It is difficult to imagine that a little black corn could turn the course of history, but pepper, native to Malabar, was so potent a spice that it prompted Vasco da Gama to find a trade route to India.
Pepper was such a pricey commodity in Europe that it was known as black gold. In fact, in England, rent could be paid in peppercorns, giving rise to the term “peppercorn rent”, meaning something expensive, though today it has the opposite connotation.
Pepper was an ingredient in luxury cooking in ancient Rome and Greece, according to the accounts of Pliny. Apparently, 120 ships made an annual trip to India from the early Roman empire. With the fall of Rome, the trade of this then-expensive spice was largely monopolised by the Arabs.
In the Middle Ages, pepper was a luxury item, affordable only to the wealthy and virtually all of the black pepper found in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa was f rom India’s Malabar region. Its exorbitant price was one of the inducements which led the Portuguese to seek a sea route to India. In 1498, Vasco da Gama became the first person to reach India by sailing around Africa; asked by Arabs in Calicut (who spoke Spanish and Italian) why they had come, his representative replied, “we seek Christians and spices”. It was given additional legitimacy (at least from a European imperialistic perspective) by the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, which granted Portugal exclusive rights to the half of the world where black pepper originated.
By the 16th century, due to the Portuguese influence, pepper was also being grown in Java, Sunda, Sumatra, Madagascar, Malaysia, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, but these areas traded mainly with China, or used the pepper locally. Ports in the Malabar area also served as a stop-off point for much of the trade in other spices from farther east in the Indian Ocean.
As pepper supplies into Europe increased, the price of pepper declined (though the total value of the import trade generally did not). Pepper, which in the early Middle Ages had been an item exclusively for the rich, started to become more of an everyday seasoning among those of more average means.
Today, pepper accounts for one-fifth of the world’s spice trade.
CGH Earth and the Pepper Story
The Palliyans and the Mannans lived in the areas that form the Periyar Tiger Reserve before Independence. In fact, in 1940, the Travancore Maharaja felt that he could not transact the land, before it was “owned” by the tribals.
Their main occupation was fishing and they also served as guides to the British, when they went hunting into the forest.
The tribals did not understand money transactions, but they were self-sufficient, with paddy, ragi and corn cultivation. Since Independence, they have been settled in colonies, with the Palliakudi colony initially housing 20 families, and the Manakuddi colony of 165 acres starting out with about 37. Today, each colony houses a couple of hundred families. They started growing pepper over three decades back, but did not get their due. Local merchants would buy the harvest at throwaway rates. Things changed a decade back and the business became more systematic with the forming of with the local Eco Development Committee in 1998 giving the tribals power over trade. Each house has about 100 pepper vines. Now, the transactions are done minus a mediator and via daily auctions during the harvesting season, between November and January. The harvest ranges between 25 and 2,000 kg in different families, and a single day up to 4,500 kg can be auctioned off. CGH Earth also set up Natural Harvest, which buys pepper from the farmer at a 33% premium, and exports it to Europe. “The company is an ethical business set up to help out the tribals; to ensure their culture and their practices are maintained,” says Antony Varghese of Natural Harvest.
So, what is special about the tribal pepper? They are endemic species, such as a resistant variety known as karimunda and jeera mundi. The Uorali tribals in the Vanchiavayail area, 5km into the Periyar sanctuary, also grow a good quality pepper in their 100 acres. The tribal pepper received its first organic certification in 2003 from Europe, and since then, the farms are inspected at least four times in a year.