Janaki Amma, a Kurumba tribal from Velarikombai village in Tamil Nadu, would spend hours in the Nilgiris forest foraging for honey, spices and millets. But instead of getting a fair price for her organic produce, she was forced to sell it to traders at a low price decided by them. Her monthly earning was just about Rs3000 despite spending hours in the forest every day.
In 2013, she learned about Aadhimalai Pazhangudiyinar Producer Company Limited (AAPCL), an organisation fully owned by the tribal communities, and became its member. Janaki Amma, now 58, sells her produce to Aadhimalai at three to four times the earlier price, earning Rs11,000-12,000 per month.
Like Janaki Amma, Aadhimalai has changed the lives of over 3,500 tribals in 100 villages within the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve in the last eight years.
Janaki Amma has now been elected as the Director of Aadhimalai by the community members and helps in the procurement of produce from villagers. Last year, she was recognized as a change agent by Apollo Tyre Foundation as part of the ‘Ek Naam Campaign’ for her work to empower the tribal community.
Just like Janaki Amma, Saraswati has also been associated for the last seven years with Aadhimalai. She helped community members in her Banagudi village earn a sustained income even during Covid19. When they were left with no means of income, Saraswati gathered 12 women from the village and engaged them in making beeswax wraps at their homes, which became the only means of income and survival during the pandemic.
Since the production was taking place in 12 houses, it was difficult to monitor the work and Saraswati was trying to convince the villagers to provide them with the community hall for operating under one roof. Initially, the villagers were reluctant but when women started earning, they agreed.
Now Banagudi has become one of the busiest units of Aadhimalai, producing beeswax wraps, amaranthus nutrition balls and millets.
Reaching out to the tribals
The producer organisation has improved livelihoods by procuring, processing and marketing a diverse range of forest produce and crops.
Apart from this, 176 women producers and 365 non-members from indigenous communities are associated with it. In FY21, it generated a profit of Rs8.26 lakh.
Aadhimalai procures forest produce like honey, beeswax, amla, shikakai and soap nuts and agri produce like coffee, pepper, silk cotton and millets from the tribals.
These are taken to the four processing centres within the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve, where a range of products are made such as lip balms, soap, jams and pickles and health powders. Apart from value addition, these centres act as the procurement point for various producers.
Before the start of the season, village meetings are held where the directors negotiate and finalise the price of the produce and communicate it to the management. “The prices are marked about 30 percent above the market prices. The produce is brought to the centres where it is cleaned, sorted, labelled and marketed,” says Jestin.
Protecting the community and biodiversity
Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve is part of the Western Ghats and is blessed with abundant flora and fauna. Irulas, Kotas, Todas, Badagas, Kattunayaka and Kurumbas are among the over 30 indigenous communities living in the Nilgiris. They have been preserving biodiversity for centuries by practising traditional farming, sustainable honey gathering and collecting local produce without overexploiting the natural resources.
The farming is done on small plots of land during the monsoon. However, they live in poverty due to lack of education, job opportunities or means of earning income. It was to create sustainable livelihoods for farmers that NGO Keystone Foundation began work in Kotagiri town in Tamil Nadu in the mid-1990s. This NGO later incubated Aadhimalai.
“The tribals would collect a lot of produce from the forest but were not able to get good value for them. Lack of public transport meant that they could not travel long distances to sell products. We helped to set up small production centres in the villages to collect the produce,” Jestin says.
Keystone also trained them to make other products from the forest produce.
Slowly, as the tribals saw the positive impact of the work, they approached Keystone to set up production centres. Since 1998, four production centres have come up.
The largest one is in Bangalapadigai where products such as honey, silk cotton, beeswax balms, coffee, shikakai powder and soap nuts are prepared.
The centre in Pudukad mostly makes beeswax products, soaps and pickles. Pillur is the hub for millets, pulses, grains and mats. Procurement of coffee, pepper and tamarind also takes place in Pillur. The newest production unit is in Banagudi, which works mainly on beeswax wraps and amaranthus candy.
As the operations grew, the management felt that the units should be amalgamated into a company to better manage their functioning. In 2013, Aadhimalai was created by combining the four production centres.
To ensure there was no exploitation, the foundation came up with the idea of shareholding. Currently, there are five directors and 1,609 shareholders. “Only community people can buy shares of the company. They also select the board of directors,” says Jestin.
Sustained incomes, better lives
Jestin says that Aadhimalai’s intervention has provided the tribals with a steady income. There are hardly any opportunities for the tribals in the area. Most of them work on tea estates in the region or sit idle.
“Since women run the production centres, they get a sustainable livelihood opportunity,” he says.
“Moreover, we make sure that when we purchase the produce, the members make a profit as we offer prices higher than the market rates. At the end of the year, if we make a profit, we share it with the community,” he says.
The efforts of Aadhimalai to empower the community were recognized by the Equator Initiative and they were conferred with the Equator Prize for 2021 on October 4. The Equator Prize is a biennial award organized by the Equator Initiative within the United Nations Development Programme.
(Urvashi Dev Rawal is a Jaipur-based journalist specialising in development, gender, and political reporting)