‘Seeing is believing’. Watch the white snowy mountain, ‘Kanchenjunga’, which stands tall and is surrounded by hills that covers the long stretches of hazel green sheets ‘cardamom plants’ all over. Yes, Sikkim is the largest exporter of cardamom.
The farmers in Sikkim are known for producing the largest cardamom plants. One among them is Ganesh Kumar Chettri, 31, who has given a new direction to the farming industry by merging it with tourism. Chettri finds nostalgic by sharing his experience in farming which he made ‘live’ for tourists to witness the cultivation processes.
Chettri was born in the Gezying district, West Sikkim. His ambition was to build his career in marine, but could not leave the village and move out to start his career. He had to continue his ancestral business, cardamom farming.
“It’s now more than 100 years we have been into the cardamom farming business,” he says. They have been known to be the largest producer of cardamom in the western region of Sikkim. Chettri has five acres of large black cardamom farm. It’s a huge land, still Chettri who has been a farmer all his life, manages and works on it himself. “I learned the traditional skills of farming from my father,” smiles Chettri.
He takes a walk every day sharp 4 am and inspects his entire field. He is tall, fit and active, and doesn’t have a weather-worn and creased face like any other Indian farmers of his age. It’s because his diet is completely organic and healthy as they cultivate their own food in their farm.
Cardamom grows wild in the hilly forests. Much of the world’s supply came from these natural growing plantations of the spice.
“I harvest in the months of October and November and produce 200-250 kilo of cardamom, the price is Rs 1,500 per kilo and 30 percent of the production is used for maintenance like weeding, harvesting manuring, new saplings and planting. Cardamom is an expensive spice. Indian cardamom trades around Rs 2,000-2,500 per kg in the international markets,” explains he.
Chettri develops the Seermna and Ramshai varieties of cardamom that now accounts for 70 percent of all of the spice. Another main traditional cultured species in Sikkim is Amomum Subulatum. The epicenter of India’s large cardamom arena that produces around 80 percent of national annual yield. Remaining 20 percent comes from Darjeeling hills and north eastern region.
“Cardamom is one of Sikkim’s most successful cash crops,” adds Ganesh. The spice didn’t make him rich, but it helped to sustain his family’s business.
Besides consuming 1,500 to 1,800 MT, India is an important exporter of this cash crop mainly to Pakistan, Singapore or Middle East, where Sikkim’s large cardamom is the preferred choice due to its distinctive aroma and colour.
For thousands of years cardamom has been used as a homeopathic medicine for a variety of digestive ailments and most importantly has been sold around the world as a culinary spice. Unfortunately, the disease and changing agricultural practices are negatively influencing the entire ecosystem surrounding cardamom plantations.
Cardamom has been a keystone species in Sikkim’s ecosystem for thousands of years, but now due to the declining rate of growth and production, several dependent species, especially pollinating animals, are declining in population as well.
Chettri came up with a radical way of growing cardamom. For years, farmers had planted seedlings and waited at least three years for their first crop. “I planted shoots cut from the high-yielding variety and discovered that the first crop could be harvested after two years,” he says.
Many other farmers of the region now follow the same steps of Chettri and cultivate cardamom organically.
The income that the farmers get from the cardamom is not sufficient to run the house, grieves almost every cardamom farmer of Sikkim.
In 2006, tourism was a new business for livelihood in Sikkim. However, the challenge was that the tourist flow was only for Gangtok and other popular destinations. Unlike others, Chettri came up with an innovative idea and merged farming business with tourism and this brought additional income and help him to sustain tourism in the west part of Sikkim.
Chettri explains the importance of eco-tourism that helps to retain the cultural life and migration of youths from village to cities for job. He started a ‘homestay’ and named it t‘Dhungay Homestay’. The tourists experience a ‘rural stay’ and live with the people of different mountain communities of Sikkim and get to witness the entire process of cardamom cultivation ‘live’.
“Though many people have started the concept of homestay but providing the tourists the facility to witness/cultivate cardamom makes-a-difference. Tourists also get to visit ancient Buddhist monasteries, participate in bird watching trails, treks, adventure activities, cultural festivals and natural wonders of Sikkim,” he adds.
“The demand for homestay pluckers even led to an increase in the wages, benefiting the overall region. Chettri, the man behind concept hasn’t benefited much from his discovery. “I never knew how to make money,” he says.
Jai Tamag, a farmer in West Sikkim, says cardamon varieties comes with its own share of problems. “The yield is best in conditions where there is assured irrigation and good land management practices. We need to develop more varieties (of cardamom) and not just depend on one variety,” he says.
According to a baseline survey of large cardamom, the area under cultivation was 23,000 hectares in 2014. This has now reduced to just 12,500 hectares, says TG Hoda, an entomologist.
On this context, a senior official from Sikkim’s rural management and development department shares, “Large cardamom needs a lot of moisture and water in soil. But over the years, winters have become longer, drier and warmer. The soil’s moisture content has reduced which has allowed pathogens to flourish rapidly.” The decrease in winter rainfall over the past five years has directly affected the spice as well, he says.
Times have also changed in Sikkim. The farmers are worried about the massive use of chemicals and deforestation are coming back to haunt most cardamom farmers.
Chettri continues to grow cardamom but is acutely conscious of the challenge that looms ahead of the industry. “I am a cardamom man and shall continue with this throughout my life, but there are serious problems (facing growers) now,” he says, referring to the effect chemical, fertilisers and pesticides have had on the soil of the region.
He uses only bio-fertilisers and natural pesticides in his plot, but admits that because of this, the yield is low. He is working on a high-yielding ‘organic’ variety, but says that despite 80 percent of the work done, he isn’t sure if he will complete it.
All is not lost yet. Large cardamom yields have bounced back in certain areas of western and southern Sikkim due to adaptation measures taken by farmers. Many farmers have shifted plantations to new areas where the soil is relatively healthy. “They are growing large cardamom among their potato plantations where the soil is rich,” says Chettri.
In the past, cardamom used to grow with little maintenance, but this new approach means farmers need to water plants and use manure and fertilisers. “But it is still a lucrative option for them considering large cardamoms now sell for Rs 1,400-1,500 per kg,” Chettri says.
The government has also come to rescue. The Horticulture Department is giving farmers large cardamom seeds for free (which normally cost Rs 4-5 per seedling), through a scheme under the Mahatama Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. The department is also providing manure and assistance with other inputs that are needed to shift the plantations to pathogen-free soils, until another solution is found.