save the Western Ghats!
By Aparna Datta
From the air, a wide-angle view of the Western Ghats in southern
India would show a carpet of green, shola forests and grasslands
interrupted here and there by craggy outcrops.
Zoom in closer – in certain sections of Chikmagalur
and Kodagu districts in Karnataka and Wyanad in Kerala, the
tall ficus, white cedars and mahogany trees belie the coffee
bushes and pepper vines growing in symbiotic harmony.
Now, imagine this. Huge swathes of barren land, stripped
of the trees that have been logged for timber, the coffee
bushes burnt to clear the land for some other cash crop, even
Apocalyptic? Yes. Scare-mongering? Not quite. With the prices
of coffee the world over at record lows, there is a real concern
of an impending ecological disaster in the Western Ghats,
should the coffee industry go into terminal decline.
Pioneer British planters started the commercial production
of coffee in the late 1820s, primarily in Chikmagalur and
Coorg. By 1870, around 1,20,000 hectares had been planted
with coffee. Subsequently, pests, disease and poor prices
whittled down the plantations, reaching a low of 72,400 hectares
During the last 50 years, significant strides have been made
in the development of disease-resistant varieties of coffee
and in plantation management practices, with the Coffee Board’s
research and extension wings playing a pivotal role. Today,
India has bout 3,40,000 hectares of private coffee plantations,
a majority of which are in the states of Karnataka, Kerala
and Tamil Nadu.
The estates co-exist side-by-side with national parks teeming
with flora and fauna. Wild boars and elephants still roam
freely through the plantations and, being 100 per cent tree-shaded,
the coffee estates support extensive bird-life.
Ornithologists have conclusively proved that one need not
go only to bird sanctuaries to observe birds – a coffee
estate would do as well! During the monsoons, the tree cover
acts as a sponge and later feeds life-giving water to the
east and west flowing rivers.
All this indicates the importance of coffee to the ecology
of the Western Ghats. Over a span of nearly 200 years, the
industry has integrated seamlessly into the region. Any change
in land-use could have serious consequences in an area that
is considered one of the world’s hot-spots in terms
This, then, is a wake-up call for environmentalists, consumer
activists and voluntary organizations! An entire region is
under threat. If the coffee industry goes under, it will impact
not just the environment but the local community as well.
India has around 1,40,300 coffee plantations, with more than
98 per cent being owned by small growers holding 10 hectares
or less, micro-enterprise at its best. Estate labour accounts
for over 5,35,000 persons. Factor in the number of dependants
and those directly or indirectly involved with the industry
and a potentially explosive picture emerges.
What’s to be done? Quite simply: drink more coffee!
The annual per capita consumption of coffee in India is a
measly 55 gm (2001) and 70 gm (2005), with only 20 per cent
of coffee production being absorbed locally, and over 80 per
cent being exported. The vagaries of international trade imply
that, for the stability of the Indian coffee industry, the
long-term solution is to increase domestic consumption.
Environmentalists who understand the linkages have a crucial
role to play. With their flair for advocacy and networking,
activists could play a significant role in weaning youth away
from colas and putting them onto a coffee-track.
This is not the time to gripe about the effluents produced
by the washing of coffee beans, or on the use of pesticides
and chemical fertilizers. Instead, positive energy should
go into sensitizing the community, growers and consumers alike.
In any case, many growers are converting to organic cultivation
and this supports the move towards sustainable coffee.
Back to the clarion call: Drink Indian coffee! With quantitative
restrictions being lifted from April 2001, expect to see Colombian,
Indonesian and Vietnamese coffees entering the domestic markets.
Here again, consumer activists have a watch-dog role in checking
the origin of coffee served at retail outlets; in running
awareness campaigns for retailers and the general public.
Choice is all very well, but not when it hurts the domestic
industry, not when in cup quality the better Indian coffees
rate pretty well. Coffee is a swadeshi beverage. ‘Buying
Indian’ takes on a new meaning once the socio-economics
behind a cup of coffee are understood.
Trouble is, certain policies actually inhibit the penetration
of coffee in India. Take, for instance, the high duties of
35 to 70 per cent levied on various types of coffee equipment
– roasting machines, vending machines, espresso machines.
The Indian consumer today is more experiential and dispensing
systems must match the enhanced expectations. The Finance
Ministry would do well to reduce the customs duties that would
help expand the consumer franchise.
Some initiatives are being taken by coffee growers to popularize
Indian coffee. These grassroots efforts could gain momentum
via environmentalists, consumer activists and community-based
organizations. Consumers at large must embrace the movement.
To maintain the social and environmental integrity of the
Western Ghats, nothing short of a revolution will do.
© Aparna Datta, 2001
Published in The Economic Times,
Bangalore February 5, 2001