a magazine on ecological agriculture
a one stop treasure of practical field experiences

Kerala Home Gardens Nurturing biodiversity

Home gardens in Kerala which started as a means of subsistence have today transformed into a means of additional income generation. These systems developed over years have optimized their production activities that satisfies the biophysical needs, socioeconomic security and environmental requirements in which they live.

Kerala Home Gardens

Home gardens of Kerala are traditional agro forestry systems in which perennial and annual crops are grown, often without any definite arrangement. Tree crops are essentially an important component in Kerala home gardens. Also other components like animal husbandry, aquaculture, sericulture, apiculture etc., are included for the purpose of meeting the home needs and also to generate additional income.

Of late, these home garden systems are facing many challenges owing to shrinking per capita land availability and growing market economy. This has a direct bearing more on tree crops than on annuals impinging upon the biodiversity of home gardens. To understand the status on challenges faced by these traditional home garden systems, around 208 home gardens were studied in Thiruvananthapuram, Kollam, Alapuzha and Pathanamthitta districts in South Kerala.

Home gardens, its biodiversity

Home gardening is a very old tradition that has evolved over a long time from the practices of the hunters/gatherers and continued till now. It started as a system for the production of subsistence crops for the household with or without the involvement of cash crops. For example, a prominent structural characteristic of earlier home gardens were the great diversity in life forms – varying from those creeping on the ground, such as sweet potato to tall trees of 10 m like coconut palm, bamboo poles or other multi purpose tree species along with some livestock components, birds or domestic animals. In such a system, the structure and function is very significant and of conspicuous nature. The forest-like structure has been the result of deliberate planning of home garden to mimic the forest, which has its own techno-socio-economic implications.

Different indigenous and exotic varieties mango, jack and guava were found in every 7 out of 10 home gardens. April to July was the regular bearing period of mango and jack that invariably formed a major part of diet requirement of home garden members in different (raw and cooked) forms. Guava was found bearing in home gardens during different periods. All these fruit crops mentioned are rich in nutrition and some fruits like jack, even though seasonal, can act as a source of food security. An earlier attempt to study the bio diversity of Kerala home gardens using Shannon-weiner diversity index quantified species diversity. It was found that the diversity of home gardens was more as a result of tree crops. Both commodity and non commodity tree crops together constituted maximum biodiversity of home gardens.

Changing structures, changing biodiversity

In the course of evolution, there has been a shift in the purpose for which home gardens are being raised – from food, nutritional and cultural needs to economic needs. It is believed that population boon and pressure on land where the land itself has become a constraint coupled with the development of a market economy made an effect on the complexity of the home gardens. Its resemblance to a forest no longer continues. Tree crops have become a casualty in the process of incorporating home gardens with annual crops for subsistence use and surplus for marketing.

In Kerala, home garden primary structures are constituted by one or more tree crop with suitable intercrop mix. They are mainly coconut, arecanut, banana, vegetable, rubber and spices in general. Many other added included contributed significantly in terms of economics or specialization in homegardens. The economic preference and various aspects related to home garden was clearly visible through the inclusion of specialized components like sericulture, apiculture, aquaculture, floriculture, nursery units etc making way for the home gardens to be categorized as subsistence with subsidiary commercial interest. Such type of specialization aided the home garden with continuous production throughout the year helping in better income generation and also family labour involvement.

Sacred groves are a repository of tree biodiversity
Sacred groves are a repository of tree biodiversity

Poultry rearing was noticed in at least 28 homegardens and that too majority (18 homegardens) in Alappuzha and Kollam districts. One to two mini poultry sheds made out of wooden reaps with a capacity to hold 4-6 chicken per shed for egg purpose was installed 6 ft above in the branches of trees/crops. Farmers followed this method owing to various reasons availing shade and a cooler climate. This provided conducive physical environment for the chicken; it provided safety during night especially from the attack of dogs; it was an efficient means of utilizing waste as castings fall at the base of the trees; the larva of crop pests served as chicken feed and it was optimal space utilization through vertical farming. Such farming system integrating tree crops, is also a system that promotes sustainability through effective recycling of waste.

Every farm plan needs to be custom made to the existing cropping situation without eliminating non commodity tree crops. For this non commodity crops need to be transformed to commodity crops through the principle of synergism. i.e. Trailing a shade tolerant variety of pepper (say for example Panniyur 5) in Thespesia populnea ( found vastly in the coastal region of Southern districts) for years can make the non commodity crop transform itself to a commodity crop helping the farmer reap the benefit of economic dominance and generating more profit from the same space. In one way this could be a crude method of vertical farming for overcoming the barrier of space. Also the base crop in which pepper was trailed, owing to its timber value, will fetch the farmer a very high price in the long run. There are several indirect benefits as well. Planning each home garden in similar way will not only benefit farm family in terms of economic returns but will improve the biodiversity. Also, such a system with tree crops would enable an increase in bird population, which will act as a predator to many pests in this type of home garden farming system incorporated with food and cash crops.

The socio-religious importance of home garden cannot be under  estimated as even today structures like Kudumbakshethrem and Kavu exist in Kerala home gardens as evident from the results of study. Worship of trees and plants has been a documented part of religious factors in India since the hunting-gathering stage. The presence of rudraksham, Santalum album, Ficus religiosa, acacia, bamboo, Saraca indica, Aegle marmelos which were commonly recognized by devoted people in Kerala as strictly religious trees associated with the Kudumbakshethram and Kavu (Sacred groves).

Conclusion

Kerala home gardens vary in diversity adding significantly to the biodiversity and functional dynamics. The structural composition and the functional diversity of home garden are very much related and support the dynamic nature of this ever-evolving system. Kerala home gardens are not only mere food suppliers but also generate income and employment. The major advantage is family involvement in farming as well as providing nutritional security to individual households.

This system that has developed over years and dynamic has optimized production activities that satisfies the biophysical needs, socioeconomic security and environmental requirements in which they live. This system needs to be protected, sustained and augmented for generations to come and supportive policy framework need to be in place.

Acknowledgements

Authors gratefully acknowledge the resource support extended by Kerala Agricultural University; the cooperation extended by Homegarden farmers in sharing the information and to Dr. F.M.H. Kaleel, Dr. S. Ravi, and Dr. Sreevalson J. Menon, Professors of Kerala Agricultural University for their expert guidance.

Allan Thomas, S Bhaskaran, Sajan Kurien and
Usha C Thomas
Kerala Agricultural University,
Department of Ag. Extension. College of Agriculture,
Vellayani, P.O.,
Thiruvananthapuram,
Kerala – 695522.
E-mail: t_allan@rediffmail.com