Indian coffee is grown in a very narrow and restricted belt in the States of Karnataka, Chennai and Kerala. The area under coffee is around 3,40,306 hectares, about in a ratio of about 50/50 Arabica and Robusta coffee. The annual yield is approximately 300000 M.T. About 70% of the produce is exported. The majority (98%) of the plantations are owned by small growers, with a holding of less than 10 hectares of land.
From a historic viewpoint, one needs to understand that Indian coffee Plantations are a result of the sacrifice of many generations. What the Grandfather plants, the great grandson enjoys and so on and so forth; it is a continuous process of trials and tribulations. In the bargain, one generation is lost. If the coffee farm or the estate is put under a microscope, a closer and better picture emerges…in its totality, coffee Plantations in India are traditional shade grown coffees, grown naturally, inside a canopy of wild and introduced trees. While growers are environmentally conscious at every step of cultivation, they are also doing a world of good both socially and economically to millions of farmers and allied households. The important point here is that the Plantations constantly evolve.
Ripe coffee ready to be picked
Harvested coffee cherries
Three Canopy Layers
Indian Coffee is grown on one of the most sensitive hotspots in the world, called the WESTERNGHATS, which is a treasure house for flora, fauna and iodiversity. Basically, Indian Coffee Plantations grow shade grown coffee under the canopy of a three-tier shade system. A lot of care is taken in selecting the trees to be introduced. The primary shade or the lower shade is taken care of by nitrogen fixing Erythrina indica or by Glyrecedia maculata. These enrich the soil by harvesting atmospheric nitrogen and in turn give it to the coffee plant. The secondary shade is that of trees like silver oak, white and red cedar that shed their leaves in the monsoon season and put forth a rich canopy during the summer. These trees are specifically selected because they act like factories providing tremendous biomass and thereby keeping the soil temperatures low. Lastly, the tertiary shade is of the hardwood species, which attract rain-bearing clouds. This three tier shade system, aids in filtering the harmful U.V. radiation. Furthermore, the filtered sunlight enables the sugars in the coffee bean to caramelize uniformly and give it a unique taste.
Every Plantation acts as a wildlife sanctuary. Rare species of birds and a multitude of migratory birds often nest inside the coffee plantations. Species such as the green pidgeon, Siberian crane, Whistling Teels, all thrive in the forest. All estates have waterholes for the purpose of irrigation. In fact, our Estate known as KIREHALLI, literally anslates to “Estate full of lakes or tanks”. At present, we have six Tanks; each measuring one and a half acres and 20 feet in depth. These tanks act as watersheds and recharge the groundwater, for future generations. During the night they act as waterholes for wildlife such as wild bore, deer, elephant, and rabbits.
By and large, Indian Coffee is associated with forest grown coffee. Mechanization is to a bare minimum and when one visits the plantation one can see trees haphazardly arranged. The soil is virgin and no serious effort is made to mechanize the plantation for the sole purpose of retaining the sustainable eco-friendly systems. The leaf litter from the trees acts like a sponge for the rainwater to absorb into the ground and this prevents runoff and soil erosion. This not only contributes to the soil fertility, but also protects the precious soil from weathering and other undesirable factors. Most coffee plantations are located in regions with average to heavy rainfall, yet even if there is a shower of 10 cms on one single day, there will never be runoff inside the plantation because of the thick mulch, which acts as a blotting paper, allowing the water to slowly percolate downward.
Monocropping is the exception in Indian coffee Plantations. The rule is a range of simultaneously growing crops. No other Plantations in the world have the range of diversity as that seen in Indian Coffee plantations. The difference is the multiple, mixed cropping systems. Pepper vines are grown on shade trees, cardamom, Areca nut, Ginger, Citrus, Vanilla and a few other spices are grown as multiple crops inside the Coffee Plantations.
Though this may seem a trivial matter, this model is a very effective and harmonious way of creating a symbiosis among Coffee Plants, by mixing crops and trees. In my humble opinion, there isn’t any other system in the world where such a high degree of peaceful coexistence exists. There is recorded evidence that the elements of nature talk a signal language, warning the plants of pest and disease incidence. This enables the microbes, plants or trees to switch on their defense mechanisms to ward off the impending danger. The matted roots of various crops that intertwine with one another, culminate in a spicy aroma of Indian coffee. These various crops act as a hot-bed for the proliferation of millions of beneficial microbes like Phosphorus solubilisers and nitrogen fixers, which enhances soil organic matter, humus content and soil fertility for future generations.
Marginal lands or grasslands are slowly and steadily converted to bio-rich coffee plantations by first growing a cover crop of legumes like Sesbania and Daincha , followed by growing millions of trees, which acts as shade for wildlife and birds.
These manmade forests also serve to harvest rain as well as preserve the sensitive ecology of the region. A single large tree can release up to 400 gallons of water into the atmosphere each day. One acre of trees produces enough oxygen for 18 people every day. One acre of trees absorbs enough carbon dioxide per year to match that emitted by driving a car 26,000 miles. Meanwhile, urban neighborhoods with mature trees can be up to 11 degrees cooler in summer heat than neighborhoods without trees. Furthermore, large trees remove 60-70 times more pollution than small trees.
Coffee Plantations and the People
Thus, the heartland of the Coffee Plantation, is like an oasis in the desert. Every part of the infrastructure like drinking water, shelter for farm workers, emergency medicine, hygienic toilets, and nourishment is all taken care of by the Plantation. In some instances, schooling is also provided. In general, coffee plantations employ millions of people who are unskilled and help them join the mainstream of life.
Coffee that is planted today will take 8 to 10 years to give economic returns. And when the plants are ready to yield; the prices may touch rock bottom.
In 1990, the world coffee market was a $30 billion a year industry, with the grower’s share hovering around $10 billion. Today, the market has increased to $54 illion, but the grower’s share is only $11 billion. This represents a drop from 33% to 11% in just ten years.
This decline in value translates into misery for the estimated 25 million people who are directly related to the plantations. Recently, an estimated 8000 coffee producing families migrated to urban areas. Since the price of coffee has hit a 100 year low, the majority of the people who work in the coffee sector are struggling to feed their families while multinational corporations continue to prosper as a result of the low prices. We support the packaging of Indian Coffee inside the WTO-inspired Green Box and hope that it will be a good beginning toward solving some of the inequitable distribution of coffee-related wealth.
Focus on the Positive
To combat the decline in value we want to focus on the eco-friendly, shade-grown Indian coffee plantations and muster all efforts in seeing that the producers get a decent price for his coffee beans.
We feel strongly that people the world should understand the intrinsic value of shade-grown, hand-picked Indian coffee. Before, Indian coffee was only used as a blend for Coffees in Europe and the U.S. However, after the winds of liberalization, and globalisation, Indian coffee is making a dent worldwide as quality coffee and eco-friendly coffee. For the first time Indian Coffee is recogonised as a separate identity and is creating a niche for itself in the specialty coffee sector. We are now known the world over for growing sustainable quality coffee produced in harmony with nature. It is our fervent appeal that we should work to preserve the Indian coffee heritage, which produces both ecologically and socially sound coffee. This will benefit and ensure the survival of the humble grower who is an asset to the nation and the world.