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Alphonso’s last call?

Alphonso’s last call?
It is the last week of March, busiest time of the year for the farmers of Ratnagiri, producers of the world-famous Alphonso mango. But the silence along the roads of this district in Maharashtra is unnerving. The trees that flank both sides of the roads are either bare, damaged or have blackened flowers. Not a soul is plucking mangoes. ‘That tree used to be loaded with fruits this time of the year,’ says Appa Pathre, an elderly farmer of village Purnagadh, pointing to a huge tree leaning over his terrace. ‘This year, there are no fruits and farmers are sitting at home,’ he says grimly. There is no denying that Alphonso, arguably the world’s best mango, is on the decline in the coastal belt of the state, where most of the world’s Alphonso is grown. In Ratnagiri alone, it is cultivated on 65,000 hectares. Climate change and unsustainable cultivation practices are slowly but surely taking their toll in the form of repeated pest attacks, destroyed flowers and largescale fruit shedding. For farmers, this means spiralling cultivation costs and plunging returns.

Flowers ruined
Weather conditions in coastal Maharashtra have undergone a remarkable change in the last decade or so. Temperature, which used to be equitable, is moving towards extremes. Farmers say the difference between the highest and the lowest temperatures is growing. Anand Desai, farmer in Pawas village and leading exporter of Alphonso in Ratnagiri, has analysed the temperature fluctuations wreaking havoc with mango production in the district. ‘Alphonso is a delicate mango crop. Too hot or too cold weather disrupts flowering and impacts production,’ he says. ‘Earlier, temperature fluctuations were occasional, but since 2008 they have become an annual feature. This year has been particularly disastrous.’

The temperature cycle starts getting disrupted from January, the peak flowering time for Alphonso, Desai explains. Earlier, the lowest temperature in January would be 18°C to 20°C. Now, it has started dropping to 14°C or 15°C, making nights and early mornings very cold. This causes bumper flowers, but most of them shed and the trees do not bear fruits, he says.

P M Haldankar, head of the horticulture department at agriculture university in Dapoli, Ratnagiri, explains the phenomenon. ‘Changing temperatures disturb the flowering rhythm of the trees, causing them to flower repeatedly. This year, for instance, severe temperature fluctuations caused the trees to continue flowering from January to April,’ he says. ‘Fresh flowering on trees that are already bearing fruits, divert the tree’s energy towards the new inflorescence, so the fruits do not get enough nourishment.’

How will farmers manage?
Scientists claim the impact of climate change can be managed by strictly following the package of cultivation practices they recommend. ‘We have given a very precise set of practices, which include pruning of trees, application of growth regulator Pacloputrazol to ensure regular flowers, nutrient application, pest and disease management and care during fruit setting,’ says Haldankar. Farmers who follow these have much less rate of crop loss than those who do not, he adds.
Farmers find the practices neither effective nor sustainable. ‘How long can we go on managing like this?’ asks Pathre. ‘Every few years a new problem arises, and every solution has a price tag attached. This year I lost Rs 90,000 on totally ineffective sprays for Thrips, and have got no crop.’
‘The situation is never stable,’ adds Desai. For instance, Thrips was a minor pest five years ago. Now it has emerged as a major pest causing more damage every year. The university neither has an explanation nor a solution for this. All that it suggests is use more and more chemicals, he says.
Farmers are finding Alphonso cultivation highly unsustainable. In the last 10 years, the cultivation cost has increased by 40 per cent, but prices of the produce have remained the same, he says. They would like to return to sustainable practices but cannot not do so in isolation.

By arrangement with Down to Earth magazine 
Aparna Pallavi

Aparna Pallavi

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