KUNAVARAM, India, April 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Kurra Bhumamma, 26, softly runs a finger on the wings of a silk moth.
The pregnant belly of the bug symbolises security to this former herb hunter turned silkworm farmer in Kunavaram, in the eastern ghat hills of south India. Three times a year she collects the cocoons of the moths and takes them to the local forest department, which sells them at auction.
But increasingly erratic weather is hurting her business. Last autumn, as unusually stormy weather hit, hundreds of the eggs didn't hatch while hundreds of cocoons turned grey and lightweight - signs of poor health.
Such cocoons are not accepted by buyers who pay 1,100 rupees (about $12) for a thousand cocoons, but insist on perfectly healthy ones that are white, weigh 3-4 grams each, and are plump and hard.
"For each healthy cocoon, we get 1.10 rupee," said Bhumamma, who on average produces 7,000 cocoons each season. "But this year the weather has been very irregular. During the rainy season, there was no rain, but then we had unseasonal storms and cold. Now I have too many damaged cocoons," she said with a wry smile.
POVERTY ERADICTION PROGRAMME
It has been a year and half since Bhumamma, a Koya tribal woman who earlier earned a living by collecting forest products like berries, nuts and medicinal herbs, took to silk production.
She is one of over 3,000 people in the state of Andhra Pradesh - home to 2.1 million tribal people - now rearing silkworms as part of the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM), a nationwide poverty eradication programme.
According to a U.N. report released in February, nearly 300 million people in India still live in abject poverty. The report, which assessed progress toward the Millennium Development Goals, said many families "face deprivation in terms of access to basic services, including education, health, water, sanitation and electricity."
Separate studies at the state level show 72 percent of the tribal population in the region falls below the poverty line, earning less than 50 cent a day per person. Many have poor food security and inadequate access to health services, besides suffering from environmental degradation, one study suggests.
The NRLM aims to help tribal communities overcome poverty, be food secure and earn 18,000 rupees ($260) a year through silkworm rearing, according to Rajendra Bose of Kovel Foundation, a local non-profit that helps primitive tribes improve their livelihood by developing entrepreneurial skills and that is the lead organisation implementing the NRLM's silkworm programme in the eastern ghat hills.
"Farmers are given free training into silkworm rearing and a 50 percent subsidy on disease-free eggs as their main capital. They also get equipments like net for free. So, the investment is small and the return potential is good," Bose said.
But increasingly erratic weather, linked to climate change, now has farmers such as Bhumamma struggling to earn the hoped-for profits.
The silkworms that farmers here rear produce tasar, a copperish colored, coarse silk mainly used for furnishings and interiors. The worms (Antheraea mylitta) feed on local tree species. But since the silkworms are reared in the open, they are also vulnerable to harsh weather.
According to farmer Neelam Rambbabu, increasingly frequent temperature and humidity swings in the area are hurting production.
"Overheating is killing thousands of worms. Besides, sudden mist and fog is disturbing the humidity we need," he said.
Heat waves also have hurt the foliage of the trees the silkworms feed on, causing leaves to fall prematurely, said Bose, who leads the silkworm project for the Kovel Foundation. A loss of soil fertility also has affected the health of the trees, he said.
Government data suggests the weather threat to silkworm production is growing. Last October, the east coast of India was ravaged by Hud Hud, a cyclone that caused 10.7 million rupees $115,000) damage to the silk industry, the state government said in a statement.
Dummiri Ramaiah, a forest department official in Kunnavaram who supervises the sales of silk cocoons, says that as a result of the weather problems "many cocoons have a dull texture. There may be a decrease in the money at the auction this year," he predicted.
'DIFFICULT TO CONTINUE'
The losses are already causing discontent among farmers who point out that silkworm rearing is very labor intensive.
Gadela Bojjamma, a silk farmer, says that her entire family works together during each silk season, which lasts for about 8 weeks. Their work includes regular checking of the eggs for any signs of disease or damage, destroying infected and dying ones, and feeding and protecting the caterpillars.
Faced with falling income despite a heavy workload, "it is difficult to continue," she said.
To keep poverty reduction efforts afloat, the NRLM programme may need to begin including additional means for families to earn money, such as payments for planting trees, Bose said. (Reporting by Stella Paul; editing by Laurie Goering)
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