The actual motive behind plans to uproot grandis trees seems less to help the poor farmers than to upsell tourism
“This plantation belongs to a former DFO (District Forest Officer) who had been posted here,” says Imon B passing by a fenced land on the slope facing Vattavada village in the valley below. “And this belongs to a film personality based in Bangalore,” he adds. The grandis leaves in the plantations on either side drip in the “noolu-mazha,” translated as thread rain.
The journey from Koviloor to Pazhathottam which is the highest point of Vattavada village is marked by a homage to the many elite who own land there. “This is of a former top police officer… and this is of a former MP (who has uprooted all the grandis trees and has now planted flowering plants)… and that is of another,” he goes on, as The Lede travels up the difficult slopes through dirt roads over the mountains.
In between, people like Imon too hold possessions. The acreage though is comparatively miniscule. “This is where I have 15 acres of land where grandis is standing,” he says.
“I was hoping to uproot them all, but it is expensive,” he points to a half tarred road quickly transforming into dirt of a darker shade with grandis plantations standing on either side. Eucalyptus grandis, an import from Australia, has taken over the native vegetation over decades of planned misadventure.
“The slope is very steep which was why I got it cheap,” says Imon. He later remarks as an aside - “No buildings can be built there.”
Imon first came to Vattavada 19 years back as an accountant for a plywood trader to oversee logging of grandis trees and its transportation to Perumbavoor.
“At that time, ganja was the most remunerative crop here in these treacherous slopes. It was fairly openly cultivated too, as these areas were not reachable through proper roads. Later, when government started raids and destroyed many standing crops, the crop declined. At least some of these plantations now owned by former government officials were given in return of letting the culprits off the hook,” he says.
“But it was a few decades ago,” he explains as to how with growing investments order has come to prevail. “With the rise of plywood industry, grandis properly took root here and then spread far and wide. Many of the former ganja growers had no reason to stick around and disposed their properties and moved on. Those who bought the lands in the 2000s never stayed in the village, some never visiting even,” according to Imon.
Imon was one of those who bought lands from a person leaving the possessions behind because of increased public scrutiny of the crop he had previously specialised in. “The owner of the land had divided it amongst the three brothers and got the plot regularized,” explains Imon.
“It has a Land Assignment deed now,” he says. LA Pattayam, as Land Assignment deeds are known, is amongst the more reliable land ownership deeds that exist in the vicinity of Vattavada as well as in Idukki as a whole.
The other being Raveendran Pattayam, taking the name of the then additional RDO of Devikulam who had issued deeds for a whole gamut of people. Many of those claiming the deeds are suspected to be bogus. It is yet to gain credible legal status and is still mired in controversies till date.
Land Assignment deeds were once issued as a measure to promote agricultural activities in the high ranges. Many times this was meant for those with little to no land. But often it was due to currying political curry favour. In Vattavada, grandis became the crop, something which was seen as legitimate as it was promoted by government itself.
Imon claims he has been against grandis being grown, in spite of the good returns to land owners, as it has slowly changed the climate of Vattavada. “They look like forest but they are not. If the farming practices are properly preserved and proper regulations applied, Vattavada can become a tourism center like one of those European villages,” he says giving an inkling of what he sees as the future for the village and his own lands. “Orchards can be a good replacement for grandis,” he reasons.
“Even during the colonial times, there were hardly any Malayalees in the present Idukki,” says Imon alluding to the land swap between Kerala and Tamil Nadu which gave Munnar and its surrounding areas to Kerala in exchange of Kanyakumari and its surrounding areas.
This was to result in migrations from the plains of Kerala to the high ranges. And the early migrants were presented with land which had no laws to abide by nor anyone to enforce. Whoever found whatever claimed ownership to it and grew crops and that is how many stories took off.
It was fortunes made thus that inspired many more to move to the high ranges. The laws were slow to catch up. While some never did, a few have recently.
A case in point is that of the former Member of Parliament from Idukki, Joice George, whose land holdings in Vattavada eventually led to an enquiry by the then Additional Chief Secretary, Dr Nivedita P Haran, to examine encroachment of government lands at Kurinjimala Sanctuary. It was based on the report submitted by her that all the activities around grandis that had till then been taking place in Vattavada was put to a stop.
“The land was bought by my ancestors,” says Joice when asked about the controversy surrounding his ownership. The then sitting MP faced much backlash in the 2019 Lok Sabha election and lost by a margin of 1,71,053.
Having won as the ruling CPM-backed independent candidate in 2014, Joice was targeted by his political opponents over his and his relatives’ less than proper ancestral inheritances in Vattavada.
“I don’t look into its details anymore,” he claimed.
Joice and his relatives owned large tracts of lands in Vattavada which the revenue department has since cancelled, a rarity which has shaken many in Idukki.
“It was bought by my parents and I don’t know anything about it,” he maintained when asked for comments.
Possessions such as his had normalised whatever was being done in Vattavada, encouraging many more like Imon to try and encash the boom.
“I bought the land there 8 years back,” says Sibi Paul from Adimali. Sibi owns a 10 acre land where grandis trees stand ready to be cut. The standing ban means he has to wait.
“There was a lot of encroachment of forest land earlier,” Sibi agrees. “When the stories of profits spread, people cleared lands and planted grandis. For the outsiders the only thing needed was to employ one man who will make fire lines around the plantation so as to prevent forest fires from spreading. This has changed the village. Water has become scarce and climate too has been changing.”
Sibi too shares with Imon the vision of a vegetable village which will promote tourism in the area.
“Outsiders have taken back their profits from the investments. For Vattavada and its locals, it is better to remove the trees forever and bring back farming,” he holds.
“If some kind of farm based tourism sets in, it can be an additional income for the locals too,” he reasons.
Vattavada already has a few home stays and resorts selling the package of the clean mountain air and the visual tale of a vegetable village. With land issues in Munnar preventing construction, tourism has been understandably looking at Vattavada expectantly.
And landholders like Imon and Sibi hopes that a well regularised system will promote responsible tourism unlike what has come to be in Munnar or its surrounding areas. Being landholders themselves, they hope to get a pie of the developments. What stands in the way are the inter-departmental skirmishes as well as the sacrifices now asked of Idukki for the world’s wellbeing.
Akhil, a businessman who chose not to reveal his last name owing to his business commitments in the area has a question - “Why make us only compromise? How is that fair?”
“While the Amazon forests in Brazil burned, it was the western countries which made the most noise. What happened to their forests?” he asks.
“When the metro rail was constructed in Kochi, many trees were cut. Everybody considers that as normal as it is for development. Why should a forest be maintained just here so that others who flattened their lands long before can enjoy the comforts at home?”
The forest department had promoted grandis plantations to show an increase in area under tree cover so as to make up for the other lost areas. Akhil’s questions are targeted at this concept which he calls lopsided.
“The attempts at offsetting pollution of the rich by forceful imposition of selective regulations on the peripheral communities are unfair,” he says.
“In all the places of Kerala, why should there be a separate land use regulation here alone?” he asks referring to the conditions imposed by the special land deeds prevalent in the area. “Why can’t we make a zonal regulation which would require every plot of land owned anywhere in the country to maintain a percentage of tree and grass cover instead of putting unsustainable regulations which are followed in their violations alone?” he asks.
The reason behind his angst is the constant pulling up of landowners and businesses by various departments as and when it suits them in Idukki generally and Munnar and surrounding panchayats in particular.
“Presently the situation is that whoever completes constructions first will be let free later and whoever gets caught in the act is deemed guilty.”
And it is this which many outsiders holding lands in Vattavada seems to have understood all too well.
Imon has built a small house on a parcel of land in Vattavada panchayat which he used to rent out to guests. The building is presently rented on a monthly basis to an ashram who claim they are there for “social work as it is a backward area.” The road it all leads to is much familiar in Munnar and its surrounding areas.
“We would like to make our ashram an eco-friendly model for all to see,” says one of the volunteers of the ashram which is/was a resort. “We have a vision to take up organic agriculture too in the future,” he adds. Faith, tourism, organic, social work; the tags may seem jarring for outsiders, but in the region, it is just the optimum mix.
“We take money from those who have and give it to those who don’t,” another volunteer weighs in.
The second wave of occupiers has begun reaching out. Setting tents and laying claims to be encashed in the future. In a world where the word organic has become a buzz word, the trends that are appearing in Vattavada may well shape its future. What remains to be seen is what the government of Kerala does to ensure that the previous mistakes won’t get repeated again.
Will this agro-tourism wave which by all likelihood seems set to redefine the village sweep over and above the villagers, leaving them as vulnerable and poor as ever?
“We have initiated schemes to source the vegetables directly from the farmers there through Horticorp,” agricultural minister of Kerala VS Sunil Kumar says referring to the Kerala State Horticultural Products Development Corporation (Horticorp) a fully owned government company under the Department of Agriculture.
Horticorp has been entrusted by the state government with the role of procurement, processing, storage and marketing of horticultural produce throughout the state, thus encouraging indigenous farmers to produce more vegetables and also prevent unreasonable price hikes. Horticorp does the same in Vattavada too, at least in theory.
As one goes up the hills towards Pazhathottam from Koviloor, men load trucks with freshly plucked cabbages from the farms down below. Below in circles lay potatoes in heaps, washed clean by the rains.
A farmer who chose not to be named when spoken to pointed out - “Horticorp actually buys the vegetables from the fertilizer and pesticide traders who act as middlemen by giving advance to the poor farmers every year. When the harvests are sold, only the paperwork is completed in the farmer’s name.” The cycle of debt remains entrenched.
“It is not sustainable to make profits by farming in the traditional way,” says Imon. Imon had tried growing strawberry some time back on open lands. “Rabbits and other animals eat a good portion, then there are all kind of externalities which are beyond our control,” he says.
“One can produce much larger produce by setting up a greenhouse in a fraction of the area. I gave up because of the losses,” he says. For now he says his hopes are on promotion of organic farming with a definite slant towards tourism.
Grandis is thus not the only threat that the farmers of Vattavada have in store.