Homegardens: sustainable land use systems in Wayanad, Kerala, India



  • 03/05/2010

  • REGION :

  • Southern Asia


  • India (Wayanad, Kerala)


  • A unique region both culturally and ecologically, Wayanad India is populated mainly by homestead farmers utilizing paddy-based cropping systems and homegardens based on local traditional techniques. A typical homegarden represents an operational farm unit which integrates trees with field crops, livestock, poultry and/or fish and has the basic objective of ensuring sustained availability of multiple products for both consumption and sale. Homegardens typically have a high degree of biodiversity as the result of generations of selection by farmers and natures responses to those choices. They are often also the last refuge for species that are useful but not commercially viable for cultivation, and have important social and cultural functions such as the promotion of local trade; strengthening community bonds and saving rural lands from the typical degradations resulting from the alternative of over-intensive agricultural practices. Despite these advantages, homegardens rank quite low in terms of financial bene it as the marketable surplus produced by them is negligible. These lower economic returns in a quickly modernizing society are forcing many farmers to shrink their homegardens, making space available for more remunerative, less environmentally sustainable mono-crops. This shift necessitates a strengthening of the formal and informal institutions attempting to save the farming techniques and traditional land use systems of Wayanad for the sake of both bio-diversity and sustainability.


  • Agroforestry, Homegarden, Western Ghats


  • Dr. Santhoshkumar, A.V is an Associate Professor at the College of Forestry, Kerala Agricultural University, India. For a considerable part of his career, he was involved in extension activities related to natural resource management among the farmers of the region. His interests include forest ecology and human – nature interactions shaping landscapes. He has been actively pursuing the developmental issues of wayanad, an ecologically fragile landscape in the state of Kerala. He has also been researching on the impacts of various policies on the nature and natural resources of the region. For his doctoral thesis, he studies the impact of co- management of forests of the region through Joint Forest Management in the state of Kerala. Dr. Kaoru Ichikawa is a consultant at the United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies. She has been working for the programme of the Satoyama Initiative since 2009. Her research interests include structures and changes of landscapes which have developed as a result of human-nature relationships in regions with different natural and socio-economic conditions.

  • LINK:

  • http://wayanad.nic.in/

Wayanad district is part of the Kerala State lying in the southern tip of peninsular India (figure 1). The area falls on the edges of the Deccan plateau and is unique because of its higher elevation (700 to 2100 meters above mean sea level) compared to rest of the plains in the state. This district has a purely agriculture-dependent economy and is among the most underdeveloped regions in India. The social fabric of the district is distinctly different from the rest of Kerala, with the highest proportion of aboriginal tribes, a low sex ratio and an environmentally very fragile ecosystem. The Wayanad district covers an area of 212,560 hectares and encompasses 780,619 inhabitants, which account for 5.48 per cent and 2.08 per cent of Kerala State, respectively (2001 census). Aboriginal tribes form 17.4 per cent of the total district population.

Figure1 Location of the Area (Credit: A.V. Santhoshkumar)

The gross cropped area of Wayanad covers 97.82 per cent of the geographical area and is mainly dominated by cash crops. The major plantation crops (tea, coffee, pepper and arecanut) together constitute 38 per cent of the cropped area. Coffee, which covers a total area of 67,429 hectares, is grown as under crop in the homesteads of more than 80 per cent of small and marginal farmers of Wayanad district. Pepper, the second most important crop in the district, is also grown in homegardens. Of the total estimated 155,855 land holdings in the district of Wayanad, 83 per cent belong to either small or marginal farmers.

Since Wayanad is a largely montane area that receives high annual rainfall within a short span of three to four months, land performs important hydrological and watershed functions. A large number of people living in the adjoining areas receive most of their water supply from rivers originating from this area. Thus, the soils and waters of this region sustain the livelihoods of many people. The geographic setting of Wayanad makes it highly sensitive to environmental stresses.

The area falls entirely within the Western Ghats of India, which was one of the eighteen biodiversity hot spots proposed originally by Myers (Myers et al., 2000). The area is characterised by high levels of species endemism. The forests here are globally important as they house endemic flora and fauna, which include 229 species of plants, 31 species of mammals, 15 species of birds, 52 species of amphibians. Among these, 55 species are critically endangered, 148 species are endangered and 129 species are vulnerable as per IUCN classification. Moreover, a number of cultivated food plants have their wild relatives in these forests. Among spices, black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon and curcuma have their wild relatives largely in these wet evergreen forests.

The forests of Wayanad are unique and important because they represent a transition zone from the moist Cullenia-dominated forests in the south Western Ghats to the northern drier dipterocarp forests. However, a large proportion of Wayanad landscape is mainly comprised of tea and coffee plantations which have resulted in the severe fragmentation of its forests. Conserving these forests is a big challenge due to this fragmentation and the prospect of increasing degradation due to overexploitation.

In addition to rich biodiversity, Wayanad is home to diverse social, religious, and linguistic groups. The high cultural diversity of rituals, customs and lifestyles has led to the establishment of several religious institutions. The six main tribal communities who live in Wayanad are the Paniyan, Adiyan, Kattunaickan, Mullu Kuruman, Urali Kuruman and Kurichian . Each of these tribal groups are characterised by their own unique social and cultural characteristics (picture 1).

Picture 1. Traditional tribal dwelling (Photo by: A.V. Santhoshkumar)

The district of Wayanad is characterised by homestead farming at the subsistence level and small holder plantations. Paddy, the staple food of the region, is cultivated on 11,331 hectares. Paddy-based cropping systems involve paddy, vegetables and banana (picture 2). The uplands in the area adjoining the wetlands are characterised by homestead farming with coffee and pepper. Coffee-based cropping systems involving coffee, pepper, and ginger along with many trees are the most prevalent land use patterns. In traditional agroforestry systems composed mainly of homegarden, the native tree composition of farmlands were largely left intact, while only the understory plants were replaced by crops (Picture 3). This system lies contiguous with the natural forests and provides unhindered habitat for wildlife species in the area due to the diversity in plant species and high shade.

Picture 2. View of landscape of Wayanad with its traditional lowlands, which were used to grow paddy, and uplands with homesteads. Conversion of paddy fields with crops like banana and coconut is seen in the foreground. The vegetation of the higher elevations is part of government reserved forests. (Photo by: A.V. Santhoshkumar)

Picture 3 Traditional coffee-based homegarden with pepper trailed on native trees (Photo by: A.V. Santhoshkumar)

The majority of farmers in Wayanad are small, marginal, and tend to grow multiple sets of crop in their farmlands. Traditionally, inhabitants of this area have not depended on forests or community-owned lands for their biomass requirements. One of the reasons was the absence of such community-held lands, unlike many other places in the world. Farmers maintain a spectacular variety of plants in their homegardens to meet their varied needs. A typical homegarden represents an operational farm unit which integrates trees with field crops, livestock, poultry and/or fish, having the basic objective of ensuring sustained availability of multiple products such as food, vegetables, fruits, fodder, fuel, timber, medicines and/or ornamentals, besides generating employment and cash income. Homegardens form a dominant and promising land use system and maintain high levels of productivity, stability, sustainability and equitability (Kumar et al., 1994). Homegardens that resemble a forest-like multi-storey canopy structure are deliberately planned to mimic a natural forest and thus lack a discernible planting pattern. Physiognomically, homegardens exhibit a multi-tiered canopy structure somewhat similar to that of tropical evergreen forests. Jose (1992) studying the homegardens of the region, estimated an overall Simpson’s diversity value of 0.834 for various components of the homegardens which was comparable to that of evergreen forests (0.90). Mean density of trees in homegardens has been estimated to be as high as 116 trees per hectare (Kumar et al., 1994).

Homegardens are considered to be highly evolved land use systems that differ considerably from household to household in terms of the number of trees and shrubs present and the species diversity and planting pattern (Kumar et al., 1994). Homegardens have long been important multi-purpose agroforestry systems in the area that combine ecological and socio-economical sustainability for the farmers (Peyre et al, 2006).

Homegardens play an important part in the food security of the region as they supply varied products throughout the seasons. Tubers, vegetables, fruits and spices from homegardens make up a significant part of the nutritional requirements of the households. Diversity in crops from homesteads results in a range of outputs from a given area which increases self-sufficiency and reduces economic risks associated with adverse climatic, biological and market impacts on particular crops. In densely populated or heavily degraded areas without sufficient staple crop fields, like in Wayanad, homegardens also provide large portions of staple foods (Kehlenbeck et al., 2007). Another important function of homegardens is the generation of cash income. Most of the income from homegardens is from the marketable surplus derived from perennials such as fruit trees. Income from homegardens can account for more than 50 per cent of a household’s total income (Trinh et al., 2003).

The high degree of biodiversity present in homegardens is unique and totally distinct from the biodiversity present in natural forests. The biodiversity conserved in these highly interacting contexts is the result of generations of conscious selection made by farmers and has the imprints of their choices. Moreover, these components are in most cases the last refuges for species that are useful but not commercially viable for cultivation.

Various studies have indicated that homegardens normally contain high commercial timber volume and fuel wood volume which meet a substantial proportion of the society’s demands. Homegardens also meet a significant portion of households’ energy requirements. (Kumar and Nair, 2004) Most of the cooking fuel requirements are met from twigs and other forms of litter collected from homegardens. Oils extracted from varied sources, like coconut and sesame, used to serve as the source of lighting fuel in traditional homesteads before the advent of electricity. The green leaves and cowdung from homegardens used to be the major source of chemical energy in the household and the fodder from the homegardens fed to the cows used to serve as the major mechanical energy source used in farming.

In addition to production value, homegardens have important social and cultural functions. At times they serve as a status symbol and the aesthetic value partly outweighs the productive function. The exchange of homegarden products and planting material is common in many traditional societies. Some plant species in homegardens are necessary for religious ceremonies. As mentioned, most of these plant species are not cultivated as they are not commercially viable. Most traditional medicinal plants are also encountered in homegardens. Homegardens also fulfil ecological functions, particularly in landscapes where large, monotonous, and mono-functional agricultural fields dominate. The multi-layered vegetation structure of homegardens, which resembles natural forests, offers habitat for a diverse community of wild plants and animals (Albuquerque et al., 2005 and Hemp, 2005). This structure appears to contribute substantially to the sustainability of homegarden systems.

Homegardens save agricultural lands from degradation resulting from intensive agriculture and maintain or increase site productivity through nutrient recycling and soil protection. Farmers derive a variety of services and products out of these homegardens. Homegardens increases the value of output per unit of land through spatial or inter-temporal inter cropping of trees and other species. Homegardens also help farmers by supplying raw materials (such as leaf compost) to agriculture. Homegardens also spread the need for labour inputs more evenly seasonally, thus reducing the effects of sharp peaks and troughs characteristic of tropical agriculture. Homegardens thus help farmer utilise family labour as a part-time activity in households without requiring a change in occupation for the landholder. The technology involved in homegardens is simple, labour intensive, and requires little outside technical or financial support. Tree components of homegardens have many useful characteristics as ‘assets’ for the poor, such as low investment cost, rapid appreciation, divisibility, flexible harvesting time and are available to meet unforeseen contingencies.

Despite these advantages, homegardens rank quite low in the economic calculations as the marketable surplus produced by them is quite low. Lower economic returns are forcing many farmers to shrink their homegardens and make space available for more remunerative mono-crops. The process of modernisation includes a decrease in tree/shrub diversity, gradual concentration on a limited number of cash-crop species, an increase in ornamental plants, gradual homogenization of the homegarden structure and an increase in use of external inputs (Peyre et al., 2006). Traditional homegardens are subject to different conversion processes linked to socioeconomic changes to the point of them becoming irrelevant or even extinct (Kumar and Nair, 2004). This change is principally attributed to an increase in the importance of socio-economic factors (e.g., commercialisation) over time, with a decrease in the importance of agro-ecological characteristics (Kehlenbeck et al., 2007). For example, many agro-ecological characteristics, such as low fertility, can be altered with technologies, such as the application of fertilizer. Various scientists have voiced concerns that socioeconomic changes and related adoption of modernised managerial systems cause a negative conversion process of homegardens in this region (Jose and Shanmugaratnam, 1993; John and Nair, 1999; Santhakumar, 2002). Studies reinforce the general fear of the loss of traditional characteristics of homegardens and their gradual demise into cash crop production systems (Peyre et al., 2006).

A large proportion of the poor depends on ecosystem services from the forests and agricultural lands for their survival. In Wayanad, biodiversity and ecosystems contribute to food security and nutrition, providing the raw materials that underpin health (both formal ( ayurveda system) and informal (Tribal systems). For many families, agriculture (mostly subsistence) is the main occupation and these families have limited access to alternative sources of income. These families inhabit marginal, less agriculturally productive land, where harvest is more vulnerable to deterioration in soil and water quality. People depend on the forest and homegardens for a variety of needs. Though the nature and the mode of extractive dependence have changed over time, people’s dependence on forests continues. The tribal population is almost fully dependent on these natural resources for their survival and any deterioration to these resources will have a telling impact on their livelihood.

The landscapes of Wayanad are a mosaic of forested lands managed by the state as reserved forests or wildlife sanctuaries and agricultural lands adjoining forested areas. The favourable role of these landscapes and production systems, however, has been receiving more attention recently. It is now recognised that the traditional farmers have not only conserved biodiversity of great economic, cultural, and social value, but have also enhanced it through selection and value addition. For example, the potential of traditional land use systems to serve as sinks (soil and biomass) of atmospheric CO2 is getting attention of late.

However, agriculture in Wayanad is facing many problems today. Agricultural production and productivity have decreased drastically over the years in Wayanad due to various reasons. The area was in the news for the high number of suicides by farmers attributed to losses in farming. Many micro and macro level factors have been cited as reasons for failure on the agriculture front in this area, including policy changes, institutional factors, socio economic factors, geographical peculiarities, climate change effects, poor investment in agriculture and poor infrastructural facilities.

There is potential to strengthen formal and informal institutions to save the farming and traditional land use systems of the area. There exist a large number of informal institutions in the form of tribal clans that strongly influence public opinion and the political decision-making process. However, integrating these institutions with the newly crafted formal institutions remains a challenge. The People’s Biodiversity Register (PBR) is an example of one such attempt under the “local self governmental” institutions (Panchayaths) to document and conserve biodiversity. More efforts like these are needed to document and understand the dynamics of these landscapes for their conservation and continued maintenance.


Albuquerque UP, Andrade LHC, Caballero J. 2005. Structure and floristics of homegardens in Northeastern Brazil. Journal of Arid Environments 62:491-506

Hemp , A .2005. The banana forests of Kilimanjaro: biodiversity and conservation of the Chagga homegardens. Biodiversity Conservation. 15: 1193-1217

John, J. and Nair, M.A. 1999. Socio-economic characteristics of homestead farming in south Kerala. J. Tropical Agriculture. 37:107–109.

Jose , D. 1992. Structure and productivity of the homegardens of Kerala: a case study. In: Nair CGR, ed. Proc Fourth Kerala Science Congress, February 1992, Thrissurpp17-19. Science, Technology and Environment Department, Government of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram, India

Jose D. and Shanmugaratnam N. 1993. Traditional homegardens of Kerala, a sustainable human ecosystem. Agroforestry System 24: 203–213.

Kehlenbeck, K., Arifin, H.S. and Maass, B.L.2007. Plant diversity in homegardens in a socio-economic and agro-ecological context In Tscharntke T, Leuschner C, Zeller M, Guhardja E, Bidin A (eds), The stability of tropical rainforest margins, linking ecological, economic and social constraints of land use and conservation, Springer Verlag Berlin 2007, pp 297-319

Kumar, B.M., George, S.J. and Chinnamani, S. 1994. Diversity, structure and standing stock of wood in the homegardens of Kerala in peninsular India. Agroforestry Systems 25: 243-262.

Kumar, B.M. and Nair, P.K.R. 2004. The enigma of tropical homegardens. Agroforestry System. 61: 135–152.

Myers, N., Mittermeier, R.A., Mittermeier, C., da Fonseca, G.A.B and Kent, J. 2000. Biodiversity hotspots for conservation priorities. Nature 403(24): 853-857.

Peyre, A., Guidal, A., Wiersum, K. F. and Bongers, F. 2006. Dynamics of homegarden structure and function in Kerala, India. Agroforestry Systems. 66:101–115.

Santhakumar V. 2002. Biodiversity in homegardens, towards a viable conservation strategy. In: International Workshop, Agroforestry and Natural Resource Management, 2002. Centre for Rural Development and Appropriate Technology, Cochin University of Science and Technology, in association with IRTC, Palakkad

Trinh, L.N. , Watson, J.W., Hue, N.N., De, N.N., Minh, N,V., Chu ,P., Sthapit , B.R., and Eyzaguirre, P.B. 2003. Agrobiodiversity conservation and development in Vietnamese home gardens. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 97 : 317–344