Eco-Friendly Indian Coffee: A Profile

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.

Constant Evolution

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.

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.

Wildlife Refuge

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.

Sustainable Systems

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.

Man-made Forests

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.

Organic Coffee by Default


“Coffee is a lot more than what we drink.”

For decades international development and aid agencies, sometimes with the support of the World Bank, have striven to assist farmers in developing countries to increase their food productivity, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.

In coffee producing countries this has been particularly true, often resulting from pressure on the countries to balance their trade deficits and pay down international loans by exporting valuable commodities.

How has this sat with coffee growers, many of whom are small subsistence farmers? Small farmers whose productivity had been limited were provided techniques that enabled intensified production. Perhaps for the first time in generations of families farming the same fixed area of land, surpluses were harvested. Until then these farmers had grown naturally organic crops, having had no choice because they could not afford chemicals.

Of course, these organic crops could not be certified; a process that can cost as much as US$30,000, and producer cooperatives, which might have had the wherewithal to obtain certification, had not yet been formed.

As their successes took hold in the countryside, development workers began to see a disturbing trend. They began to see small growers re-investing their newfound surpluses in chemicals; in some instances chemicals long banned in North America — DDT a case in point. They also began to see small growers expanding their operations by clearing more land, often land unsuited for more than a few years of intensive farming without massive chemical inputs. Add to that, mono-crops became more commonplace. All of these factors are having demonstrably negative environmental impact.

Tanzania coffee farm
Sun grown coffee farming in Tanzania.

Shade Grown vs. Sun Grown Coffee

Because coffee is of such economic importance relative to other crops falling to much the same “modernizing” approach, the issue of shade grown vs. sun grown coffee is a prime example of how these dilemmas are playing themselves out.

Traditionally coffee had been shade grown, cultivated on small family farms beneath forest canopies often as richly biodiverse as tropical rain forests. Came, then, an economic move to growing coffee as a mono-crop, based on newly-developed seed strains and agro-chemicals. To facilitate these changes forest canopies were thinned; sometimes stripped completely.

The changeover to sun grown coffee was massive, a conversion of nearly 40% of coffee growing land in Latin America and the Caribbean during the early Nineties. In the short term the benefits of intensification to small growers have been significant. However, little time passed before a down side began to emerge.

On the economic side, the cushion against a poor coffee harvest or poor coffee prices provided by diversified shade growing was removed, leaving small growers vulnerable; not only vulnerable but inextricably locked into the mono-crop methodology, whatever the market price, whatever the harvest. Previously coffee growers could blend bananas, citrus, other fruits, and some hardwoods into their farm operations. At least, if the coffee crop failed, they could still eat.

Sun coffee farming has also been demonstrated to impact negatively on the environment in several ways. Studies in Colombia and Mexico indicated 90% fewer bird species than in canopied farm land. This suggests insects and other species have also diminished, gone as quickly as the habitat that had sustained them. Gone too are their ecological benefits.

Agro-chemical inputs–fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides–have been shown to damage water quality. In some documented cases, hundreds of local people have fallen ill due to pollution.

Starbucks Leads By Example

For many years Starbucks Coffee Company has been active as an “ethical trader”. In 1999 their corporate policy was reinforced when Starbucks contracted with TransFair USA to purchase Fair Trade certified coffee.

In 2000 Starbucks began buying Fair Trade certified coffee from growers in Nicaragua and Guatemala. Simultaneously, the company stepped up marketing of organic coffee, retailing Costa Rican organic coffee in its shops throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe.

In partnership with Conservation International, Starbucks is involved in a long-term Mexican project near Chiappis designed to demonstrate the high value of shade grown coffee in a context which enhances biodiversity and curbs deforestation. Some 600 growers are involved in this project.

Tanzania coffee farmer.

Return to Organic Farming

That said, a brief description of the trend from what amounts to natural organic farming, in a sense, organic by default, now a more positive trend seems to be closing the circle as increasing numbers of coffee and other commodity growers are moving to systematic, calculated organic farming.

In recent years demand for specialty coffees, including organic, has skyrocketed. Even shade coffee, once the norm, commands a premium price in world markets as a specialty product. The increasing demand for organic food generally may also support interest in shade grown organic coffee because organic bananas and cacao, among other items, can share the same land, providing an additional economic attraction for growers and, incidentally, returning them to the diversified agricultural methods of their forebears.

Coffee grower cooperatives formed for marketing purposes are becoming more widespread in coffee producing countries. Particularly for those producing specialty coffees destined for niche markets, these cooperatives are able to market more directly to specialty processors.

Growing awareness among consumers of the environmental and health issues attendant to modern agricultural practices may also be playing a subtle role, perhaps fueling demand for organic food and organic coffee in particular. This trend shows no indication of abatement. Starbucks is on board, for example, as are a number of other major food product providers, most keen on the one hand to flesh their philosophic commitment to socially responsible corporate operations and, on the other, to satisfy consumer demand for just such demonstration.

Corporate and Civil Society Partnerships Pay Off

Conservation International (CI) is a major international organization dedicated to conserving biodiversity, in part by providing technical and financial support to farmers in areas where biodiversity is threatened by current growing practices.

Coffee growing is a high priority for Conservation International because coffee is grown in high altitude tropical countries where, according to CI, the Smithsonian Institute, and other authorities, much of the world’s key biodiversity is located.

Conservation International partnered with Starbucks in the Chiappis demonstration project. Coffee production from the site met Starbucks standards. Other hoped-for outcomes were also realized. Using the Chiappis project as a prototype, five new projects have now been initiated in Latin America, Asia, and Africa.

Arthur Montague, copyright 2001