After the Floods in Kerala

Sumesh Mangalasseri
Towards Sustainable Rural Tourism

The devastating floods and landslides in the South Indian state of Kerala destroyed a large part of the crops. In the mountain district of Wayanad, farmers hardly have any resources to reinvest in rice farming again after the flood. Now community tourism tied to agriculture is seen as a way out.

After more than two weeks of torrential rain in August, many dams opened their floodgates, triggering landslides in the mountain regions and swamping the coastal expanses of Kerala. The state was left with close to 500 people reported dead. More than one million got displaced and had to seek shelter in relief camps or stay with relatives. In the meantime, most of the people have been able to return to their homes which suffered serious damages. Many others found their houses completely destroyed.

In Wayanad, farming is the main source of income. Due to the floods, fields and plantations were inundated. Areas destroyed by landslides are no longer safe to reconstruct houses. Most of the farmers lost their basic means oflivelihood, and so did the agricultural workers (many of them from indigenous communities). The tourism sector has also been severely affected. Service providers are still struggling to revive their business. The industry is coming up with marketing campaigns which are not very successful to attract tourists.

Agriculture and tourism combined

In late September, an innovativerehabilitation programme for organic farming linked with tourism called “Naambu (Malayalam for “sprout”) was initiated by a group of farmers, tourists, and consumers from cities such as Kozhikode and Bengaluru (Bangalore). They joined hands with the social enterprise Kabani Community Tourism and Services to help farmers and Adivasis regain their livelihood. Flood-affected farmers were trained by Kabani to host visitors and shift to organic farming.

“Naambu became the symbol of the revival of the agricultural sector of Wayanad with cooperation of all stakeholders associated with it. This programme invites tourists to be part of a participatory and meaningful post-flood rebuilding process. As an attempt to overcome the physical and psychological impact of disaster, this project was envisaged as a partnership of mutual commitment between farmers and travellers, providing a direct link between the producers and the consumers of food,” explains Oamjie John, lead of training and research at Kabani.

Supporters cover a farmer’s yearly rice farming budget and/or assist with the farm work. The farmers provide hospitality and a supply of their future produce. Indian supporters often choose to pre-purchase a share of next year’s organic rice harvest. Tourists pay for their stay and may also decide to pre-pay a higher amount now to meet the costs of their stay during their next visit. They enjoy a unique holiday experience with the farmers, with opportunitiesto visit the village, collaborate with the farming activities, and join in the celebration of farming-related festivals.

The promotion of the programme is mainly through social media, media coverage, and word of mouth. The initial experiment has been with rice, but is now being expanded to other crops such as coffee and pepper. Tourism provides the main income for the farmers during this time of crisis and will provide an additional income in the future, too, once agriculture has recovered. A multi-sector approach like this helps local communities to rebuild their lives and livelihoods with dignity and confidence. It goes far beyond charity.

Tourism as a development model?

The post-flood scenario in Kerala raises fundamental questions with regard to the viability of tourism as an economic model. Climate experts warn against the recurrence of extreme climatic events and many of the places likely to be affected are important tourist destinations, not only in Kerala. Tourism is a vulnerable industry, especially for small and medium enterprises.

Immediately after the flood, tourism was projected as the villain under the impression that illegal constructions, encroachments and changes in land use patterns aggravated the impact of floods and landslides. The poor sections of the population felt that they are not benefiting and have no role in this kind of tourism.

From despair to hope

There is a need for a paradigm shift, taking into consideration three fundamental aspects; environment, people and their livelihoods, and the management of tourism. Tourism programmes based on rural resources and local community participation could be a value addition in rural settings bring. Home stays do not involve any additional infrastructure or investment. However, the ownership and management of such tourism projects must be in the hands of the local communities.

There is an urgent need for research and development in the field of disaster preparedness and management. Training has to be given to communities in order to equip them to effectively manage disaster situations. In Kerala, the post-flood media coverage has damaged the tourism prospects of the state. It is important to invent a new language of narration which can change the mindset from despair to hope. More innovative, multi-sector and proactive approaches which positively link people’s livelihoods to tourism are necessary.

Sumesh Mangalasseri is CEO of the social enterprise “Kabani Community Tourism and Services” and director of “Kabani – The other direction“, an initiative in Kerala/India working towards more sustainable tourism development.

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