Are these the bravest co-operators in the world?

Stirling Smith reports on the Irula Snake Catchers Co-operative Society in India

A surprising question

In 1986 I went to work in India for two years, to co-ordinate a trade union education project. One of my early experiences was giving a talk to a group of agricultural workers. They listened politely and then one asked “How many workers die from snake bite in your country?”

This struck me as an odd question, but I soon learned the truth behind it. Estimates are as high as 30,000 deaths in India every year from poisonous snakes. It is not just the well known cobra, but species like the Russel’s viper, a small and rather undistinguished looking snake, whose bite will prove fatal in a few hours.

snake catchersProtecting workers

Rural workers are particularly vulnerable. They wear open rubber sandals, so have no production against a bite, and early in the morning, or in the evening when it is dark, they can disturb snakes with obvious consequences. That is why the Co-operative Group suggests that workers on the tea plantations that produce leaf for our “99″ tea are supplied with wellington boots.

Another group at risk are rubber tappers. A plastic hood is usually placed above the cut made in a rubber tree to tap it for latex. Snakes like to curl up under these hoods, so if the rubber tapper is unlucky, he can get a nasty shock.

So the manufacture of anti-venom is important. And this is done by catching snakes, and “milking” them for venom, which is then used to make the antidote by injecting the venom into horses in sub-lethal doses. The horses develop antibodies to counter the venom and these are used to produce serum for use in humans bitten by snakes.

Catching snakes will not be high up on most people’s list of desirable jobs. Ireland has always seemed one of the best countries in the world to me, not just because I am half Irish and therefore biased, but because St Patrick is supposed to have banished all the snakes!

A traditional skill

Snakes are valued in India for another very good reason: they eat rats. And rats are a major cause of the loss of food grains in India – not simply by eating, but through their droppings and urine (they also cause Weill’s disease). So if all the snakes were killed, there would be  a big increase in the rat population, and a huge increase in food spoilage.

But achieving a balanced relationship with snakes is something most of us would be happy to leave to somebody else. Fortunately one group has established a sustainable relationship with snakes. They know their habits, respect their niche in creation, and work with them. They catch them as the first step in producing the vital anti venom. And they do this through a co-operative – the Irula Snake Catchers Co-operative Society operates south of Madras (now officially known as Chennai) in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Tribal traditions

The Irula are “tribals” or “adivasis”, literally “original inhabitants”. Tribal peoples comprise a substantial indigenous minority of the population of India – roughly 8 % of the  total population, more than 80 million people according to the 2001 census. When the Aryan Hindu invaders arrived in India thousands of years ago, the tribals retreated to mountains and jungles. With few  modern facilities, they have stuck to their traditional way of life, which usually revolves sustainable use of the forest produce.

Internationally, co-operatives are accepted as an important way of preserving indigenous people’s traditions while providing livelihoods. Co-operatives UK Tsunami Reconstruction Fund is supporting a tribal co-operative on the remote Car Nicobar island in the Andaman Sea.

Wildlife Act

In the past, the Irulas caught snakes for the skin, which they sold for bags and purses. In 1972, the Indian Wildlife Act made that illegal, so the Irulas were threatened with loss of livelihood, the drift to cities to become exploited daily labourers, and the inevitable loss of their culture, as has happened in so many cases.

Snakes Cathcers co-operativeThe formation of the snake catchers co-operative has prevented that. Each member is allowed to catch a certain quota of snakes – there are four kinds the co-op needs to make the venom. Each member is paid a fixed amount per snake – which varies according to the species.

The snakes are held for three weeks, during which time they are “milked” once a week. At the end of their stay, they are released back into the jungle were they were originally captured. Each time venom is extracted, a scale is cut. These take some months to grow back, and at the same time, the venom returns to full potency. So if the snake is captured again, the Irula can see at once if it has recently been a “guest” of the co-op and should be let go.

The extracted venom is purified, frozen and then freeze-dried to make the pure venom powder that is used by government laboratories for the production of anti-venom serum.

To produce just one gram of pure cobra venom, 10 snakes are needed, while to produce the same amount of the saw-scaled viper venom the Irulas have to catch 750.

The co-operative charges £1,000 for a gram of the rarest venom.

Livelihood

As well as being paid for catching snakes, members of the co-operative are also paid for catching mice, rats and frogs, that make up the diet of the snakes while they held captive. They are fed live to the snakes.

Irulas can make a reasonable living, thanks to their co-operative. The average pay out for snakes in 4,000 rupees per month. On top of this, there is payment for rats and mice, plus a dividend, or bonus, paid once a year on the profits of the society.

An important lesson

Snake catcherNow, are the Irula snakes catchers just a quaint story, to go into the cabinet of co-operative curiosities? They should NOT suffer that fate, because they provide a good reminder of the essence of co-operation. Let’s recall the definition of a co-operative, from the 1995 ICA Statement of Co-operative Identity:

an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise.

The Irula co-operative provides a living for its members – but it also meets the “cultural needs and aspirations” of members. Through their co-operative, their traditional way of life, their relationship with nature, is preserved. Along the way, they also provide a vital service to their fellow human beings.

What better example could we find of the important contribution that co-operatives can make to our world?


Stirling Smith visited the Irula Snake Catchers Society in July 2006

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