Cashews Are Not Nuts

Gina writes:

Cashews are a common food in India. We buy them by the kilo (2.2 pounds)! Until recently, I never gave a second thought as to where these cashews come from and what they look like in nature.

Facts About Cashews
  • Cashews grow on trees that are about 30 feet tall.
  • The true fruit of the tree is the cashew apple, a yellowish to reddish soft fruit the size of a small pear. The cashew apple is edible, but it's fragile skin makes is unsuitable for transport (which explains why I've never tried it).
  • The cashew "nut" hangs from the cashew apple, inside of a tough shell. Technically, it's actually a seed, not a nut.

  • Raw cashews are poisonous! The tough shell surrounding the cashew contains urushiol, the same chemical found in poison ivy. Cashews are steamed or roasted before selling.

When I began working with SPREAD in November, I started to learn more about cashews, because SPREAD has worked with cashew farmers in Koraput for more than 10 years.

The short explanation of the cashew project is that SPREAD worked with hundreds of farmers over the course of 10 years to petition to government to grant the rights to farm the cashew land that were promised to the farmers decades ago. In 2008, thousands of acres of land were made available to the villagers. SPREAD is helping with the application process. SPREAD is also in the process of forming a cashew cooperative consisting of 2,000 families, and building a processing plant for the cooperative, so they can make reasonable profit from their crops.

I have cashews on my mind more than usual lately, since I just finished applying for a grant to allow SPREAD to build the processing plant without loans. A longer explanation of the project is below, adapted from the grant application.

Tribals and dalits have been cultivating the hilly slopes of Koraput district for hundreds of years. In the 1950s, much of this land was taken over by the Soil Conservation Department. Cashew plantations were formed to reduce soil erosion, eventually totaling more than 34,000 hectares in Orissa. The tribals and dalits who had cultivated that land for hundreds of years objected to this takeover of their land, but were persuaded when officials assured them of the ability to reap the cashew harvest. However, when the time for harvesting came, the department claimed the cashews and the profits. The villagers were reduced to mere wage-earners.

The tribals and dalits objected to this exploitation, but were disregarded by the administration. In the mid-90s, they started to organize themselves more successfully. Villagers refused to work, held rallies, and used other non-cooperation techniques to bring the issue to the attention of the relevant officials. A people’s organization that would come to be called Dangar Adhikar Samiti (DAS) was formed in 2000. DAS escalated the protests by leading forceful occupations of plantations, barring entry of tender holders and officials until harvesting was complete. SPREAD contributed to the fight by meeting with officials, providing legal assistance, holding a public hearing, and more.

The issue eventually made it to the state level, and finally, on 31 July 2008, a landmark decision was announced to grant usufructuary rights to tribals and dalits to over 63,000 acres of cashew land in 20 districts of Orissa. In Koraput district alone, about 16,700 acres of cashew land will be handed over to the people.

The project’s next phase involves 1) establishment of a cashew cooperative; 2) construction of a cashew processing unit; and 3) marketing the processed cashews. Formation of the cashew cooperative is in process under the name Dangar Devta Cooperative. Construction of a processing unit is imperative, as the villagers are forced to sell the unprocessed cashews for Rs. 30-40 per kg, a low price compared to the market price of Rs. 400-500 for processed nuts. SPREAD has conducted a feasibility study for the unit, which determined that Rs. 2,670,000 is needed for a small-capacity unit and minimum working capital.

The processing unit will provide dependable, sustainable income to at least 2,000 families in the area. Projected income during the first 5 years is 440,000 (year 1), 570,000 (year 2), 690,000 (year 3), 810,000 (year 4), 930,000 (year 5).