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“But at the same time, the people on this land, they’re God’s people and they’re suffering like never before,” continues the 35–year–old priest, who began serving Wayanad’s farmers as a young priest in 1996, offering free legal advice.

Perhaps the agency’s most successful suicide prevention strategy has been its network of eparchy–run self–help groups. Each group consists of 10 to 20 entrepreneurs who work together as a council and offer struggling farmers financial, professional and often desperately needed moral support.

“When the suicides started happening, the church was in darkness,” admits Father Choorapuzhayil. “We didn’t address the problem in the appropriate time. But now the self–help groups have helped the people to share their worries and get financial support. I’m proud of that intervention.”

The seeds of Wayanad’s agricultural crisis were sowed in the early 1980’s, when local farmers began converting their traditional, more diversified rice paddy farms into fields of one or two perennial cash crops, such as coffee, pepper, tea, cardamom, rubber and areca palm. From 1982 to 1999, land used for traditional paddies shrank by about 75 percent. Today, cash crops cover more than 80 percent of all agricultural land in the district.

While the conversion has made some farmers relatively rich, the trade off has been disastrous for most as well as for the district’s entire agricultural sector. In 1999, the Indian government began to liberalize its trade policies, opening its markets to international competition. Almost overnight, farmers in Wayanad witnessed the prices of chief crops, such as pepper, coffee and tea, plummet as cheaper produce from other countries, particularly Vietnam, flooded the market. In that year alone, pepper, a crop grown by most farmers in Wayanad, suffered a price drop of 76 percent.

To keep their heads above water, farmers began altering their methods in whatever way possible to maximize crop yields in the short term, depleting the soil’s fertility and wreaking havoc on the environment. Many simply treated their crops more frequently and with greater amounts of pesticides and fertilizers, which have seeped into the ground and polluted fresh water sources. They also deforested most of the region’s remaining virgin jungles to make room for more crops, inadvertently destroying the ecosystem’s natural valve in conserving both fresh and groundwater.

“Farmers here cultivate the same crop on the same land,” explains Father Choorapuzhayil. “They can’t change the land from one crop to another very easily. If the same crop is cultivated in the same area for a long time, then the nutrients necessary for the growth of that crop are depleted.

“In order to improve the situation, they apply chemical fertilizers. And every year, they have to increase the count of the chemical manure. So nowadays, the level of application is much too high for what is expected. At the same time, the attack of pests also has increased. So every year, they have to apply more and more pesticides in order to protect their plants. It’s an unsustainable agricultural model,” the priest concludes.

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Tags: Kerala Farming/Agriculture Economic hardships Socioreligious programs Alcoholism