By Eleanor A Sangma
On entering any small shop across Garo Hills, you will find areca nuts with paan being sold for ten rupees per packet. People in the region have jokingly dubbed it the “Garo dessert”, as it is mostly consumed after a meal.
Areca nuts have been a part of the history of Meghalaya for a long time, with the state being its fifth-largest producer in India. They are grown, consumed and sold in all districts of the state.
Plantations started popping up in Garo Hills around 1975 – the richness of natural resources and the suitable environment make it ideal for their growth. Over the years, Garo farmers have grown extremely dependent on areca nut plantations to earn a livelihood.
Mukta M Sangma, Assistant Director of Horticulture (Gen), William Nagar, East Garo Hills, says, “Compared to others, saplings for this crop come very cheap. It’s easy to plant, grows really fast and is very low maintenance.”
With a lifespan of 60 years, an areca nut plant bears fruit for about 40 years and people can reap its benefits for a long time. “In recent years, there has been an enormous demand for eco-friendly plates, bowls and cups, which are made from the leaf sheaths of these plants,” she adds. The nuts are also consumed by all tribes in different forms.
Since our farmers started growing areca nut all those years back, it has become one of the most important commercial crops in the state.
Sangma tells me how the farmers back then planted whatever the government or the different departments asked them to plant. “They didn’t have any knowledge of what was good or bad, only doing what they were told to,” she says.
As the crop is in such high demand, sizeable areas are used for its plantation. The officer highlights that anything beyond the limit is detrimental to the environment.
In Garo Hills, excessive plantation of areca nuts has led to consequences, clearly evident in our surroundings – our trees, forests, birds and animals, including water bodies – have been adversely affected. Small creatures such as insects, bees and butterflies continue to suffer. “It’s not just areca nut, but any kind of mono cropping leads to the destruction of the environment and living creatures,” she explains.
Plantations extend up in the hills as far as the eye can see and pose as threats to human lives. These plants are shallow rooted and weaken the soil, leading to erosions and landslides – as many have witnessed over the past couple of weeks. “When landslides occur, we chalk it up to being a natural calamity. However, in some cases, due to deforestation and excessive plantation of areca nuts, humans play a role too,” says Sangma.
Some months back, the entire state was buzzing with talks of the Bud Rot disease. The disease is a contagious infection and resulted in loss throughout plantations. In West Garo Hills and other districts, the disease resulted in devastation for areca nut farmers.
Sangma says how excessive plantation of this crop has become a major concern.
Consumption of areca nuts is detrimental to health, while its plantation wipes out other local crops in some areas. “There are many who start plantations, hoping to secure the future of their children and grandchildren. I’m not saying this is bad, but it would be better to have adequate knowledge about the issue first to find the right balance,” she adds.
Local vegetation should not be burned and replaced with crops from outside. Instead, we should try to send back saplings, coming from outside and being sold in local markets. “It is not a good decision to buy and plant saplings without knowing their source. We never know what pests and diseases they might carry,” Sangma says.
Various departments have also been encouraging mixed cropping instead of mono cropping, in order to tackle environmental issues.
The officer says, “We can never force anyone to stop planting areca nuts. However, we have to be wise when it comes to this. Considering its consequences, we now have to make the right decision.”
She further adds there are other options for earning livelihood for everyone. Therefore, the better choice would be to limit the plantation of areca nuts in a way that does not destroy our natural flora and fauna. Plantations on deep slopes and hilltops should also be avoided.
There are forests near Nokrek Peak that are still safe, as areca nut trees do not survive in low temperatures. “The locals have tried plantation there. Fortunately, the plants could not survive. The fate of this peak would have been the same as what we witnessed recently in Siju,” Sangma says, referring to the recent landslides.
“If we don’t preserve our wonderful Garo Hills that our Creator has given us, there won’t be anything left for our future generations. Let us re-imagine, re-create and re-store,” she muses.
For years, Garo farmers have largely relied on areca nut plantations for survival. Back then, they could not foresee the effects of that choice. However, in recent years, nature has repeatedly shown us that our choices have consequences – one that our future generations have to bear.
(The writer is a reporter with The Meghalayan)