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A unique eco-certification initiative in Kodagu’s famous coffee estates offers fresh hope for preserving native rainforests of the Western Ghats that ensures more water in the Kaveri River

Growing coffee in the shade of evergreen trees in Kogadu. (Photo by Gopikrishna Warrier)

Growing coffee in the shade of evergreen trees in Kodagu. (Photo by Gopikrishna Warrier)

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when coffee farmers in Kodagu district of Karnataka grew their plants only under the canopy of evergreen forests they had inherited. Now they prefer to grow it under the sun, which has serious implications for the Western Ghats and on the waters of the Kaveri River.

More and more farmers are now letting trees such as Dadup (Erythrina subumbrans), Arecanut (Areca catechu), Balanji (Acrocarpus fraxnifolius) and Jackfruit (Acrocarpus heterophyllus) die so that the canopy can be opened up and they can grow sun-loving coffee varieties that produce more berries and beans, resulting in higher returns. Instead of the big trees, they are now planting exotic Silver Oaks (Grevillea robusta), whose pole-like trunk can be used as a support for the climbing pepper vines, which help boosting incomes. The proliferation of Silver Oaks has made it one of the more common trees in some parts of the area.

This transition has a larger ecosystem cost. Kodagu, earlier known as Coorg, is located on the western edge of the Mysore Plateau, at an average altitude of 800 metres, as it lifts up to the crest of the Western Ghats ridge (altitude above 1,500 m) and then falls sharply westwards into Kerala. The plateau mainly slopes eastwards, with the streams and rivers joining to form the Kaveri River, which is the lifeline for millions of people in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry.

With insufficient rains over the Western Ghats during this year’s southwest monsoon, there is a shortage of water in the reservoirs across the Kaveri in Karnataka. This has led to the flaring of the water-sharing dispute with the lower riparian state of Tamil Nadu in recent days. While this acrimony continues, payment for ecosystem services measures are being worked out in Kodagu district so that coffee farmers protect the forests under which they grow their crop, thereby preserving the water flow into the Cauvery. These measures also help to maintain the climate resilience in the river’s catchment and command areas.

With the forest-like mixed-tree canopy in coffee plantations disappearing, the torrential rains of the southwest monsoon flows quickly down the streams, carrying valuable topsoil away and causing floods followed by long dry periods downstream.

Paying for ecosystem services

The Kodagu farmers are being encouraged through payment for ecosystem services (PES), in the form of eco-certification, to continue with their traditional coffee cultivation under the shade of mixed species of trees. This will help strengthen the ecosystem services they receive from the unique landscape of Kodagu, and also strengthen similar services and climate resilience of all those relying on the waters of the Kaveri downstream.

The concept of eco-certified coffee, whose certification process ensures that coffee is grown under mixed-species trees, has gained popularity in the district in the past five years. Close to 900 coffee farmers have converted to eco-certified coffee. Even with a conservative estimate of 10 acre per farmer, this means nearly 10,000 acres of eco-certified coffee. In addition, with Tata Coffee getting all of its 13 estates eco-certified, Kodagu district has at least 20,000 acres under coffee cultivation that aims to minimise damage to the environment.

As an incentive for protecting the environment, the coffee farmers get a premium above the market price for their coffee beans. Coffee is the major agricultural produce from Kodagu, with 33% of the district landscape under its cultivation. About 38% of India’s coffee production comes from the district.

Ecologically, Kodagu district has been identified as a micro hotspot of biodiversity under the larger Western Ghats region. Rightly so, since the western crest of the mountainous district is in the direct path of the southwest monsoon. The dark clouds heavy with rain dump much water over the district. While the western edge of the district receives above 5,000 mm of rainfall on an average, it reduces to around 1,200 mm in the east. Most of the water feeds into the Kaveri.

According to a report by the College of Forestry at Ponnampet in Kodagu, natural forested ecosystems cover an area of 46% of the total area of the district. These include evergreen, semi evergreen, moist deciduous, dry deciduous and scrub forest types, and even the high-altitude shola-grassland ecosystem. Traditionally, coffee is grown in the shade of these forests. Coffee estates in Kogadu have on an average 350 trees per hectare, compared with 270 in degraded groves and 640 trees per hectare in the nearby Brahagiri Wildlife Sanctuary, making these estates amongst the densest agro-forestry systems in the world.

“Very few landscapes across the world grow coffee in the way in which Kodagu does,” said C.G. Kushalappa, university head for forestry and environment sciences at the College of Forestry, Ponnampet in Kodagu. “We grow both Arabica and Robusta coffee under the shade of the trees. Our shade-grown Robusta fetch a premium price. When grown under the shade, the berries mature slowly and fill out better. They have good cupping (taste) quality.”

Coffee plants are increasing being cultivated under exotic Silver Oak trees. (Photo by S. Gopikrishna Warrier)

Coffee plants are increasing being cultivated under exotic Silver Oak trees. (Photo by S. Gopikrishna Warrier)

However, he needed scientific data to convince the coffee farmers and the district administration that there was strong ecosystem benefit in maintaining the traditional shade-growing methods. The opportunity for doing this research emerged when the College of Forestry was chosen as the lead institute in India to carry out the Coffee Agro-Forestry Network (CAFNET) study to understand the environmental services from this unique landscape.

Financed by the European Commission, the study was jointly conducted by the College of Forestry, the Coffee Board, the French Institute at Puducherry, CIRAD (the French national agricultural research system) and Bangor University from the United Kingdom between 2007 and 2011.

Rich local knowledge

The study noted that the multi-storeyed coffee agro-forestry system developed and sustained by the farmers based on their local knowledge is one of the most diverse production systems in the world. The traditional coffee agro-forestry system sustains diverse animal, bird, plant and microorganisms, and provide biodiversity, carbon sequestration and water-related ecosystem services. Since multiple crops such as pepper, mandarin oranges, vanilla and timber is also grown in these systems, they help provide resilience to farmers when they are hit by coffee price volatility.

The CAFNET report recommended that coffee farmers growing Arabica and Robusta under shade trees should be paid for the ecosystem services that their farms provide, so that they can protect biodiversity and therefore water in the Cauvery. Two methodologies for PES suggested was eco-certification and geographical indications protection for Kodagu coffee.

Eco-certification of coffee farms in Kodagu started as a follow-up to this recommendation. Coffee farmer B.B. Thammaiah says his interest was piqued when students from the College of Forestry came to his farm to carry out biodiversity studies. “After the studies I was told about the uniqueness of the method in which I grow coffee, and I went in for eco-certification,” he said.

The two eco-certifications that have been popularly accepted are from the Rainforest Alliance and Utz. Coffee grower K.K. Naren in Kunda village near Ponnampet says that the main benefit from the eco-certification process is that the farmers are trained in good practices that have good environmental benefits and improve the working and living conditions for the workers. “The economic benefit is not much. It is more of training for us, which will be beneficial in the long run. The eco-certification process educates the coffee farmers about the environment.”

Importance of native trees

The most important lesson from the training relating to the eco-certification was the understanding on the importance of native trees, Naren said. “It is not that we didn’t know about native trees but we were not that keen on maintaining them. The native trees do not give good financial returns, so we gave importance to silver oak.”

According to Naren, the Rainforest Alliance eco-certification process looks at whether native shade trees are present. The certifiers and auditors also look at labour management, whether the minimum labour wage is paid and the cleanliness around the labour quarters. They are very strict about not using child labour. “They also look at the way chemicals are used. They are not saying no to chemicals but there are restrictions to some chemicals and the way the rest are used. They are keen that we should not use pesticides of chemicals near the rivers or tanks. They give importance to maintain local environment.”

Individual planters like Thammaiah and Naren got an opportunity, through the eco-certificaion process, to access the international market through a Swiss procurement agency that buys higher quality coffee. Both of them sell their eco-certified coffee to Ecom Gill, who procures the eco-certified produce for supply to Nespresso.

B.B. Thammaiah in his coffee farm where the plants are grown under the shade of native evergreen trees. (Photo by S. Gopikrishna Warrier)

B.B. Thammaiah in his coffee farm where the plants are grown under the shade of native evergreen trees. (Photo by S. Gopikrishna Warrier)

For Tata Global Beverages Ltd and its production subsidiary Tata Coffee Ltd, the move to eco-certification of all of its 13 estates in Kodagu was an important step in the process to make its supply chain sustainable. According to Anurag Priyadarshi, global sustainability manager for Tata Global Beverages, one of the guiding principles that the group has adopted is to source sustainability. For this, all their estates in Kodagu have been eco-certified by Rainforest Alliance and Utz.

“Through the eco-certification process we are trying to ensure good management practices for the ecosystem, energy, water, waste, soil and agro-chemicals. We ensure the safety of the produce and also occupational health of the workers. Ultimately we want to prevent the impacts of climate change,” he said.

M.B. Ganapathy, head of plantations for Tata Coffee, said the company is aware about the fact that they are growing coffee in Kodagu, which is a biodiversity hotspot in the Western Ghats. “We have recognised this fact and that is the reason that our vision is to enhance the ecological wealth we have inherited. The eco-certification helps us safeguard the environment.”

Challenges remain

However, the rapid spread of the eco-certification process has also raised some hiccups which need to be overcome, states T.R. Shankar Raman, scientist at the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), whose organisation was involved with helping Rainforest Alliance with the certification in the initial years. The three points of concern, according to him, is the very rapid pace at which certification is being done; the relative absence of biologists and social scientists in the auditing process; and the dilution of conservation standards (like the requisite number of native species and canopy cover) in subsequent versions of the certification guidelines.

“While the rapid certification has more and more farmers being eco-certified, we hope the rigour of the process continues to be maintained, so that the end result of conserving the native vegetation is not compromised,” Raman observed.

With more farmers opting for eco-certification, there is a movement towards the protection of the traditional methods of coffee cultivation under the shade of mixed-tree species. For the process to strengthen the farmers should continue to get good economic benefit for their eco-certified produce.

According to Naren, if there is at least 10% more returns from the eco-certified coffee remains constant then there will be an incentive for the opting for opting for the process. At present the price at which procurement agencies such as Ecom Gill buy is linked to the international market price, plus a premium of Rs 60 to Rs 80 for a 50 kg bag of sun-dried cherries. The international prices fluctuate in relation to the local market prices, and as with the current situation can go below the domestic price.

However, Kushalappa says that in addition to the premium, there are other incentives and bonuses for producing good quality coffee beans. The average increase in price above the local market price was around 15% last year, which is well worth the effort.

If additional income for coffee farmers from eco-certification can help conserve unique agro-forestry ecosystem of Kodagu, then it will be the water flow into the Cauvery that would be conserved. Millions of people downstream, including the residents of Bengaluru and other parts of peninsular India, will thank the coffee farmers upstream for their drinking water and climate resilience.


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