Some are as big as coconut while others are as tiny as currants. Some have the pleasant sweetness of cane sugar while others have the pungent tartness of tamarind. Some are bright red, others sport a dull pistachio hue. This is just a snapshot of the biodiversity of mango species found in the small village of Kannapuram, located in the Indian district of Kannur in the southern state of Kerala. The plethora of native mango varieties here is truly breathtaking.
With 207+ native varieties, it’s raining mangoes in Kannapuram. In fact, Kuruvakkavu, a small area in Kannapuram, has 102 varieties among 382 trees, growing on a plot of just 300 square meters (3,230 square feet). On July 22, 2020, World Mango Day, the Kerala State Biodiversity Council declared Kuruvakkavu an Indigenous Mango Heritage Area. All thanks to the efforts of about 20 local families, led by 42-year-old policeman Shyju Machathi.
A resident of Kannapuram, Machathi nurtured the love of mangoes from childhood. Summer vacation meant climbing different mango trees, picking the fruit, and distributing it to family and neighbors. “During the mango season, eating, collecting and distributing different varieties was my hobby,” he says. “It was a time when mangoes weren’t commercially available and we all ate what was locally available.”
Machathi’s parents grow rice, but he has no formal training in agriculture. His foray into conserving mango varieties began in 2016, when a friend alerted him that a 200-year-old mango tree bearing fruit of the rare, sweet variety “Vellatha” was being felled. “Even though I only got there the next day with a friend from the agricultural department, we were able to get close to 50 [cuttings] that we successfully grafted and propagated,” says Machathi. Keeping just one for himself, he distributed the cuttings within the community so that people could plant them and the variety could be preserved. Local news channels covered his mango rescue, which further inspired Machathi to identify and preserve other regional varieties.
The following year, he collected and documented 36 varieties of native mangoes and, with the support of friends and Department of Agriculture officials, organized an event highlighting the richness of native species in the region. It was the first of many mango events to come and motivated locals to support Machathi in his efforts. “It was indeed a surprise for us to discover so many varieties in our own backyard,” says Jeyachandran, who helps Machathi collect and document the varieties. “The best part is that everyone has a unique taste and flavor.”
By 2020, and with the help of around 20 families, Machathi had identified more than 100 varieties by analyzing characteristics such as color, taste, thickness of outer skin, fiber content, characteristics of pulp and leaf shape. Before that, the locals had no idea that there were so many kinds of mangoes in Kannapuram. The Community Identification Project has placed the village on the national mango map alongside states that produce mangoes for commercial purposes, such as Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. Every year on the first Sunday in May, Kannapuram now hosts a Mango Festival. Varieties of mangoes and delicious dishes prepared from them are displayed, dignitaries are invited and discussions take place.
Machathi and the community’s efforts took a significant turn in late 2019, when one of their events attracted Dr Joseph John, a former senior scientist at the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR) Regional Station in Thrissur. He advised Machathi to take a more scientific approach by documenting each of the varieties with photographs and 3-5 characteristics, such as taste, color and fiber content. A Facebook group named “Nattu Manchottil”, which translates to “Under the village mango tree”, has been formed for this purpose. Group members, mostly from Kannapuram, uploaded new varieties and exchanged fruit information. Machathi documented almost 150 varieties and sent them to John, who visited Kannapuram and collected cuttings of 102 varieties. These varieties have not only been added to the NBPGR gene pool, but have been successfully distributed and propagated in different districts of the state.
Besides expanding the range of mango varieties available in India, the conservation and distribution of native varieties in the country helps reduce the use of harmful pesticides. “These varieties are resistant to pests, diseases and are well adapted to local climatic conditions,” explains Dr. Joseph. “We have already lost a considerable portion of our mango biodiversity due to indiscriminate rubber cultivation in the state and it is of the utmost importance to preserve all that we have today by supporting such [conservation] efforts.”
Machathi continues to work on identifying native species, propagating them, and performing chemical analyzes of special varieties. “We also need to find a way to control crop wastage,” he says, estimating it at nearly 60%. He launched a proposal to the state agricultural department for 100 varieties of mangoes to be planted in 100 plots in certain districts. This project would take place within the framework of the Sugatha Kumari Manthoppu mission, named after the ecologist feminist poet Sugutha Kumari.
There are also plans to take visitors on a mango-themed heritage walk. The course, a little less than three kilometers, highlights the many local varieties alongside coconut palms and temples. And finally, the very busy Machathi is working on the “Cherumanthoppu”, or the Little Mangrove project. The program helps conservation-minded people establish mango tree plantations by providing them with plants and other technical support. With this project, Machathi hopes people will appreciate and enjoy local flavors rather than opting for commercially grown varieties.
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