Hemingway’s immortal line in Old Man and the Sea – comes alive as fishermen and farmers cope with climate change, sometimes finding escape and at other times, opportunity.
Text and research by Nisar Kannangara and Kalaiarasi Ka Sa
Photographs by Arjun Swaminathan
Twelve kilometres into the sea off the coast of Kozhikode are the silver rocks, Velliyamkallu, a kilometre-and-a-half-long rock formation that hosts a variety of fish. Till the early 1980s, these rocks were the limit beyond which fishermen from the coastal village, which we shall call Melthura, did not sail. The fishing season began with the arrival of prawns in the month of June, along with the southwest monsoon. Two months later, as the prawn catch declined, the fishermen changed nets to catch a variety of other fish, especially sardines and mackerel.
The Velliyamkallu limit ended in the mid-1980s with the arrival of the Chundan Vallam, with its outboard engines enabling fishermen to sail beyond the silver rocks. As engines replaced oars, each boat needed fewer fishermen, even though they could make multiple trips into the sea in a day. If the Chundan Vallam marked the beginning of the change in technology, it was soon to become an early victim of the same process. The ring nets it brought in its wake only led to a demand for an even larger scale of fishing, leading to the replacement of Chundan Vallam by larger boats with inboard engines. These boats were themselves soon to lose their prominence to even larger boats, with 40 to 60 fishermen sailing longer distances with much larger nets.
The rising scale of fishing craft and gear demanded finances that went well beyond the capacity of even the most dominant fishing families. While traditional crafts, like Thanguvallam, were within the financial means of more dominant families, the Chundan Vallam and the ring net were provided through government schemes. The government intervention introduced fishing to communities that had not done it before but were close to the ruling political parties. The traditional fishermen responded by mobilising financial support from outside fishing. The Muslim fishermen relied on Gulf returnees, while the Hindu fishermen fell back on an upper-caste urban Elite.
Over time, the labourers on each boat also belonged to the same religious identity as those financing the boat. The coast and the high seas were now open to identity conflict. The communal polarisation between the Hindu Mukkuvan fishermen and the Puslan Muslim fishermen was frequently inflamed.
In this changing fishing environment, the climate decided to lend a hand. Years of steady sea erosion along the coast eventually led to the natural harbour being washed away. The fishermen of Melthura had to find new harbours away from home. And that was just one part of the problem. The increase in sea surface temperature dramatically altered the physical and chemical properties of the ocean, leading to fluctuations in the availability of oil sardines and mackerel, the fish that had been the mainstay of the local fishermen for decades.
Coping with scale
As fishermen flocked to new harbours at Koyilandy and Chombal, which were equipped to accommodate larger boats, their lives changed in directions that were not always desirable. The fishermen of Melthura were now outsiders facing resistance—real or perceived—from the locals. There were longer working hours on large boats travelling greater distances. The early start of the day—travelling first to the harbour and then into the sea—ruled out the traditional practise of carrying food from home.
Not everyone in Melthura could make the transition to the new harbours. The older fishermen were the first to be left behind, not being able to cope with long hours and irregular meals. Some of them found coast-based jobs, like repairing nets. Others were forced into early retirement, spending hours looking at the sea and remembering what once was.
Opportunities in distress
Those left behind were not just the ones who failed to cope with the post-climate change routine. There were also those who lacked the knowledge and skills needed to tap into the alternatives necessitated by climate change. Species that were not traditionally significant in this part of the coast, like ayakoora and squid, now became ones of interest. Catching these species demanded technologies in which the local fishermen were not adept. This vacuum was filled by migrant fishermen, including engineering graduates, from the southern tip of the state of Tamil Nadu. As the species migrated northward seasonally, the migrant fishermen followed them from the Kulachal coast of the Indian Ocean up to Dwaraka in Gujarat on the Arabian Sea.
In the paddy bowl of north Kerala, there is a village, which we shall call Thamarkulam, that once had 1200 acres of paddy fields. At the time of the Janmi system, the entire paddy land was owned by a Koothali Moopil Nair patriarch. The farming was supervised by a joint family of Namboothiri Brahmins. Nairs and Muslims were the cultivating tenants who employed the landless Pulayas as agricultural labour. Agrarian reform in the 1970s saw the Koothali Moopil Nairs and the Namboothiri Brahmins lose their feudal rights and authority over the paddy fields. The Nairs and Muslims moved up from cultivating tenants to becoming landowning cultivators. The Pulayas observed the dramatic social change from below, without any major benefit reaching them.
The coming of the Green Revolution and the need to tap high-yield paddy seeds that did well on irrigated land encouraged the construction of a new irrigation canal from the nearby Kuttiyadi dam to the paddy fields of Thamarakulam. The paddy fields now produced three crops in a year, encouraging those who moved out of agriculture after being educated to return to it as a secondary occupation. The irrigation water that came in through the new canal flowed through the paddy fields and drained into the nearby Kuttiyadi River through an old stream.
The combination of prolonged monsoons and unseasonal rains brought about by climate change made matters worse. It increased the possibility of the paddy fields being flooded. And when the flood waters receded, they left algae.
Faced with floods in their fields, farmers responded in three distinct ways. Some of them simply abandoned agriculture. Others tried to make the best of a bad situation by going back to traditional flood-resistant paddy seeds. Yet others chose even more radical options, like engaging in fish culture in the paddy fields, leading to the unusual sight of boats on paddy fields.
The distress of climate change was not without its opportunities for the underprivileged. The Pulaya community, which did not benefit very much from land reforms or the benefits of the Green Revolution, saw an opportunity in cultivating lands that the cultivators sought to abandon.
The returns on the land may not have been enough for the Nairs and the Muslims, but they were more than the wages the Pulayas earned. The Pulayas sought and entered into a variety of leasing arrangements. Climate change had transformed the tradition of Nair and Muslim tenants into landlords, and the landless Pulayas finally found tenancy rights to land.
Climate change has enhanced conflicts in Thamarkulam. There are conflicts between the paddy cultivators and those dependent on purified water from the canal for drinking. Every February, the irrigation department has to deal with a series of protests regarding the opening and closing of the canal. And these conflicts are now the staple of political party discourse in the village. ****
In the once undisturbed forests on the slopes of the Western Ghats, which saw little human activity till the beginning of the 20th century, is a village, which we shall call Anappara. The movement of wild animals in the midst of abundant flora ensured that there were few human settlements in the nineteenth century in this harsh and steep terrain.
The boom in large-scale rubber cultivation in north Kerala in the 1940s saw elite landlord- planters begin to defy nature in their search for hilly terrain to cultivate rubber. The region surrounding Anappara was transformed into three enormous rubber plantations by a Christian from Kottayam district, a Muslim from Malappuram district, and a Hindu from Kozhikode district. Following the three large landlord-planters came a number of smaller cultivators. While the labourers, usually of the same religion as the owners, stayed in lines within the plantations, the small cultivators settled nearby, forming what was to become the village of Anappara.
This village of settlers, Kudiyetta Gramam, remained remote, and this was reflected in the price of its land being much lower than what prevailed in southern Kerala. Attracted by the lower prices, a large number of Christians from south Kerala moved into the area to become small cultivators. The success of the Christian small cultivators saw Muslims in the district move into Anappara to join the class of small cultivators. As the village grew with the inflow of cultivators, it became less remote and attracted both cultivators and labour from other parts of the state.
Decline of old elites
The workers on the plantations lived in the quarters provided by the owners of the plantations. The sharp differences in living conditions between the owners and the workers within that confined space made the plantations prone to the influence of labour movements that had grown in the rest of Kerala by the early 1970s. In keeping with the times, violence was not unknown in the labour conflicts in Anappara. As the violence increased, the planters found it difficult to manage larger plantations. The three major planters sold their lands to small cultivators and concentrated on their interests elsewhere in the state.
The emergence of small cultivators
The transformation of large plantations into a large number of small farms altered the ethos of the region. Without the economic security built into the size of a large plantation, small cultivators sought to reduce their risk by planting a variety of crops. Some of them, like coconut, areca nut, and pepper, were chosen to ensure that if one crop failed, another could succeed. Others, particularly tapioca and banana, were grown to ensure that even when there was an economic disaster with commercial crops, the food needs of the cultivators would be met.
The Emergence of a Small Town
Anappara and its agriculture did not exist in isolation. There were other hills with similar
economies and the corresponding need for a centre from which they could source their supplies and send out their produce. The plateau at the foot of the hills provided the terrain for just such an economic centre. Matti Mukku emerged in the 1980s as a new small town on the plateau at the tail-end of the valley, on the slope of which Anappara was situated. It started with a few shops catering to the economic needs of the villages in the valley. But it soon met other needs. A church, a mosque, and a temple catered to the religious preferences of the community, even as schools came up to meet their need for education. In 2003, a college established by a church and the development of associated infrastructure had an effect on land prices, prompting those who lived around the small town to convert their cultivating land into commercial land. The village also felt the vibrations of the Gulf boom in the 1980s. New generations of the small cultivator community, especially among the Muslims, began moving to the work opportunities in the Gulf.
A community of beekeepers from Marthandam in neighbouring Tamil Nadu has always been on the lookout for terrain that is favourable to their activity. Since the 1980s, they have had a base in Anappara.
The early settlers in Anappara recalled the time when they could predict and prepare for the coming of rain. In the last couple of decades, though, this was no longer possible. No one could predict the coming of rain, and the climate changed to the point where erratic rains were often followed by harsh temperatures. The change in local weather conditions is believed to be the reason for the spread of various pests and crop diseases, with the plantations of the areca nut, pepper, and coconut cultivators being the early victims. The changing weather events also affected the productivity of the rubber and cocoa plants. The changing rainfall patterns also took their toll on the migrant beekeepers.
Climate change has forced cultivators to adapt in any way they can to the economic pressures of the changed conditions. The effects of pests on pepper, areca nut, and coconut forced the cultivators of these crops to return to rubber. Some of them abandoned cultivation and converted their land to commercial use. The squeeze on profits changed the relationship between cultivators and labourers. To make rubber farms viable, cultivators had to work themselves instead of hiring labour.