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Farmer innovations – Sustainable solutions to fight climate change

Women revive yam cultivation

Farmers in the hilly terrains of Kerala have been innovating, adopting and adapting practices and processes to address the impacts of climate change. Engaging such innovative farmers is key in developing sustainable solutions.

The hilly terrains of Kerala are characterised by undulating topography with half of the area being covered by government reserve forest. Most of the villages in these areas are remote and are deprived of basic infrastructure facilities. The location specific needs of these villages are neglected by the formal sectors. Since the market is limited, private sector too does not seem to be interested in developing and marketing technologies and products needed for the high ranges. For farmers, developing own solutions and innovations is the only option to survive and maximize the limited local resources.

Peermade Development Society (PDS) is a renowned NGO based in Kerala, India is working with tribal groups, marginal farmers and migrant communities in the hilly terrains of Kerala. PDS has been in the field of farmers’ innovation for the past 18 years. It has identified and documented more than 1000 innovations from high risk areas of Kerala. These include plant varieties, agricultural cultivation practices, agronomic measures, soil and water management pest and disease management, harvesting, post harvesting, processing etc.

The documented innovations also include specific innovations developed by farmers and indigenous communities to address the impacts of climate change and its mitigation. Identification and selection of location specific crop varieties, revival of drought resistant underutilized crops, crop diversification and intercropping are some of the strategies and innovations developed by farmers in response to climate change which are described here.

Selection and propagation of location specific cultivators  

Pepper, cardamom, coffee, rubber, tea, cassava and paddy are the major crops cultivated by the farmers of high ranges of Kerala, especially in Idukki district. Hilly tracts of Idukki vary from 800 to 2400 meters above mean sea level. It has been recorded that the same varieties produce at different levels at different altitudes.

Table 1: Local cultivators of cardamom developed by farmers suitable to different locations

Thiruthali          : Suited to mist conditions 1100 m to 1200 m (MSL)

Panikulangara   :Adapted to higher altitude-1400 m to 2000 m (MSL)

Elarajan             : Adapted to 900 m to 1200 m (MSL)

Wonder              : Adapted to lower altitude (900m to 1000m) MSL

Njallani               : Adapted to 1100 to 1200 m MSL

Kannielam          : Suitable for plains

Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) is considered as one of the most sensitive crops to climate change. It has been reported that minor changes and fluctuations in temperature, rainfall and relative humidity have fall outs in growth and production of cardamom.

We have documented several cultivars of cardamom, identified, selected and propagated by the farmers (See Table 1) adaptable to specific altitudes. These varieties are adaptable to specific climatic conditions such as presence of mist, humidity, rainfall, altitude and temperature. Keen observation of natural selection process and identifying suitable cultivar specific to local conditions and its propagation are the methodology followed by most of the cardamom farmer innovators for identifying the location suitable varieties. Production in the existing conditions, acceptance to market, disease and drought resistance and water intake are the criteria adopted by the farmers for the natural selection.

Local cassava variety makes a come back

Pepper (Piper nigrum) is a native of Western Ghats and genetic diversity of pepper is widely reported in these areas. Pepper is another crop sensitive to climatic conditions.  We have been able to identify more than 5 different cultivars of pepper, developed or propagated by the farmers suitable to the prevailing specific climatic and soil conditions of Kerala. Innovative farmer KT Varghese observed that most of the hybrid pepper wines cultivated by him were destroyed by drought and quick wilt (caused by the attack of dreadful fungus of phytophthora) during late nineties. A particular plant was unaffected with the disease. He noticed that it had drought and disease resistant qualities and later he propagated it. Spices Board and National Innovation Foundation approved this variety for the drought and disease resistant qualities.

Reviving traditional and local crops

Attempts to revive and propagate drought and disease resistant cowpea varieties by Urali tribal communities residing in government reserve forest, is another successful case of farmer experimentation. Local cowpea varieties (Vigna sps) cultivated by the Urali tribal groups are known for their nutritional qualities, less maintenance, vigour and resistance to extreme conditions. Due to influx of other common varieties of pea in the market, majority of the community members have ignored and neglected the qualities of these varieties. However, a few women farmers in the Urali tribal community have conserved and maintained these cowpea varieties. Due to failure of hybrid pea varieties, more and more women from Urali communities and surrounding villages are showing greater interest in the cultivation of local cowpea. Indigenous methods for preservation of seeds of cowpea variety are also interesting.

We found several farmers who were earlier cultivating hybrid cassava on commercial lines, are now cultivating different varieties of cassava on their farm. Usually, hybrid varieties give 4-5 kg of yield in 6 months, whereas the local varieties yield for a period of 10 to 12 months. But due to the changes in the climatic conditions, the yield of hybrid cassava has decreased drastically. These farmers collected traditional varieties of cassava which require less water and have high productivity, and started cultivating them. Ambakkadan variety of cassava, developed by a farmer by selection, is one of the preferred varieties by the farmers in recent years.

Crops diversification

Crop diversification is the strategy adopted by the farmers in response to climate change. There is an interesting case from a remote village of Cumbumeetu in Idukki district, where coffee and paddy were the major crops. Though the average rainfall is 3265 mm in Idukki district, this particular area witnessed severe drought from 1995 to 2003. Continuous failure of monsoon forced the farmers to experiment with new crops. They have started cultivating wheat, ragi (millets), yams and vegetables.  By 2005, they started getting good monsoon and at times they received more rain than expected. This change motivated farmers to try other crops such as cardamom and pepper. Presently, they grow cardamom, pepper along with vegetables like cauliflower, carrot, yams and amorphophallus. These adaptations show the resilience and experimenting capabilities of farmers for adapting to the changing climatic conditions.

Urali tribal community has conserved various cowpea varieties


Rising temperature is considered as one of factors resulting in the decline in rubber production. To cope with the decrease in production, farmers are trying various crops as intercrops with rubber. Arrowroot (Maranta arundinacea) is the most suited intercrop in rubber plantations. The processed arrowroot powder is in very high demand in the market. Though the market price is very high for processed arrow root, farmers are reluctant to cultivate arrowroot due to the difficulty in processing. Manual processing and powdering of arrowroot powder is time consuming and involves lot of drudgery. A farmer innovator AT Thomas developed a machine for grinding arrowroot and made the process easy and without drudgery. The availability of powdering machine prompted several farmers to start cultivating arrowroot in a commercial way.

Identification of suitable variety of coffee that could be cultivated in rubber plantation is another innovation reported by the farmers. Intercropping of pepper and cardamom have also been tried by several innovative farmers in high ranges of Kerala.        

Insights and suggestions

Some of the insights we gained in the process of documentation of farmers’ innovation and also a few suggestions to promote farmers innovations as a tool to combat climate change are as follows.

a) Farmers’ innovations, approaches and survival strategies are to be documented, studied, supplemented, disseminated and recognized.

b) Local and farmer developed varieties have special significance in the context of climate change. Developing market value and value added products for farmer developed and underutilized crops will help in diffusion and acceptance of these crops among the mainstream community. It has been observed that, more farmers’ innovations are reported on crops which have commercial value. Creating commercial, brand and market values will prompt and incentivise farmers for experimentation.

c) Crop improvement of plant varieties by crossbreeding with farmer developed /local varieties for developing drought and disease resistant varieties has tremendous scope.

d) Technical and mentoring support is needed for farmer innovators for experimenting and upscaling their initiatives and innovations.

e) Developing processing technologies and value added products for underutilized and local crops is the need. Though farmers are showing interest in cultivating indigenous/and underutilized crops, unavailability of suitable processing technologies is the major constraint.


The demand and needs of rural villages are diverse and location specific. Uniform and standardized solutions will not meet the area specific needs. Participation and active involvement of farmers, especially innovative farmers is the key for developing sustainable solutions. Documentation of successful farmers’ innovation reiterate the importance of promoting local solutions for addressing  global problems.


Kandiannan, K.S. Krishnamurthy, S. J. Anke Gowda and M. Anandaraj, Climate change and black pepper production., Indian Journal of Arecanut, Spices and Medicinal plants, Vol 16 (4), p. 32-35.

Murugan, P. K. Shetty, A. Anandhi and R. Ravi, Present and Future Climate Change in Indian Cardamom Hills: Implications for Cardamom Production and Sustainability, 2012, British Journal of Environment & Climate Change, 2(4), p. 368-390.

T J James
Peermade development society
Peermade P.O., Idukki Kerala – 685531
E-mail: james.tj6@gmail.com

Stebin K
Peermade development society
Peermade P.O.,
Idukki, Kerala – 685531