Like many 20 year olds, I have drunk my fair share of coffee. With an average intake of two coffees a day and a love of coffee that reaches back to my early teens, I have a fairly ‘typical’ relationship with the beverage. And I am not alone. Students across the country are familiar with the smell, taste and effects of the drink. A friend in those late hours of essay writing, a wake-up call before a lecture or an excuse for a mid-day break, coffee impacts our day in one way or another. Coffee shops dominate the streets of Oxford and coffee bags fill the shelves of supermarkets. Countless coffees are made, sipped and discussed every day. That is, 1.6 billion cups to be precise. These include over sixty different types of coffee beverages, from the classic Espresso to the more adventurous Dirty Chai or Zebra Mocha, all coming from a number of different countries. The crop grows over a wide-range of agro-ecological zones and standardised coffee blends may be a mix of as many as twenty different coffee types. Is it surprising then that coffee ranks as the second most traded commodity after oil or that it is the third most popular global beverage after water and tea?

But the impact of coffee extends far beyond cafés, kitchen counters and student desks. Tied to the economies of countless countries and employing millions of workers, it comes as no surprise that coffee plays such an important economic, social and political role, on a global as well as local scale. Due to its economic and agricultural potential as well as its unpredictable prices and large quantities, coffee holds a critical yet tenuous place within international markets. This crop has influenced the lives, habitats and environments of many species for centuries. Human societies across North and Central America, South America, Africa and Asia have been dictated by this cash crop. The beans are often cultivated in countries which face some of the more severe development challenges in the world. As Anthony Wild wrote, ‘tropical countries produce it and rich countries drink it.  A result of colonial rule, this risky crop continues to touch the economies and livelihoods of millions well after the end of the British Empire.

As I found out this summer, India has a decisive role to play in this equation. It is the 5th biggest global producer of coffee beans, employing over 3 million workers. Though domestic consumption is surprisingly low in the country itself, it comprises 23 per cent of the national economy and there is a 100 per cent growth rate every year. Most importantly, 95 per cent of Indian coffee is shade-grown and carbon neutral. There are close to 250,000 growers in India, of which 98 per cent are small farmers, cultivating on less than 10 hectares. 400 million tonnes of coffee is produced for the government every year and a productive estate would generate an average of ½ tonne per acre. Unfortunately, however, with a rise in urbanisation, fluctuating coffee prices, inadequate government policies and widespread poverty, attitudes are changing and growers are favouring large-scale, cleared and mechanised farms. As a country with a fairly limited environmental agenda and a fairly unknown coffee producing industry, the future looks bleak for many of India’s coffee forests.
The environmental implications of coffee growing are not well known globally, let alone in India. Indeed, the ecological benefits of shade-grown coffee are barely known to some of the growers themselves (Not the farmers of the Karnataka Growers Federation may I add). Alongside the degradation of India’s forests comes the increase in human population size, loss of species and the emission of 15 million tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere. India alone burns 1,692 MT of fossil fuels and emits 1,870MT of greenhouse gases per annum. This increase in deforestation has been in order to accommodate increasing demands for food, fuel and development. Deforestation alone emits 2.9 billion tonnes of carbon annually. Dr Josep Canadell stated that ‘if you were to stop deforestation tomorrow, the World’s established and growing forests would remove half of fossil fuel emissions’. Wooded areas across the planet soak up fully a 1/3 of the fossil fuels released into the atmosphere each year -some 2.4 billion tons of carbon. How are we to promote this?

The Western Ghats in southern India is one of the 8 top ecological hotspots in the world and it has been estimated that tropical rainforest regrowth is removing an average of 1.6 billion tonnes of carbon a year. The coffee plantations, with their biodiversity and pristine forests, provide a “carbon sink” that reverse some of the effects of climate change. The Karnataka’s Growers Federation (KGF) estimated that the plantations provided 1.5 million hectares of carbon-reducing area and that one acre of trees produces enough oxygen for 18 people every day. Coffee plants grow between many different species of tree such as sandalwood, mahogany, teak, silver oak and cedar. In many of the plantations coffee is also interspersed with other foods and cash crops. This process not only conserves soil and forests but protects the micro-climate. These coffee ranges are home to wildlife sanctuaries, national parks and biodiversity plantations. One estate I visited engaged in waste management, had compost heaps, irrigation systems and man-made lakes, and barely used pesticides. The berries are handpicked and processed by local villagers –often female.

Despite the benefits of shade-grown coffee, global warming and climate change are threatening many of the coffee plantations. Not only is coffee not native to India, with the beans growing best in volcanic soil and needing near constant rain, but the conditions have been aggravated by the recent erratic weather and late monsoon rains. This climate change coupled with worldwide shortage of prime grade beans has impacted coffee prices and the industry in general. Consecutive droughts, high pest and disease epidemics as well as little credit flow have led to the abandonment of estates and deforestation. Alternate crops are being grown and forests replaced by other tree species. The changing fortunes of coffee have led to the plant being labelled a ‘disaster crop’ by the UN. The UID says that Indian farmer with the present source of agricultural income will rarely be sustainable. Shockingly, a study by Bitter Beans noted that in the 2003 and 2004 price crash 120 farmers in the state of Kerala committed suicide. With all these problems and limitations, it is easy to have a pessimistic view of India’s coffee-growing future.

This is where we need to step in. You might read this and think that the challenges are too big or that the problems are too varied. Though I don’t deny that many of the issues that the farmers face are unlikely to be resolved any time soon, there are a number of both short-term and long-term solutions. The reality of it is that farmers are commercially driven. They adapt to demand, need and circumstance. They are only recently recognising their value to the environment and the importance that shade-grown coffee might have commercially. Few people know that India produces coffee, let alone that it can do it in a sustainable and ecologically-friendly way. A start would be for people to recognise the plight of Indian farmers. International fora and organisations (including the UN REDD) rarely mention Indian coffee farmers. Brazil, Columbia, Vietnam and some African countries continue to dominate discussion. The lack of global recognition gives no incentive to the Indian Government to give greater support to the farmers. Certainly, government bodies do exist such as the Coffee Board but coffee growers rarely qualify for the economic benefits offered to carbon sensitive companies and organisations. Given a greater economic incentive, many of the small-scale farmers would reconsider before selling their plantation to agro-industries or converting to different crops. When I was in the Hassan region I discussed with the farmers the idea of marketing their coffee to highlight its ecological benefits. Increasingly, growers are having more active role in the production line as well as the growing process. Unfortunately, Indian coffee isn’t as popular in the supermarkets as it should be and continues to be used mainly as a filler. The next time you buy coffee, however, take a look at the label and pick an Indian blend.

Eco-tourism is another way of highlighting the problems that Indian farmers face and providing them with further economic support. The farmers are sensitive to some of the negative effects tourism can have on local communities. The KGF and state of Karnataka have rejected several motions passed by the government and other organisations such as UNESCO to broaden tourism there. The tourism that the farmers do support includes things like guesthouses, tours of the plantations and walks around the area whilst also promoting their sustainable shade-grown coffee. Planning a trip to India? Visit Hassan, Mysore or Chikmagalur and stay with one of the growers there. Many of them refuse to promote their guesthouses in tourist guidebooks or on the internet but once in situ there are a surprising number of them. Tourism can be limited and maintained in a manageable and respected manner. It also provides a means to shore up resources for lean coffee seasons.

While I was in India we worked on some of the long-term solutions for the coffee growers.  These might start with greater interaction between farmers and organisations, local, national and global. We also focused on developing the relationship between the government and the growers. This, we established, was best done through the coffee growing associations which have been in place for over a century. The farming community is a strong one and many of their leaders have some excellent suggestions for the future and care a lot about their environment. For many individuals, their livelihoods, culture and families depend on the coffee beans. The forests are often tied to folk tales and nature is worshipped within the Hindu faith. Education was also an important factor to be considered. There are very few local educational institutions and none that specialise in coffee growing. Many of the techniques used by the farmers have been passed on for generations and few have been formalised or put to paper. There should be a greater access to knowledge which should cross gender and class boundaries and explicitly promote shade-grown coffee. This would also limit urban migration which is occurring at a staggering pace.

I have touched briefly on a number of the different problems that the coffee growers face and my solutions are far from satisfactory. Organisations such as Oxfam and Centre for Social Markets are doing their best to overcome these injustices as well as promote the sustainable and eco-friendly nature of a great part of the Indian coffee-growing industry. If there is one thing I would want this article to accomplish it would be to raise awareness of shade-grown coffee: its existence, and its benefits. So many people do not even know that India produces coffee or the processes, methods and sometimes destruction involved behind each cup of coffee. Something to think about the next time you take a sip from your early morning cup.

Blog written by Hester Carro, St. Hughs
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