Adding spice to lifeTwo recent studies on large cardamom farming in Nepal and Sikkim offer new knowledge.
The mountain agriculture heritage has been enigmatically affluent both in its evolution and content. It has been overwhelmingly shaped by nature, culture, ethnic dispositions and traditional farming practices. Though a range of produces have come out of these mountain regions, there has been very slow induction of modern technologies, negligible institutional interventions and highly vulnerable market linkages. This highland heritage that provides sustained livelihoods is yet to see mainstream discourse. However, some newer trends in agricultural practices have repositioned mountain dynamics. Variables like climate change, organic culture, value chain, improved connectivity, and migration have started injecting a fresh bout of enthusiasm as well as concerns. This has also triggered a variety of studies.
Two recent studies, Large Cardamom in Nepal by Jiban Shrestha and others from the Nepal Agricultural Research Council (2018) and A study of large cardamom spice from Sikkim Himalayas by Sudeshna Maya Sen at the TERI School of Advanced Studies, New Delhi (2019) have something substantive to offer as new knowledge. There are striking similarities in the political economy of cardamom production and the related value chain in both Nepal and Sikkim. For instance, both studies reveal significant variations in annual production and examples of crashing prices are given. Both conclude that it was Sikkim from where the Nepali labourers working in Adhya and Kut and Aarma parma actually brought cardamom seedlings to Nepal and started cultivation mostly in eastern Nepal.
In both ecosystems, the diseases that affect the plants are similar including rotting of rhizome and viral diseases like chirke and furke. A decline in the bumblebee population as pollinators is conspicuous. Interestingly, they identify the facilitators and spoilers at each stage of farming to exiting the farm gate, and from marketing as a primary commodity to a range of value-added products.
Value chain findings
Both studies have in them a new perspective of value chain analysis. It starts from the household and moves on to the village, district, province, and across state borders, involving the first point of intersection like land, water, seedlings and propagation, currying, drying and packing, and reaching the last mile intervention like spices and pharmaceuticals. While doing so, Sen particularly brings in a range of appropriate methodologies that facilitate the analysis of the entire matrices of the value chain.
In the process they make a serious academic attempt to bring a traditional informal arrangement of production and marketing of large cardamom into the public domain and discourse. These are pretty well juxtaposed with the sustainable development goals.
The value chain existed all through. However, the changing nature, depth, dimensions and reach of the value chain of large cardamom were rarely captured. The largely informal institutions, agencies and functional principles that characterise the production and marketing of large cardamom are given newer interpretations wherein their roles, functions and the consequences are scientifically identified. The analytical tools used in these studies could well be extended and applied in studying several other mountain-based commodities like home broom, orange and ginger.
The path of the value chain has been very meticulously figured out. However, both these studies stop at a point where it actually starts getting substantive value addition. They could have gone beyond ‘pan masala’ and ‘pharmaceuticals’ and explore how large cardamom is blended in liquor and perfume. In fact, it is noted that a significant spike in prices is seen in this final link where ‘some retailers brand their cardamom as organic, which fetches higher prices’.
In Sikkim, farmer incomes from cardamom increased from $1.9 million in 1975 to $13.8 million in 2005 and further increased 2.5 times in just five years to $50 million in 2010. However, like in Nepal, two crucial questions remain unanswered. How much of this market realisation actually reaches the farmers, how is this market realisation distributed across various constituents of the value chain, and who are the leaders in this game? This could have well-identified both the facilitative and exploitative agents in the value chain and made ‘intervention options’ much more effective and meaningful.
Both for Sikkim and Nepal, Siliguri is a crucial point of market disposal. The critical issue of why cardamom prices tend to fluctuate so randomly is not addressed in these studies. While Sen scientifically captures the impact of climate change in a diagram using Vensim software and highlights how communities have observed worsening trends of 'spatio-temporal inequities', the Nepali study makes only a peripheral statement on this very vital aspect.
A very realistic finding has been that of political, communal and administrative discrimination in terms of access to water. It becomes much more diabolical when there is a concentration of power in the hands of a single political party. There is no conscious policy on spring sheds providing water to cardamom farming in Sikkim. In fact, a policy-less situation could be more effective as community management of water emanating from traditional principles of governance has been well institutionalised. Governmental policies, if ill-equipped for implementation, may dislocate community practices.
Curing and grading
An upward elevational movement for cardamom farming along with a shift from labour-intensive potato to cash crop cardamom is also recorded. However, unlike in Sikkim where there is a firewood-based highly inefficient curing and drying of cardamom, the Nepali study shows shifts from local bhatti to low-cost modern multi-tray curing chamber-dryers based on solar and electric power. This also helps to improve the quality drastically.
Sikkimese farmers have developed so much confidence and connections with private trading agencies for marketing their products that they tend to ignore government provided marketing routes like auctions. Despite the fact that auctions fetch higher prices, cardamom farmers have been avoiding them because of lack of trust-awareness, delays in payment, distance from the farm, and limitation of banking transactional habits.
Though grading of the products into ‘makhan’, ‘super delux’ and ‘chalan chalti’ is done much before the farm gate in Nepal, issues of geo-tagging like geographical indicators in Sikkim are not discussed at all. This is attributed to the level of education of the farmers and their location in digital signal gap zones. Pertinent findings that relate to vanishing traditional indigenous knowledge mainly because of lack of documentation and declining institutional memories have been addressed by three extra academic, interdisciplinary and field-based projects like Oral History, Winter Sojourn and Taking University Labs to the Communities of Sikkim University. This is where the institutions of higher learning are connected to the communities.