THE LAST STAND
Throughout history, its production and trade was sought to be monopolised by various players. In its own homeland, pepper wealth was often used to great advantage by erstwhile rulers, among them the Zamorin of Calicut, whose kingdom Vasco da Gama sailed into in 1498, and Marthanda Varma, the founder of Travancore, during whose rule the first pepper monopoly was established in 1743.
Production has dropped throughout Kerala because of terrible infestations in ageing pepper gardens, changes in weather patterns, unfriendly market conditions, and a frantic shift to more remunerative crops by growers,” A. Jayatilak, Chairman of the Spices Board, told Frontline.
Farms and plantations across Kerala are unable to contain diseases affecting pepper, such as foot rot (quick wilt) caused by certain fungi (Phtyophthora), slow wilt (slow decline) caused by parasitic nematodes, Pollu disease (Anthracnose) again caused by some pathogenic fungi, and some viral diseases. Moreover, the monsoon pattern has been fluctuating wildly. Farmers say that the comparatively warmer regions of Kerala are increasingly becoming unsuitable for pepper.
Pepper is a fragile plant, especially when it is young, and requires great care, being quite vulnerable to variations in the weather. It needs rain, scattered and at specific intervals, and sun and warmth, in almost the same measure. If needed, the cultivators have to spend much time watering the plants during the summer and draining out the water during the monsoons. And, there is no yield from the plant for the first three years, or more, when the crop is most vulnerable and is usually ravaged by severe ailments.
“There is a new animal in the pepper market—the national commodity exchanges, where people unrelated to the trade play their games like they do in the stock exchanges and speculate on future pepper prices. The volume of trade is increasing as a result, but it is also causing wild fluctuations in the market. For example, on some days, prices can be down until about 4.30 in the evening, and then it shoots up all of a sudden by the time the market closes. This happens without any tangible reason, and many people who actually deal with the commodity are taken by surprise and have lost a lot of money. But, you could also gain from it equally, at times, if you are lucky,” said Biju C. Kuruvila, a second-generation primary market dealer at Kattappana.
Until the late 1980s, India (and within it Kerala) was a big player in the world pepper market. But gradually, within a decade of first venturing into pepper cultivation, Vietnam became a huge player in the global market. Vietnam today generates nearly 1.5 lakh tonnes a year, very little of which is used for its domestic consumption. Similarly, pepper produced by comparatively late entrants such as Sri Lanka, and also traditional producers such as Indonesia and Brazil, is giving strong competition to Indian pepper on the world stage. Indian pepper production has come down from nearly 80,000 tonnes to about 40,000 tonnes during the same period.
According to him, prices are no longer linked to the demand and supply of pepper, but to money power: “People in the trade are not happy about what is happening, even though we get good business. The changes are not healthy. The trade is concentrating in the hands of a few, and most of the traditional players are being wiped out.”
“We need to be cautious that uncontrolled imports or interference of these big players in the market does not adversely affect Indian farmers, traders and export companies. Many of these big multinationals are now a direct threat to Indian companies in the value-added spice products sector too. And it is the huge Indian domestic market that is increasingly becoming a major attraction for them,” Kishor Shamji said.
The most famous story about Kerala’s pepper wealth and trade is the one about Vasco da Gama asking the Zamorin of Calicut for a few pepper vines for replanting in his own country. As his courtiers remained alarmed, or so the story goes, the supremely confident Zamorin asked da Gama: “You can take our pepper but can you take our monsoons?”