KOCHI, India (AP) – On a tiny patch of land in southern India, the future of an ancient grain that helps fight climate change is in doubt.
An ongoing tussle in Chellanam village, a suburb of the bustling city of Kochi, which has the Arabian Sea on one side and an estuary on the other, could decide the fate of pokkali rice cultivation.
In many wetlands in the area, farmers have traditionally devoted half the year to pokkali rice and the remaining six months to watercress. In 2022, the Kerala Fisheries Department issued an order that farmers no longer had to dedicate part of the year to pokkali, adding to the existing trend away from pokkali. Although prawns fetch more money than pokkali, they are being targeted to attack a sensitive ecosystem, making it difficult for farmers who want to continue pokkali, environmental experts say.
MM Chandu, a 78-year-old farmer with about 0.8 hectares (a little over 2 acres), said that the increase in salinity in the land from year-round prawn cultivation had degraded the soil and made it more difficult for him to grow pokkali .
“Everything was destroyed” when farmers were pushed away from pokkali and towards aquaculture, he said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is part of a series produced under the India Climate Journalism Program, a collaboration between The Associated Press, the Stanley Center for Peace and Security and the Press Trust of India.
When pokkali is cultivated, the brine is pumped out and farmers use rainwater to irrigate their crops. Stems from the pokkali are later prawn food. That arrangement produces two types of crops and maintains natural barriers to rising seas and carbon sequestration in the soil.
“Pokkali is the oldest variety of rice in Kerala, which is at least 3,000 years old. It is among the oldest crops cultivated by organic farming methodologies in the world,” said Francis Kalathunkal, of the Pokkali Samrakshana Samithi, a group formed in 2011 to encourage farmers to cultivate pokkali.
Kalathunkal said that in the 1990s, pokkali was grown on 485 hectares (1,200 acres) in Chellanam compared to just 2 to 4 hectares (5 to 10 acres) today. Across Kerala, it is a similar story: two decades ago, pokkali was cultivated on more than 25,000 hectares (about 61,800 acres) in Ernakulam, Alappuzha and Thrissur districts compared to about 1,000 hectares (about 2,500 acres ) today, according to Shan AC, president. of Palliyakkal Bank Service Cooperative, which works with pokkali farmers in the production, supply and distribution of grain.
Pokkali is also being cultivated on an experimental basis in the Sundarbans region of West Bengal, after large areas of paddy lands were flooded with brackish water during a major cyclone in May 2021. A long grain version of pokkali is cultivated along the southwestern coastal belt of Sri Lanka.
Rice is a staple in southern and eastern India, and is very water intensive. About 3.35 cubic meters (118 cubic feet) of water is needed to grow 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of rice, according to the Indian Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices. In contrast, Pokkali does not require groundwater for irrigation, as it is cultivated in low-lying wetlands with rainwater.
Compared to white rice, pokkali, rich in antioxidants, requires a longer time to cook. It has a more pronounced taste and texture, making it an acquired taste for many. Some varieties have thick or long grains, and range in color from dark brown to white.
To make pokkali attractive – to both consumers and farmers – the Rice Research Station at the Kerala Agricultural University is working to develop new varieties. So far, they have come up with 11 high yield varieties.
Only developing more pokkali options alone will solve the larger issues, said Dr AK Sreelatha, head of the Rice Research Station.
“The biggest problem is that skilled workers are not available,” said Sreelatha. “The soil is so soft that the various prototype machines that have been developed (to remove it) have failed.”
Mahesh S, joint director at the Kerala Fisheries Department, said the 2010 law allows the department to issue licenses for aquaculture on land left fallow. If a farmer claims that the land is not being used for paddy cultivation, “we will do a field visit and if we find out that the claim is true, we will issue a license,” he said.
As the crop is floating in water, mechanized paddy cutters cannot be used. Instead, pokkali requires workers, nowadays mostly women, who stand in the water and cut the ripe stems by hand, bundle them and take them to the bund.
Chathamma, another suburb of Kochi, is surrounded by a salt lake, which makes it perfect for prawn pokkali farming. However, Nandakumar VM is forced to leave 20 hectares (50 acres) of his 28-hectare (70-acre) holding fallow during the paddy season, as he could not find enough people to help with the harvesting.
“It’s really hard to get people to work these days,” he said. “They don’t want to stand in knee deep water – sometimes even chest deep – to remove the stems.”
Lack of market is yet another barrier to making money with pokkali. “This rice is only known in this region. If you go north of Kerala or to the hills, people don’t know the benefits of pokkali,” said Sreelatha.
A father-son duo, Joseph and Tom, manage PV, which owns seven acres in Chathamma, better, thanks to Tom’s marketing efforts.
When he couldn’t convince his father to take up prawn farming all year round, Tom came to an agreement with him: “Grow pokkali, but leave the marketing to me.”
The hacks the software engineer came up with – added value by selling the finished rice and not just the paddy, branding and selling online – are bringing in more money.
Three years ago, the family made 60 to 80 rupees (75 cents to $1) per kilogram. Today, thanks to processing the rice and branding, they are making between 120 and 150 rupees ($1.46 and $1.83).
Impressed, other farmers in Chathamma have started trying to follow in the pair’s footsteps, but Tom is skeptical.
“None of them know how to make money,” he said.
Environmental experts say that if Chellanam’s model – a direct focus on oysters – succeeds, it would be unsustainable for Kerala, which comprises 13% coastal wetlands.
Usha S, founder of Thanal Agroecology Centre, which conducts research and training in sustainable agriculture, said that land management in that way is already having an impact in Chellanam. The soil has become more acidic, making it more difficult to cultivate pokkali, and sources of drinking water have become saltier.
“This has resulted in the fields being left fallow,” she said, adding that farmers on reclaimed lands do not disturb fortified tidal embankments, which lead to more salt.
In post-graduate work at the Kerala Agricultural University, Anju Sajan studied three types of land use: the pokkali-prawn combo, straight pokkali and prawns. She found that the pokkali-lime mixture produced the most suitable soil for storing carbon, which combats climate change.
For 99-year-old matriarch Baby Joseph Kalathungal, who has been growing pokkali since she was 17, the science behind the decline of pokkali makes little sense.
Little does she know that her stately home in Kellanam, which has stood the test of time for almost a century, is rotting and her granary is empty. Although their family’s 1 hectare (2.5 acres) no longer yields viable produce, they still grow pokkali because they are part of the farmers’ collective avoidance of year-round fish farming.
“I’ve seen it all, but even for me what’s happening now is a little too much to digest,” she said.