NGOs and experts have suggested alternate cropping pattern to tribal farmers living at hamlets in the ATR. "Due to various factors such as green revolution and migration of people to forest fringes, the traditional farming methods of tribals changed and this affected the entire ecosystem. The farmers in this region traditionally sowed millets, grain amaranthus, black gram and groundnuts. But they slowly shifted to rice and beans due to competition and to increase their revenue. But use of fertilizers was affecting rivers and streams inside the forest, which is a tiger reserve," said Peter Prem Chakravathi, a biologist working with the tribal farmers in the ATR for the past three years.
"They are beginning to realise that living inside the forest they cannot pollute the environment," said a forest official.
The major tribal hamlets that are under focus are Kodanthur, Poparai and Thalinji in the Udumalpettai division. Other hamlets that are also getting trained are Kodar, Malasar, Malai Malasar, Maduvar, Pulayur and Eravalar.
P Mullai, senior project officer of World Wildlife Fund who is training and orienting the tribals, said, "Their traditional method is natural farming. But after middlemen increased, they began producing short-term crops using a lot of fertilizers and chemicals. But slowly, we are trying to create awareness and nearly 40% of the farmers have agreed to shift to organic farming. Next week, we are taking them to Udhagamandalam to visit farms that use traditional methods," said Mullai.
Forest rangers and officials said the only deterrent was marketing their produce. "We are trying the show them the demand for organic produce and are trying to tie up with organisations to market their products. Once that is finalised, we can create a model and make all tribal communities follow the best practices," said a forest ranger.
The farmers are slowly realising the multi-cropping system can get more revenue. "Last year, they suffered huge losses as all the farmers only produced beans. But this year, TNAU has agreed to supply hybrid varieties that will increase their yield. We are hopeful that by June the cultivation would begin and the 958 sqkm area of ATR, which is biologically one of the most important part of the Western Ghats, will be preserved for the future generations," said Mullai.
G V Rajalingam, assistant professor at TNAU, said the tribal farmers can adopt the latest technologies and grow ladies finger, small onion and cauliflower instead of paddy, lablabs and French beans. Also, crops like beetroot and turnips were suggested for the winter season.