The author is a senior science journalist and working as Chief Editor of the Department of Biotechnology’s communication cell. She has worked with Down To Earth and has an M Res degree from Leeds University, UK
For those who visited the high altitude villages of Tokto and Asrang about a decade ago, the sight is pleasant: there are now terraces full or apple trees which, when the bear fruit, brings in a kind of colour and aroma the villagers had never experienced before. And they are told that this change has been ushered in by climate change.
That bane of 20th and 21st century is known to have melted glaciers, shifted vegetation and displaced people from the coast due to sea level rise. But for some villagers high in the hills in Himachal Pradesh’s Kinnaur district, it has brought smiles, at least temporarily.
People in these areas, at a height of more than 10,000 feet which was earlier covered with snow in winter, are smiling all the way to the bank with their growing apple production.
“Even Chilgoza (pine nuts) would not ripen here earlier, may be a decade ago, so we had never thought that apples would ripen here,” said Kedar Singh a young shopkeeper in the village called Tokto.
Even in this remote area, a few villagers had heard of the word ‘global warming’ but most were unaware of it. Yet all of them have felt the temperatures rising and noticed the subsequent changes. “In the winters, the snow is not that thick, an in summers the snow does not come down to the level it used to,” said Balwinder Negi a retired postmaster from the village of Asrang.
He added that earlier, oil applied on the hair used to freeze in winter. But now that rarely happens.
India Meteorological Department has recorded a rise in the maximum temperature in the hills, and this according to horticulturists has pushed apple cultivation into higher areas.
Ripening of apples need a warmer temperature, but also more than six weeks of cold weather. This combination is becoming increasingly rare in the lower-lying valleys of the state which is known for apples and other fruits. Earlier, what sellers called Kinnaur apples came from a height of about 6,000 feet. But now those orchards are not producing quality apples. Instead, the good apples have marched uphill to Asrang and Tokto. This has resulted in the shift.
Factors of Change
How did the villagers of Asrang and Tokto, hidden in the folds of the mountains, where the mobile network does not reach, change from their lifestyle of subsistence farming to a thrust on fruit farming?
Traditional cereals like *** and sweet peas were their main crops. In contrast, their relatives living in the lower hills grew apples and earned substantially from it. The village authorities saw an opportunity in the rising temperatures and tried to encourage them into more revenue generating livelihoods.
“The gram sevak used to come to our village very often. He encouraged us to grow apples. He even gave us some saplings,” Negi told Parliamentarian. He was one of the first three villagers to plant apple trees.
Negi used to work in the post office in Lippa village 10 Km from Asrang. He along with his colleague from the post office started planting some of the saplings the gram sevak had given them. Later, however, his colleague got more saplings from lower altitude villages. All the first three planters said that since they had seen people in lower altitudes grow and sell the fruit and they wanted to take a chance. They thought that even if they could not get a good income from apples, at least, they could eat the fruit. When the apple trees of the first three planters started growing, a few more joined the trend.
“We planted our saplings when we heard that a road joining our villages to town would be constructed. This gave us the confidence that we would be able to take the apples to town and sell them as and when the trees started bearing the fruit,” said KK Rana, a farmer in Tokto.
“When there was no road we used to carry the boxes of apples on our mules and take them to Lippa at a lower altitude, from where there was a road connection. But we got very low prices for our apples there,” Negi recalled.
Once the road was built, they began taking their fruits to sell in the town and started getting good prices. After this more and more people started planting apple trees as a future source of income.
The construction of the road led to two trends. Traditional sweet peas earlier grown by the villagers began to be replaced by hybrid sweet peas and this became a major source of income too. The newly constructed road helped in sending the sweet peas to the market. So people started replacing their traditional crops with hybrid sweet peas, while they planted apple saplings in parts of the same fields.
This was an interesting change. People started concentrating on sweet peas because it brought immediate income. But they soon found that continuous production of sweet peas brought about a decrease in productivity of the land after five to six years. Soon the trend to switch to apples became the better option for them. More and more of the villagers saw that the money they got from apples helped them buy goods available from the market and they were no longer restricted to their traditional consumption patterns which offered them very few choices. “Our traditional cereals which were subsistence crops did not bring any income. I used to take the apples of one farmer to town and saw the price he was getting. This helped him buy food and clothes from the market. He could buy oil, spices and other things that could not be grown here. It was then that I decided to plant saplings,” Rana pointed out.
However, the excitement of this decision may be all but short lived. Climate change is affecting the water resources of the villages. The streams are drying up because not sufficient snow is melting upstream in the glaciers. Besides, the streaks of snow that come down from the glaciers are retreating. As compared to the traditional cereals grown in the village, apple is a water intensive crop. To provide for the water, the villagers have to get up early and walk two to three hours up to the hills for sources of water or snow, which they can direct to their fields. They have an arrangement in which each part of the village gets water once a week.
“The arrangement was decided at the Panchayat and has worked well till now,” says Rana. But climate change opportunities are a funny game. The earlier system of growing sweet peas saw a more equitous distribution of wealth in this peaceful villages Now, the switch over to apples has been a higher advantage for the rich farmers and left the poor farmers with less resources and land behind, increasing income disparity in the village. “We have to tend to apple saplings like children for 10 to 12 years before they give any income. In contrast, sweet peas would give us immediate returns,” said Kedar Singh, a farmer from Tokto village. He added that while this can be afforded by the rich farmer, the poor with limited land cannot wait that long for his income. Besides, to supply markets in towns and cities, apples must be transported promptly. This is something difficult in the mountainous terrain. Landslides, which are not uncommon, can cause delays that make the fruit rot.
An additional challenge is that while pea shrubs grow well enough on slopes, apple trees need flat plots of land. “In this hilly area, we have had to construct terraces to plant apples trees, and this costs us about 250,000 rupees per bigha of land,” Rana, pointed out. Terracing requires new skills and is much harder work than cultivating subsistence crops like peas, farmers said.
According to Tejwant Negi, a local politician, rich farmers plant a variety of annual crops while waiting for their apple trees to mature, while some others depend on goats and sheep. Making the transition is easiest for those who have substantial wealth and money, he added. Apples may have paved an easy road to the bank for the wealthy farmers of these villages, but for how long is the million dollar question.