Small-scale Farmers in Kerala Respond to COVID-19

As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads around the globe, we are reaching out to fair trade farmer and artisan groups to hear how their communities are responding. The following is excerpted from conversations between Tomy Mathew of Elements & Fair Trade Alliance Kerala (FTAK), India, and Phyllis Robinson, long-time fair trade movement advocate.

This conversation took place on April 3rd, 2020, a little over a week after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered the entire country into a 21-day lockdown. The lockdown was extended for another 21 days on April 14.

How the Coronavirus is Impacting Kerala

As things go, we are doing okay.  Most importantly, all the farmers are safe.  Kerala is one of the hot spots in India, but that is because we have been doing the most amount of testing.  The first cases in India were here.

The first known person in Kerala to be infected with the Coronavirus came in from China; they were able to quickly trace, isolate and treat it; and he recovered.   In February, we had the second spread, with people coming from Italy.  Robust tracing is in place, but it still has its limitations.  The numbers are high, but at least due to tracing, there is no community spread.  We now have 200 infected and two deaths.  But still, it is contained.

Also, a few years ago we had to deal with the Nipah Virus, so we already had developed a set of protocols for handling this kind of situation. This has helped us tremendously.

Kerala was the first to declare a lockdown.  We did it two days before the rest of the country.  We gave advanced notice and things were orderly.  The central government announced the nation-wide lockdown with only 4 hours notice:  They announced at 8:00 pm that it was effective at midnight!  It was the first time we had a total lockdown and that is why you have these horrifying scenes of people walking hundreds of kilometers, some thousands of kilometers, trying to reach their homes. That did not happen in Kerala.  It was much more orderly.  There is community spread and it is a big concern, but we are probably still doing the best in the country to observe the lockdown.

We hope these measures will work.

Small-Scale Farmers Hit Hard by Lockdown

We’ve had a bit of bad luck on the farming side. The farmers are being left high and dry; as is always the case in situations like this. Milk is one of the biggest sources of income for the farmers.  But the possibility of farmers selling milk – that has ended entirely. The restaurants, hotels and shops are closed so milk consumption has stopped, and now we have excess milk.  One large cooperative in Kerala was doing the central buying but now they have also stopped.  This is a big problem.

Tomy Mathew of Fair Trade Alliance, Kerala, India
Tomy Mathew (left) in the field, Winter 2018

Cashew collection is having a huge setback and we hope that when social distancing is lifted, we will be able to recover.  We are not allowed to collect the cashews because of the lockdown.  Prices have really crashed.  Cashews are not considered essential so the demand for them is much less. The government announced that they would start buying cashews, and we were encouraging farmers to try to sell to them but that hasn’t started yet.

Thankfully, cashews can last; they are not perishable.  If the farmers dry and store them, they can stay totally safe.  So we hope we won’t lose much of the cashews, though there will be tremendous pressure later to buy them.

Communities Feeding Communities

The southern state of Kerala, where I live is faring better than other parts of India in many ways.  Kerala is one of the states with the best public food distribution and food rationing system. Kerala’s food security is far, far better than the rest of the country, so by that token, we shouldn’t be complaining.  Stories from the rest of India have been really, really scary.

In Kerala, we have set up community kitchens – 1,500 have been opened in the whole state, which means at least one community kitchen per village. In the cities, there are many more. Food is cooked and then delivered to the locations of the migrant workers so everyone has food. There were issues of course: Kerala was cooking its own food and the migrant workers are used to the food of north India. But even that is now being addressed now.

About 1.7 million families got their first free rations on April 2nd. Farmers have been taking care of the workers in their communities and villages.  Thankfully, in the villages, the places where they are staying are not as crowded as in the cities. There are not as many migrant workers as in the cities, but there were some in the unorganized industries, on the farms, and in the shops and restaurants.  They were serving as waiters and cooks and clerks.  Now, none of them have jobs.  And they can’t move back home now.  So the focus in Kerala is on taking care of those people.

The working class is left without income.  The salaried segments; the white-collar workers will, of course, get their salaries and those organized in factories will get their pay for next month; but if you are a day wage-earner, you have no recourse and will have to go 21 days without any job [a time that has now been extended].

I only hope it all holds together as it is playing out now:  if it holds for the rest of the lockdown; that would be great.

People Supporting Each Other

On the positive side, I’m very happy to see that volunteerism is seeing a huge comeback.  There are vats filled with water and sanitizers and soaps set up on the roadside so people can wash. People are setting up community kitchens and delivering food. There is a mix of government and civil society coming together.

There are of course a lot of mistakes being made, but for the magnitude of the crisis, I think the amount of civil spirit is something that is really, really encouraging to see.

We find that in normal times, we don’t call the farmers every day.  Now, we have to be in touch; we feel the need to be in touch.  We have to figure out what is happening in each village. If they can’t sell the cashews, how will they meet their expenses; can we do something?  Very often, there is not much we can do, but the fact that we are calling to make sure there is food on the table; that goes a long way. These are the things that give me a huge amount of optimism.

Members of Fair Trade Alliance Kerala tending crops
Members of Fair Trade Alliance Kerala tending crops, Winter 2018.

Solidarity is Essential to Survival

There is a lot of anxiety about what will happen once this lockdown period is over.  What if the markets don’t open? What happens if we are not able to export our coffee, cashews, and coconuts?  Then what happens?  What’s happening in the consumer countries and the fair trade markets in Europe and in the U.S?   If things don’t open up there, then maybe they won’t be able to buy our products?  What would we do then?

But we are finding comfort in the fact that these concerns are shared across borders. For example, when the initial numbers were coming out of Italy, we sent a letter to our partners at Altromercato to see how they were doing. They have a network of 300-400 fair trade shops all over Italy and we wanted to know how they are doing—how they are doing beyond just if they will be buying our products. We want to know how are they coping and surviving in this moment?

It’s very important to me that we not just tell you how we are doing, but to carry back information to the farmers about how all of you are doing.  We want to know how our partners on the other side of the globe are doing.  That information is also very important for the farmers now.

Please tell everyone that here we are all safe.  Our immediate survival requirements are being taken care of.  No one needs to worry about us, in that sense.  Once the immediate crisis is dealt with, then we will have to look at how the farming sector is going to rebuild.  It is particularly hard because we have already had two tough years. In 2018, we had a big flood; in 2019, we had serious crop loss and a mini-flood. We thought we’d be back to some semblance of normalcy this year.  But again, compared to most others in the country, we can’t say that we are in the worst possible position.

So, it’s important to communicate that we are all okay.  By all means, please ask everyone to be safe, to keep their families safe; and once this has passed; let’s sit around and figure out how to pull some sort of normalcy back.


1 thought on “Small-scale Farmers in Kerala Respond to COVID-19

  1. The generosity of the mutual aid/cooperative heart/mind in Kerala touched me deeply and I am in tears this morning as I read this story a month later sheltered in my California USA home surrounded by ample food and space and caring people (at a distance). Somehow I am especially touched by the vats of water and sanitizer set out for the public (why can’t we do this for the many who have to live on the streets in crowded American cities?) And by the desire to know how WE are doing. That is what we should aim for as human beings, the learning I hope we gain from this pandemic. Thank you for the story.

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