After the worst floods in a century caused devastation across Kerala in August, we hear from the director of a local farmers’ cooperative, the newly appointed chairman of Fairtrade’s Network of Asia and Pacific Producers (NAPP), Bijumon Kurian:
"Every summer the monsoons come to Kerala, but this time it was different; the rainfall was so heavy that more than 450 people died and over two million people had taken shelter in camps during the worst floods we’ve ever seen. Many of my friends, my neighbours and my fellow farmers lost their homes, their crops and their livelihoods.
"Kerala, also known as India’s 'spice garden', is a biodiversity hotspot and here our lives depend on agriculture. But when the floods hit, all of our crops - coffee, bananas, vegetables, cardamom - some of which take years of careful cultivation to grow, were completely destroyed in just minutes. It couldn’t have come at a worse time as farmers struggle to cope with coffee prices at their lowest in over a decade. This situation is just completely unfair and unacceptable for farmers around the world.
"The rains were so torrential that most of the state’s 35 dams filled and when Idukki Arch Dam burst, millions of cubic feet of water washed away farms as catastrophic landslides across the coffee region wiped out many people’s livelihoods.
"It was a crisis for us; 22,000 Fairtrade farmers and 14,000 workers were affected. We acted immediately. Because we are a co-operative that works in an organised manner, we had data about our farmers, we knew where to go and send help. We helped to transport people back to village camps to shelter and we provided torches, raincoats, emergency kits of dry fruits, basic medicines and first aid. Across Kerala it was the communities that led a mammoth rescue effort.
"Now several months on we need to rebuild our lives. In our co-operative, a building that we use to train farmers and improve the quality of our coffee which was built with Fairtrade Premium has been badly damaged. In our co-operative, 40% of farmers’ lands were destroyed, most have lost crops and many homes are still uninhabitable, so people remain in camps. It has been really difficult to keep in touch as our members’ farms in the high ranges of Kerala already have poor roads, and much local infrastructure has collapsed, making travel hard. Health centres, buildings, schools were so badly flooded that people still cannot access them. Children’s education too has suffered, as books and school essentials washed away.
"But we have been helping by replacing books for children, providing insurance records and other documentation for the farmers as the original copies was lost. We are also meeting the farmers’ daily needs.
"Usually in November, the coffee bushes start to bloom but instead there is a fungus on most of the plants that survived and the disease is spreading fast. So we are trying to take care of that. In the short-term, we are giving farmers quick-growing crops which they can cultivate for food and sell the surplus to make some kind of a living for now. Coming to their future, we will help them to grow their coffee again. Farmers need more investment to grow coffee and cocoa again and that’s where Fairtrade supporters come in.
“By buying Fairtrade you are showing you support and respect us, with a Fairtrade market we have the security of long-term business, we know we will be recompensed for our hard work, and through the Fairtrade Premium we can invest in our farms even when we have crop failures or market price crashes. Fairtrade as a network protects producers in the face of disasters like this; we responded during the floods, in the weeks following the floods and we are responding even now. This week we are holding a special event to show our solidarity with farmers as we plant 200,000 seedlings to replace the lost crops. Despite the tragedies we’ve faced, we have hope for the future. Together we will nurture our new plants, and they will grow stronger than before.”
As well as running his own farm, Bijumon Kurian is the director of the Fairtrade-certified farmers’ organisation Manacardu Social Service Society (MASS). MASS works with 5,000 smallholder farmers from rural communities in Kerala’s Western Ghats who are now benefiting from higher prices, protection offered by the Fairtrade Standards and additional investments in farmers’ businesses and wider community development. Kurian was newly appointed Chairman of Fairtrade Network of Asia and Pacific Producers (NAPP).
This article first appeared via Fairtrade Foundation.