Cardamom on the Western Ghats

Forest Products, Livelihoods and Conservation
Case Studies of Non-Timber Forest Product Systems
Edited by Koen Kusters and Brian Belcher

Jakarta: Center for International Forestry Research

Chapter 9
Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) in Kerala, India

T.K. Raghavan Nair and M. Govindan Kutty

(133) In this case study we look at the production and processing of cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum Maton) in the High Ranges and Nelliampathy hills in the state of Kerala, India. At present virtually all produced cardamom is grown in managed forest plantations. Some 90% of the households in the study area are involved in production or processing of cardamom in some way or other, deriving most of their cash income from cardamom. Of the cardamom produced, most is sold dry as a food additive while a small percentage, mostly of poor quality, is processed further into oil, oleoresin, medicinal preparations and ground cardamom (powder). The growing of cardamom involves the use of chemicals, disturbance of undergrowth and shade regulation. Still, the cardamom agroforests are considered less detrimental to the local ecology than most alternative agricultural land uses. Further expansion of the growing area in the natural forest is prohibited by strict and enforced regulations.

(134) Essential oil and oleoresins extracted from cardamom are used as food additives and in medicines and cosmetics.

The cardamom zone, the area in India where cardamom naturally grows and is commercially cultivated, is located in the forest belt of the Western Ghats mountain range. Of the cardamom zone, 60% lies in Kerala, 30% in Karnataka and 10% in Tamil Nadu… In Kerala, cardamom is cultivated mainly in the High Ranges of Idukki district, in the Nelliampathy hills of Palakkad district, on the Wynad Plateau in north Kerala and in Kochu Pamba in Pathanamthitta district. The High Ranges and the Nelliampathy hills, constituting 85% of the cultivated area of Kerala, are taken as the study area).

high ranges

The forest in this area can be classified as primary tropical rainforest, disturbed to a certain degree because of shade control, tillage, soil improvment activities and removal of rank weed growth. The soils are deep, well drained and rich in humus, and belong to the group of Ultisols. The climate is warm and humid with a mean annual temperature of between 10°C and 30°C and a mean annual rainfall varying from 2,500 mm to 3,850 mm, which falls mostly from the end of April through December. The study area terrain is highly undulating with good drainage and an elevation ranging from 600 m to 1,500 m a.s.l. Thinly populated, the study area has a total population of 78,061 in an area of 350 km2 (GOK 1996, 1998; GOI 2001). The cardamom zone, in particular the study area, is fairly well served by a network of roads; the average distance to a trafficable ('vehicle worthy') public road from any raw material production holding is estimated at only 2 km.

Human settlements in the cardamom zone could be called cardamom villages. About 90% of the households of the study area are in one way or another connected to the production, processing and/or trade of cardamom. Of the total number of households in the study area, 50% can be classified as cardamom labour households, while 40% are producers and/or involved in the cardamom trade.

(137) Flowering normally starts in March to April. The white, violet striped flowers, locally known as saram, are hermaphrodite, appear on a long flexible stalk arising from the base of the plant and are pollinated by the honeybee. This characteristic of the species encourages cultivators to practice beekeeping to increase production. The lowermost flowers open first and develop into fruits. It then takes 75 to 80 days for flower buds to form fruits ready for harvest. Fruits are small and ovoid in shape, with a green leathery husk. Each fruit has many small, round, dark seeds inside, covered by a thin layer of pulp. Propagation is mostly through tillers with rhizomes. In its natural state, in the undisturbed primary forests, the population density of cardamom is low, ranging from 250 to 300 clumps per hectare. As a result, productivity from undisturbed primary forest is low.

In the study area, 99% of the cardamom produced comes from managed cardamom lands on which cardamom plants are planted. Management systems range from small forest gardens with a few plants to large intensively managed plantations. Plant density on holdings varies from 1,200 to 3,000 per hectare, 1,600 on average. Around 40% to 45% of the cardamom holdings are under intensive management in its strict sense, which means fertilisers and pesticides are used on a regular basis and irrigation is applied.

(138) Mature cardamom plants flower and fruit every year and the harvesting (picking) season extends from May-June to November-December depending on local conditions, especially the availability of water. In irrigated areas the harvesting season is likely to be extended to 8 to 10 months. Fruits are collected just before they are fully ripe, because fully ripe fruits may split and lose the much-desired green colour on drying. Only mature fruits are picked, which are at the bottom end of the panicle (fruit stalk). In normal plantations the harvest is spread out over a number of pickings at intervals of 14 to 21 days. There are about seven to eight pickings per year. With intensive cultivation using high yielding varieties, manure application, irrigation and plant protection, the number of pickings will increase.

(146) Till the end of the nineteenth century cardamom was not cultivated. It was then purely a forest product of natural origin, and tribal communities residing in the forest used to collect, dry and sell or barter wild cardamom thus collected. Local rulers and chieftains developed the earliest regulations, according to which the produce could only be sold to particular agents. These agents, with prior permission from the local ruler, traded with retailers or foreign buyers on behalf of the local ruler. Since the late nineteenth century the demand for cardamom, and its value, has increased considerably, which led to its 'scientific' cultivation, initially by the British, who were the first to start cultivating cardamom in an organised and systematic manner. At present cardamom can better be designated as an agricultural product since the bulk of it comes from cultivated lands and not from forests as a wild product.

(146) Conversion of cardamom lands by smallholders. — As per Kerala Land Utilisation Order, the conversion of a cardamom crop into other crops without prior permission from the government has been deemed illegal. However, because of the fluctuations in market prices and /147/ the occurrence of diseases, some of the small farmers (especially those with privately owned land) have shown a tendency to switch clandestinely to other crops such as coffee, rubber or pepper. Many of these farmers have experienced that the fate of the alternative crops is not much different and that cardamom does not return easily after lands have been cleared. Farmers have also attempted mixing cardamom with other crops like coffee and pepper, but these attempts have not been very successful because cardamom is highly sensitive to its environment and treatments: it requires 'near natural forest' conditions in and around the growing area and small changes in the microclimatic conditions can destroy a cardamom crop. Excessive removal of shade and clearance of surrounding forests also have an immediate negative effect on the cardamom plant.

The switching of smallholders to other crops has resulted in a reduction of the area under cardamom. At present few cardamom farmers switch to other crops because prices are reasonably steady, varieties that are better resistant to pests and diseases are available, and farmers have access to plant protection techniques. If the price decreases, however, illegal conversion can be expected to increase again.

Even though demand is still rising, no further forest area in India can be converted into cardamom plantations because of the restrictions introduced through the Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980. This makes an increase in production possible only through enhancing the productivity of existing cardamom plantations.

(148) In the study area, vigorous agricommercial activities associated with cardamom production, processing and trade have caused fast development of the tract in all aspects. Locations that even in the recent past were mere forest camps for transit storage of wild gatherings have grown into townships with all modern amenities including technical higher education and health care facilities and a good network of roads, which is reflected in the lifestyle of the people as well. These developments can be attributed mainly to the commercialisation of cardamom. Had the product not been so valuable, perhaps the present 'cardamom villages' would have remained remote forest camps without modern facilities and high standards of living. In the present situation, cardamom production—being economically more feasible than production of other agricultural crops or logging—provides the livelihoods of the majority of the population in the research area.

(148) The intensive management of cardamom causes disturbance to the ecosystem by way of clearance of under-storey and middle-storey vegetation, shade control through the cutting of branches, removal of trees and climbers undesirable to cardamom cultivation, and widespread application of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Heavy demand for firewood for drying cardamom has also had its impact on the environment. However, as cardamom does not tolerate exposure beyond a certain limit—it needs specific microclimatic conditions and its favoured habitat is primary forest with 50% filtered high shade—lopping of trees has a built-in limitation. Furthermore, it is only the fruit that is harvested, which causes no harm to the individual plant or to the environment and there are no organisms that depend solely on cardamom. The fauna is less plentiful in cardamom forests than in undisturbed forest areas because of constant disturbance and application of chemicals such as fertilisers and pesticides. But cardamom does not exclude wildlife altogether and several species seem to enjoy the additional water and forage facilities available in cardamom plantations. The sambar deer, several monkey species, the great Malabar squirrel and a large variety of birds have been spotted in cardamom estates in Nelliampathy and the High Ranges.