“Stay positive and keep moving forward. It’s the only way we are going to make a change.”
The Fair Trade Alliance Kerala (FTAK) is an organisation of smallholder farmers from the Western Ghats – a beautiful and mountainous region of Kerala. We buy their nuts for Liberation Nuts and for both Sainsbury’s and Tesco. To mark the UN’s International Day of Rural women, FTAK’s chairperson, Aniamma Roy, tells us about life as a female farmer in Kerala.
To give some context, FTAK was created in 2005 in response to a crisis of poverty at the beginning of the 21st century. Farmers were not meeting the cost of production when they sold their crops. FTAK worked to unite producers, distributors and consumers to create a human connection in the supply chain and create a fairer system.
Tell us a little bit about your job…
I live with my husband and two children, both of whom are studying. My normal day starts at 5am. The first job is to milk the cows and tend to the cattle. After this, we prepare breakfast and lunch in time for the children to leave for school. My husband and I work in the fields together – doing a whole lot of tasks as we have a mixed crop farm. A normal day ends around 10pm.
As the head of the local group and vice chair of FTAK, I have to set aside a significant amount of time to organise things. My husband then has to pitch in to manage the household chores and tend to the farm. We have fortnightly meetings of the local FTAK group and district and state level work means I have to travel from my village at least once a month, sometimes more.
Who was your role model / inspiration growing up?
My maternal grandmother, Annamma. Most of what I know about farming, I owe to her. Her knowledge of farming was formidable. Everything she grew on the farm made its way into our kitchen. Everything was grown organically. I wonder how after being exposed to her farming practices, I slipped in to chemical farming – and paid the price for it.
What do you think are some of the biggest challenges facing women today in farming?
It is mostly under the leadership of women that the FTAK programmes on food security are gaining momentum. But growing food is far more challenging than growing cash crops. Wild animals target food crops. And despite all the hardships, it is not easy to find a remunerative market for organic food in the local market. There is food on the table and it is organic and therefore more healthy, but the cash returns are still in the cash crops – which are still mostly managed by men.
What has been one of the biggest challenges you have had to overcome?
Women assuming leadership roles in organisations in our country is always a challenge. In my case, I have always shouldered equal responsibility in farm labour with my husband. And both our labour is critical for the household income. So, when I assumed leadership responsibilities in FTAK, balancing responsibilities became a big challenge. My husband played a crucial supportive role in this. Recently we faced a major challenge when my husband had an accident – strenuous labour is not possible for him any more. This has put severe challenges in my work in FTAK. The organisation rallied behind our family and we are now setting up an organic shop in the nearby town which my husband will manage.
How does the FTAK help empower its female workers / colleagues?
Unlike other villages, in our area, it is the women that took the lead in joining FTAK. The crops on our farmland had been afflicted by disease and there was hardly any income from the farm. The men had become despondent and were looking at opportunities to sell the land and migrate to the plains to find wage labour. We accessed the FTAK premium fund on no interest terms and invested in cattle, poultry, vegetable gardening etc, to slowly bring back income stability to the family. Seeing our results, men started joining the activities of the organisation. And, in 2012, after seeing our success FTAK adopted gender justice as one of the three pillars of its fair trade programme.
How important is it to reassert the role of women in the management of the farming economy?
Traditional farms in Kerala had a crucial role for women. When women manage the farm, the first priority is food for the household – not the cash earnings from the market. Lots of things on the farm that are important for women like food and crops for home remedies are not important to men, because they cannot be sold in the market. That is why biodiverse farms give way to mono crop and we end up suffering when one disease wipes out the entire farm. That is the result of women withdrawing and the market taking over. If we want biodiversity and food security, we cannot have it without empowering women. Women must have a role in the decisions on the link between the farm and the market.
What is your greatest achievement to date?
Those who have come to my house know about the bad roads to get there. Even phone connectivity is quite poor. My social contacts were limited to the village church and an occasional visit to the nearby town. I now travel to all the districts of FTAK and meet with farmers. I represent FTAK in many meetings and have even travelled abroad. These were not things I imagined would happen.
What’s the best piece of advice you have ever given?
Collectively we can do many things.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Your grandmother was so right!
What would you like to achieve in the next five years for the FTAK and for its female workers?
I want greater control for women in the marketing of our products. We have talked at length about women’s cashew and women’s coffee – we must make that a reality soon.
What are three words you would use to describe yourself?
Hard working, responsible and committed.
The theme for the International Day of Rural Women is sustainable infrastructure, services and social protection for gender equality and the empowerment of rural women and girls. From talking to women like Aniamma, we know that empowering women leads to more sustainable farming and food security. We want to celebrate the strength and resilience of women in rural regions and spread the message that by working to improve gender equality, we are building brighter futures for younger generations.