India: Homegardens in South India and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands



  • United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability (UNU-IAS); Japan Wildlife Research Center (JWRC)


  • 06/03/2012

  • REGION :

  • Southern Asia


  • India (Kerala State, Tamil Nadu State, Karunataka State and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands)


  • This study was commissioned to be included in the publication “Socio-ecological Production Landscapes in Asia”. This chapter provides an overview of homegardening in southern India and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.


  • Homegardens, paddy rice cultivation


  • Japan Wildlife Research Center (JWRC); Kaoru Ichikawa (UNU-IAS), ed.

  • LINK:


Summary Sheet

The summary sheet for this case study is available here.

Natural and Social Background

[Note: this case study originally appeared in the publication Socio-ecological Production Landscapes in Asia.]

The economy in India has been on the rise since India moved to a market-based system in the wake of the foreign exchange crisis in 1991 based on economic liberalization through economic reforms, including deregulation and the active use of foreign investment (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, n.d.) .According to the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, the GDP growth rate increased to 8.5% in FY2010 (8.0% in the previous year) from the prior level of around 3.5%. In FY2010, in particular, the agricultural sector broke the record in the yields of major grains, achieving 6.6% growth, a substantial increase from 0.4% in the previous year (JETRO, 2011). This sector accounts for about 18% of the nominal GDP (as of 2008 from the World Bank Data), and is estimated to sustain the livelihoods of around two-thirds of the total population. India has a population of some 1.21 billion (the provisional figure from the 2011 National Census), of which about 70% live in rural areas (FAO, 1996), with an annual rate of growth of 1.3% in 2010 (World Bank data).

Its agricultural land has an area of some 179,963,000 ha, accounting for about 55% of the total country area (as of 2009 from FAOSTAT), but is limited in terms of the area available per capita due to the large agricultural population and the decline in available land associated with the high population growth. In fact, the average land holding per household is as small as around 0.1 ha (as of 2008 from the World Bank Data). There are a substantial number of farmers who cannot own any agricultural land. The majority of the agricultural population practices small-scale subsistence agriculture, occupying about 32.4% of the agricultural land area.

One of the representative forms of subsistence agricultural systems in India is the homegarden. Homegardens are commonly found across the world: in South Asia, including India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh, and Southeast Asia such as Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines, the Pacific islands, the Caribbean islands, Central and South America, and tropical Africa (FAO, 1996; Kumar and Nair, 2004;FAO, 2004). In India, in particular, they are found more often in the tropical rainy areas of south India, including the plains of Kerala State, Tamil Nadu State, Karunataka State and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which have been reported most frequently. A relatively large number of reports concern the ones in northeastern India including Assam State (Shrivastava and Heinen, 2005; Linthoingambi and Das, 2010; Tynsong and Tiwari, 2010). The following will describe various aspects of homegardens, with particular focus on those in peninsular India and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Characteristics of the Homegardens

Surrounding Environment and Structure of Homegardens

Homegardening has been a way of life for centuries and is still critical to the local subsistence economies and food security, including in Kerala state in peninsular India, which has about 5.4 million small gardens (mostly less than 0.5 ha in area) (KSLUB, 1995). It is a system composed of a combination of the cultivation of crops, trees and shrubs, the raising of livestock and poultry, as well as fish culture (Photo 1). It is well known that these traditional land-use systems are influenced to a great extent by the biophysical and sociocultural characteristics of the locales where they are practiced. The land use of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands is mainly composed of forests (87%), homegardens (4.6%) and paddy fields (1.3%) (Pandey et al., 2006). In contrast, the Kerala State is composed of forests (28%) and cropped lands (69%) (as of 2009 from the Kerala State Planning Board), and the homegardens constitute about 50% of the cropped lands. Other land uses for cropped lands include paddy fields and plantations of coconuts or rubber. The homegardens size ranges from 0.05-2 ha in the Andaman Islands, 0.5 to 5 ha in the Nicobar Islands and 0.02 to 1 ha in Kerala State (Nair and Sreedharan, 1986; Pandey et al., 2007). Homegardens in tropical rainy areas in south India, in general, take advantage of the slopes of the hills, while paddy fields lie in the plains. In the Andaman Islands, some villages have homegardens sparsely distributed amidst stretches of paddy fields, while others are found clustered to some extent (Pandey et al., 2007).

Photo 1. A typical Kerala homegarden (Photo: B.M.Kumar)

Vegetation Structure of Homegardens

A typical homegarden is an integral part of the farmer’s farming system and an adjunct to the house, where selected trees, shrubs and herbs are grown for edible products and cash income, as well as for a variety of outputs that have both production and service values including aesthetic and ecological benefits (Photo 2). This system has been operated and maintained for many years by the local people on a trial-and-error basis in terms of an area-specific combination of cultivated varieties and cultivation methods suited to the characteristics of the area concerned (climate, topography, etc.). Even within the same area, the diversity of cultivated varieties and the planting pattern vary according to the household characteristics since the cultivated crops and trees and their combination are affected by the household’s needs (including nutritional ones) and tastes, as well as by ecological, social and economic factors.

Photo 2. Diversity of woody species in Kerala homegardens (Photo: B.M.Kumar)

The presence of a large number of species within the same land management unit, often seemingly not following any specific geometry, makes it difficult to define the temporal/spatial architecture of homegardens. The structural entities of homegardens are arranged in a complex micro-zonal pattern having well-defined vertical/horizontal stratification with each structural ensemble occupying a specific niche, such that they cannot be easily dissociated from one another (Nair and Sreedharan, 1986). In such multilayered structure, plants including the following are cultivated; coconut and areca nut trees, cacao, cashew nuts, fruit trees (bananas, mangoes, pineapples, etc.), root vegetables, spice crops (peppers, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, turmeric, cinnamon, etc.) and forest trees such as teak (Tectona grandis), jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus), casuarina (Casuarina equisetifolia), silver oaks (Grevillea robusta) and bamboo (Bambusa arundinaca) (Nair and Sreedharan, 1986; Kumar, 2005; Pandey et al., 2006; Pandy et al., 2007; Santhoshkumar and Ichikawa, 2010). In the Andaman Islands, for example, the threelayered homegarden is mainly covered with coconut and areca nut trees as the top storey at 12-16 m high; mangoes, jackfruit, neem trees (Azadirachta indica) and tamarind as the second storey at 4.5- 9.5 m high; spice crops such as cinnamon and nutmeg and fruit trees such as lemons as the first storey; and pineapples as the ground cover. Fruit trees, in particular, are planted closer to the homes, which in turn tend to be built on the upper part of slopes to avoid constant raindrops from the vegetation (Pandey et al., 2007).

There are also a lot of farmers who practice rice cultivation and pastoralism in combination with their homegardens. Cows and buffaloes are not only used for milking, but for farm work, while chickens and ducks are raised for their eggs and for meat production. Some farmers also keep sheep, goats and hogs. Crop residues and household waste are fed to the livestock and poultry, whose manure, in turn, is applied to the crops as fertilizer, establishing a cyclical pattern of resource use. Since it is costly to raise livestock (especially cows and buffaloes), there is a tendency to buy them at the peak period of farm work (June and July) and then sell them as soon as the work is completed. In lowland and coastal areas, some homegardens use mangrove forests, ditches and paddy fields for fish or prawn culture.

Land Ownership and Management of Homegardens

Land ownership patterns, including homegardens, vary according to the region and the community. In the Western Ghats located in the southern part of the Indian peninsula mainland, for instance, land in general can be owned and managed by individuals (private ownership system) (Kumar and Takeuchi, 2009). Similarly, in the Andaman Islands, where families are a social unit, land is also subject to the private ownership system. In contrast, in the Nicobar Islands, where the social unit of the indigenous people is communities, land is owned by communities and distributed by the village representatives to individuals (Pandey et al., 2007).

Homegardens and paddy fields are operated and managed on a family basis (Nair and Sreedharan, 1986; Pandey et al., 2007). A typical family in south India is composed of 5-8 members, of which one or two are males aged 20-35 years. Traditionally, the farm work was practiced with a gender-based division of labor, in which the females worked on transplanting, harvesting and winnowing, while the males took the heavier work such as land tilling and the transportation of seedlings to the paddy fields. They rarely use machinery and largely depend on animals such as buffaloes for around 80% of their farm work. This situation, however, is gradually changing with the influx of farm machinery warranted by the shortage and high cost of labor. According to Torquebiau (1992) who summarized several case studies on homegarden labor requirements and flexibility, temporal complementarity in labor allocation is yet another advantage of homegardening. For example, labor demand for homegardens seldom shows sharp peaks and troughs and is more flexible and distributed throughout the year, in sharp contrast to that of seasonal agricultural operations such as wetland rice paddy cultivation.

Functions and Benefits

In south India, the crops cultivated and harvested in homegardens are used by the farmers for their own consumption and are traded in the local market only as a source of cash income. In the Andaman Islands, over 70% of the harvested coconuts and areca nuts are sold to vendors while the rest are consumed by the farmers themselves. The main commercial crops in the homegardens in south India include coconuts, areca nuts, pepper, cashew nuts, ginger, turmeric and cacao. In Kerala State, these crops are largely traded in the market.

Homegardens and similar types of agriculture involve the intercropping of various trees and crops depending on the seasons to bring a variety of benefits. Firstly, this type of agriculture avoids farmland degradation, which is often observed in intensive agriculture, and maintains and even improves the land productivity through soil conservation and nutrient cycling. Another benefit is that there is no need to depend on the use of chemical fertilizers as the leaves from cultivated trees provide organic manure (Nair and Sreedharan, 1986; Peyre et al., 2006).

Secondly, unlike the seasonally-fluctuating crop agricultural practices often found in tropical regions, homegardens require a relatively even amount of labor inputs at any time of the year in their operation and maintenance, leading to the generation of employment opportunities, including assistance for seeding and harvesting and work in processing industries for the harvested crops (coir industry produced from the fiber of the husk of the coconut, cacao processing, cassava industry and canned fruit processing) (Nair and Sreedharan, 1986).

Also, the multi-layered vegetation structure of homegardens is similar to that of natural forests, and hence homegardens have become habitats for various wild flora and fauna. In areas where there are stretches of farmland with less biological or ecological diversity, among others, homegardens play an important role in terms of the conservation of biodiversity (Santhoshkumar and Ichikawa, 2010).

Challenges and Responses

Homegardens provide various benefits as mentioned above, but the market value of the products from them is relatively low, hence the cash income of the farmers is small (Pandey et al., 2007; Santhoshkumar et al., 2010). As they are situated on a limited area of land, the yield of each crop is relatively low despite the high cropping intensity. Thus, a number of farmers reduce the area of their homegarden and prioritize cash crops (coconuts, areca nuts, etc.) and multiple use species (white popinac, wild tamarind, etc.), and tend to shift to a monoculture.

Public policies related to homegardens such as those on land tenure, agriculture, and forestry have also contributed to the trend for homegardeners to shift to monocrop cultivation. For example, the Kerala Land Reforms Act of 1963 regulates the upper limit of per capita land allocation (8 ha maximum for a five-member family) to cope with land ownership polarization. However, certain types of land uses such as private forests and plantations for coffee, rubber, tea, cardamom, etc., were exempted from this act. Thus, again, many landowners began to grow cash crops such as rubber intensively to avoid the provisions of the act (Guillerne et al., 2011).

In the light of these situation the diversity of trees and shrubs have declined and the structure of homegardens has tended to become homogenized, using more chemical fertilizers, and hence leading to soil degradation and erosion (Peyer et al.,2006). In the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where the soil is gravelly or sandy loamy with little cohesive strength, serious soil erosion is occurring in homegardens, which is estimated at around 12 tons of soil per hectare per year on coconut growing land (Pandey et al., 2006).

As such, the sustainability of the traditional, biologically diverse and ecologically sustainable homegarden itself is presently under threat. The declining biodiversity and landscape diversity due to the replacement of traditional land use systems will lead to threats to food security/diversity as well as to the reduced availability of fodder, fuel, green manure and other ecosystem services that have been provided by homegardens.

It has been pointed out that technological development for productivity improvements and capacity building for crop management are required for small-scale farmlands. To improve and sustain the productivity of homegardens in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, for instance, Pandey and others recommended integrated farming with the efficient use of the high precipitation (Pandey et al., 2007). Specifically included were the double cropping of rice, fish culture using the tanks that take advantage of the rainfall and the cultivation of highyield varieties. Furthermore legislative reform that recognizes and supports the multifunctional and socioeconomically adaptable traditional agroforestry systems may be necessary.


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