SULTAN'S BATTERY, KERALA: To meet India's rural crisis face to face we drove along the lovely wooded roads of Wyanad, a district in northeastern Kerala, a state on India's southwest coast. To our east rose the Western Ghat mountains. The other night we stayed in Sultan's Battery, so called because it had been the last stand of the local sultan, when the British came three centuries ago.

Along this road the ancient forests have long since logged off and the state-planted young teak trees are usually cut, to judge by the piles at the side of the road, with the trunk at about 12 inches in diameter. Familiar follies of state-sponsored forestry have occurred. Some years ago, the clumps of bamboo, often 40 feet across and 50 feet high, were taken off the ridges and slopes of the western Ghats and eucalyptus globulus put in, the same way it was in California in the 1870s.

The last place I visited under the Eucalyptus curse was Portugal. Driving north from Lisbon in the summer of 2003, I saw hundred of thousands of acres of it, all other vegetation dead under its lethal, resinous umbrella, millions of 50-foot dry resinous biomass waiting to explode like Molotov cocktails -- which they did that summer in Portugal with infernos sweeping across the hillsides.

In India, the immensely powerful construction industry (aside from the central Sahara or the Gobi desert, where is this industry not immensely powerful?) likes eucalyptus because its lumber, useless for joinery or finished carpentry, is good for scaffolding or pit props in the mining industry. Forest managers are fond of eucalyptus because its rapid pace of growth allows them to draw nice diagrams of speedy "harvest" cycles. Elephants don't like it because it replaces their natural habitat and drives them out in search of forage. As the old forest was cut, the weather cycles in Wyanad changed for the worse, with disastrous results to the orange groves, the locals said.

We turned off the road through the woods and onto a smaller lane. Then we walked up a path past pepper vines, bananas, cashew trees, jackfruit and some coffee bushes to a single-story concrete block house. Here were Dinesan, two of his sisters and two little children. The mother and another sister were away. Dinesan has a job as a projectionist, though Wyanad's farm crisis means few can afford to go to the movies anymore, so the local cinema is failing. The proprietor refuses to screen the skin movies now churning out of Indian studios.

The property is a house on three acres. Livestock: one cow, one goat. Nearly a year ago, Dinesan's father B.M. Kamelasan, reviewed the collapsing price of pepper, vanilla and coffee, and the sums he'd borrowed from the banks and the money lenders against the expected yields and decided to end it all with the one agent he could get for free, a pesticide called monocrotophos. It's a horrible, very painful way to quit this world.

This was no Walker Evans-type tableau of beleagured sharecroppers in West Virginia 50 years ago. The family was trim, the two kids clean and nicely dressed. A farmer's desperation and suicide do not require the backdrop of a rural slum, even though, after the collapse in agricultural prices, Dinesan and his family have their backs against the wall, with a mudslide of debt (tiny by Western standards) engulfing them. Amid the terrible crisis of the small family farmers in the American Midwest in the past 30 years, there have been plenty of suicides or, to put it more tactfully, higher-than-expected deaths, in trim ranch houses, where the suicide might be reported as an accidental death so the survivors get the insurance money.

Kerala has 100 percent literacy and a tradition of voracious newspaper reading. The libraries are stuffed with poor people catching up on local and world events. Young Dinesan talks about the reasons for the crisis, the collapse of subsidies, the role of middlemen, the World Bank's subsidy to Vietnam, whose cheap and inferior pepper comes to Sri Lanka, a free port, and then into Kerala, whose Malabar pepper is the finest in the world. As with most peasants and farmers across the world, he understands the world picture. He talks about the weakness of the dollar against the Euro.

An hour later, it's time to go. The little boy climbs a cashew tree and brings me down a fruit with the large cashew shell growing out of its top. The fruit tastes a little like mango. Cashews came from New World via the Portuguese, along with chili, tapioca, tomatoes and groundnuts.

Thousands and thousands of farmers across India have committed suicide across the last decade, victims of the neoliberal "reforms" that have seared the world's poor from the early Nineties forward. A couple of days after our visit to Dinesan and his sisters, the Indian prime minister gives a speech about the need to help India's farmers. Almost everything in his program will drive them deeper into ruin and despair.

There's one thing you learn after some time in India's countryside (particularly, if you are with rural India's premier reporter, P. Sainath, as I was). It's that out there in the real world of poor farmers always on the lip of ruin, the neoliberal model imposed by the World Bank and by infatuated "reformers" across the world over the past 20 years has failed decisively, just as the "free trade" model is destroying what used to be America's backbone, its middle class. There has to be another way, and we have about 15 years to find it.

Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at COPYRIGHT 2005 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.