Ilam this June along with other three researchers. Our aim was to interact with farmers, traders, government officials and promoters of cardamom in Ilam.

On my previous visit to Ilam in March, I had come to know that some kind of virus and fungus had inflicted large cardamom fields over the decade. This has led to a tremendous decline in production. Farmers were dismayed by the loss as the price of cardamom skyrocketed just during that time. The other thing that I observed was the lack of coordination between government officials, local authorities and the local farmers regarding the plans for  saving and reviving this high value crop. Although various species of cardamom such as Ramsay, Golchai, Chibeysahi have become extinct, new species such as Salakpurey is still widely cultivated for export .

Farmers’ view

This time around, my research was more detailed and I observed that many things have really changed for this old crop. Farmers have now begun to cultivate this crop again from scratch.

“We had sensed that something would go wrong in the cardamom farms because we were getting huge returns with less effort. We should have irrigated our lands and checked our soil,” said one farmer with much repentance. Another farmer added, “We acted like our ancestors. They did nothing but picked the fruits. I think this is also an impact of the change in climate across the globe.”

Even so, a farmer committed to reviving cardamom farming has established a nursery for Salakpurey cardamom by leasing acres of land. His team has been selling saplings of this species all over Nepal, which includes districts in the West such as Dolakha, Gorkha, Rukum and Kavre. When asked about cardamom revival in Nepal, he emphasised that there is still hope for the crop but a lot of hard work will be required for that to happen. Likewise, his partner informed us that they are not selling the samplings only to private companies but also to the government at a very low price. The government then distributes these samplings to the affected farmers. But lately, it has been difficult for them to meet the increasing demand of the saplings. The owners emphasise that they need more land and more people like themselves who will work towards the revival of this crop.  

There are a few who believe that like a human body, a crop also has a life span and that the life of cardamoms is running out of time. Thus, the focus should be diverted to finding alternatives as the process of reviving cardamom farming can take a long time. Additionally, if the government and other associated institutions do not help the farmers, it might not even be possible to revive cardamom farming. Such responses raise the question  whether this commercial crop is actually on the verge of extinction or whether we can still protect and restore it.

Problems officials face

Agriculture officials, on the other hand, remarked that what had actually destroyed cardamom farms was fungus (rhizome rot) rather than viruses commonly called chirkey and furkey by the farmers. The government officials asserted that the farmers have never experienced such crop failure in the past. As a result, farmers started to panic when this high value crop failed at a time when its market price was rising. So, farmers wanted a quick fix and lacked patience.

Ever since, the government has been straining itself to find solutions to this crop failure. Experts have relayed solutions to the farmers through trainings regarding the new methods to grow cardamom. But the officials also complained that that the farmers do not want to adapt to new ways of farming, arguing that their ancestors did not do much and still harvested tonnes of cardamom.  They also emphasised the need for a research on the crop disease in order to find a technical solution for this problem. They complained that they still do not have a proper lab to conduct research on the plant or the soil, making their task even more difficult.  


Must research

Interactions with both the farmers and local officials led me to conclude that there are serious loopholes in the way cardamom is currently cultivated. The disease has wiped off many acres of cardamom farms but the spirit of the farmers is still very high. Those who lost their farms completely are still struggling to get back on their feet. Local institutions have provided training and counseling to the farmers. But the actual need is a proper study on the disease and the ways to combat it. An evidence based technical research must be conducted as soon as possible.

Further, people have started cardamom farming in the Western part of Nepal. It is not too late to recall that the devastating earthquake hit Gorkha, Dolakha and Kavre districts the hardest, but farmers from Ilam mentioned that they sold cardamom saplings worth millions to farmers in these districts. This implies that the economy of these districts can also be revived through agriculture, putting commercial cardamom farming at the core. Although this will require some research, it can still be an option.  Farmers in Illam were also optimistic that cardamom cultivation can be revived. There is an urgent need for agriculture institutions  to conduct researches in this area to identify the actual problems in and solutions  to diseases observed in cardamom.  

KC is a PhD candidate in ‘the feminisation of agriculture transition and rural employment’ at Kathmandu University

Published: 26-07-2015 08:28

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