Spice route

Cardamom could show the way to sustainable income generation

Published: Friday 15 July 2005

Spice route

-- Uttaranchal, a recently formed hill state in the Indian Himalaya region, constitutes a diverse social, cultural, agro-economic and environmental entity. For about 78 per cent of the people here, farming is the primary livelihood, with tourism as a popular second occupation.

Unlike the plains that became a platform for the green revolution, mountain farming has remained at the subsistence level, still dependent on forest-based resources. The scattered nature of rain-fed land holdings means lower production.This agricultural pattern doesn't provide high monetary returns and the output is not even enough to meet year-round food needs. This is why many of the men here migrate to the cities.

While agricultural production could be increased through external inputs, irrigation and new high-yielding varieties of crops, these green revolution techniques are not appropriate for this terrain. Subsistence agriculture, organic production and diversification hold the key to sustainable economic reforms.

Practices that help this process are floriculture, growing vegetables, mushrooms and medicinal plants, bee keeping, horticulture and fruit and vegetable processing. The Himalaya environment is suitable for all these. Despite the vast potential for traditional and cash crop cultivation in small pockets, this capability has not been fully exploited.

Generating awareness about the potential of ginger, garlic, coriander, turmeric, potato and rajma would encourage the sustainability of rural systems and improve the quality of life of marginal farmers. One crop that has a tremendous potential to be used in this region is the large cardamom (Amomum subulatum, known as kali or badi elaichi), already growing wild or under cultivation in the state.

Native to Sikkim, kali elaichi is a tall perennial herb with leafy stems that grows beneath the forest cover on marginal lands. Its seeds are used as a spice and possess properties similar to those of true cardamom, for which they are often substituted. Black cardamom is known for its fresh aroma. The traditional drying procedure over open flames gives this spice a strong smoky flavour.

In medicine, they are fragrant adjuncts to other stimulants, bitters and purgatives. They are used in conditions like indigestion, vomiting, enlarged spleen, abdominal pains, rectum diseases and mouth infections. The seed extract acts as a tonic for the heart and liver, is a bowel astringent, and has hypnotic and appetising properties. Elaichi skin is used for headaches, teeth ailments and stomatitis and its oil, applied to eyelids, allays inflammation.

Appropriate livelihood option Large cardamom farming is suitable for the people of this hill state. As it grows well under the shade in humid environments, it can be cultivated under nitrogen-fixing tree species in moist wastelands-- with annual rainfall between 150 millimetres (mm) to 2,500 mm -- along water channels, field bunds and terraces. Large cardamom plantations may extensively use the nitrogen-fixing Alnus nepalensis as its shade tree. However, extreme cold or frost and waterlogged conditions adversely affect plant growth. Cardamom grows best in a slightly acidic, sandy loam soil. Plants can be raised from seeds and fruit after about five years, but vegetative propagation from slips is preferred as they fruit three years from planting. Composting is very important.

Valued for its medicinal properties, this high-priced spice crop may become a boon for the people of Uttaranchal. It doesn't require much external input, is low-volume, non-perishable and less labour-intensive. It also gives high economic returns, with a market price of Rs 100 per kilogramme.

Thus, large cardamom gives impoverished farmers a comparative advantage. Despite being a cash crop, it's still a sustainable option that keeps the forest intact, using shade trees that protect the landscape from soil erosion and nutrient loss. With the rate of forest depletion in our mountains, large cardamom offers a strong forestry component that meets the basic requirements of fuel, fodder and timber. It is both an ecological and economically viable resource.

V K Purohit and V P Bhatt work with the G B Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment & Development Uttaranchal 12jav.net12jav.net

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