Saturday, 23 April 2011

For the love of coffee

Before the Café Coffee Days, there was Baba Budan and his 7 coffee beans.
Baba Budan, a 17th century Sufi Saint, smuggled 7 coffee beans into India from Yemen, thereby, part breaking the Arab monopoly over coffee. The story goes that Baba Budan smuggled out 7 coffee beans from Al Muckha (Mocha), a port city in Yemen. Between the 15th and 17th century, Mocha was the main market place for coffee trading. It is from this Red Sea port of Mocha, that the English word mocha has its origin.

Coffee arabica plant and seed
While the earliest history of coffee goes back to antiquity - there is evidence that point to the existence of the coffee plant in 13th century Ethiopia. Till the mid 17th century or so, the Arab rulers enjoyed their monopoly over coffee. They did what they could to ensure that the cultivation did not spread – so they would strip the bean of its outer layer, roast it  and render it infertile. They banned the export of the coffee bean – it could be taken out only if it was boiled or roasted so as to prevent the bean from germinating. Coffee had been colonized.

This is why Baba Budan, an Indian pilgrim to Mecca, had to smuggle his 7 beans out of Yemen. It was not just Baba Budan who broke the coffee colonization, there was fierce competition between the European colonizers to get hold of coffee. It was the Dutch who in the late 17th century first managed to get some seeds and attempted to grow coffee in their colonies.   The Dutch were by now already growing some coffee in the Malabar region of India as well as in their other far eastern colonies.  And before you knew, the British started coffee plantations in Jamaica -the rest is cruel ,colonial  history.

There are myriads of stories of how coffee found its way out of Arabia and how it was transported by colonizers, travelers, wanderers, investors ,missionaries   and traders  – with the rise in the demand for coffee, came a rise in the demand for sugar, both becoming important commodities. Coffee was a commodity that formed part of the trade triangle – from England to Africa to the Americas. Coffee houses sprang up and became meeting places and were centers of social interaction.

But behind all this energy and movement, the story is really not sweet. The well-known coffee historian, Antony Wild, in his book “Coffee :  A Dark History”, takes us to the early days of the history of coffee, on how the, European merchants came across it in Arabia and brought it to Europe. Soon hugely popular, they quickly realized that they could make more money if they planted coffee themselves, in their plantations, using slave labour in their tropical, colonial outposts. Coffee was now on its way to becoming global – from the colonies in Caribbean to  the colonies in Java – coffee was leaving its footprint.

As Antony Wild says, this is the legacy of coffee – tropical countries produce it and rich countries drink it. Even today this legacy is almost true . Quite unlike tea – countries that produce tea mostly drink it.

Meanwhile, on his return to India, after Mecca, Baba Budan planted the Arabica  beans in the hills of Chandragiri, situated in today's Chikmagalur district of Karnataka– and thus is the story of the birth of Indian coffee. Today ,India produces almost 4.5% of the world’s coffee, grown mostly by small and medium growers, and is grown mostly in the three main Southern States of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, with Karnataka contributing to 72% of what is grown. (A little bit is also grown in the Northeast and Andhra Pradesh). With the rise of urban India there is a rise in coffee shops – coffee bars are becoming ubiquitous in urban India. 

The once less known South Indian filter "kaapi" , served piping hot in steel tumbler with a small dabarah (cannot find a similar word in English) for cooling, has now morphed into  cappuccinos and lattés , finding its way onto menus across India’s burgeoning cities and youth.

India’s coffee is both special and unique  - right from its planting to its traditional style of drinking.  And that is really the idea behind this blog post. It is not to re-tell the well known but bitter history of coffee but more to inform about its current crisis and uncertain future.

Indian coffee is the finest shade growing coffee in the world and it is rare because all the coffee grown in India ,is grown in natural conditions , is dependant on monsoon rain and thrives in shade growing areas. There are close to 250,000 coffee planters in India – of which 98% are small farmers, cultivating on less than 10 hectares. There is almost no mechanization – it is labour intensive , employing about 2 million people  directly thereby generating rural livelihood.

Drive through any coffee growing district in South India – From Coorg to Chikmagalur and what you will discover are verdant coffee forests, acres of coffee estates full of all kinds of   trees with coffee growing under a thick canopy of natural shade, often mixed with ginger, pepper and vanilla . With most of the  coffee estates located in the Western Ghats, coffee forests are located in biodiversity hotspots that have a high level of endemism, bio diversity and wide array of flora and fauna. From Indian mahogany, to teak and  sandalwood , to the silver oak, and white cedar, trees stand majestically  tall . It is almost as if the forests nurture and protect the coffee berries  . Maintaining forests ensure a healthy coffee crop and the coffee planters almost has a sacred relationship with nature. There are wide species of  butterflies and birds . Protected wildlife parks often dot the region. Elephants wander about, sometimes destroying coffee plants  - the  famous langur, slender loris, ,spotted deer are some of the animals that live in the region.

And here’s the other thing – five major South Indian rivers have its origin in coffee estates, the most popular one being the  River Cauvery -that starts in the coffee growing region of Coorg.  Here the river is venerated and worshipped as Goddess Cauvery – as a protector of their land.  Coffee is so closely linked to the elements – and over time the coffee growers have developed  a deep tradition to preserve   rivers and forests.

But the picture is not  about the sweet fragrance of the coffee plant in bloom or misty rolling mountains. It is about a rapid change in climate that has resulted in rising temperatures and unseasonal  rains , sometimes heavier rainfalls , periods of   drought and flooding ,prolonged higher day time temperatures and sudden drop in night time temperature – all climatic impacts  that have resulted in lowered yields that are making coffee cultivation almost economically unviable.  There is a growing need to invest in technology to adapt to changing and unpredictable weather patterns but since the farmer is small, these are not always accessible or possible. There is a shift that is taking place. Slowly growers are selling their estates, part by part, the price the land fetches for the timber it holds, is more profitable than cultivating coffee in a climate changing world. More worrying is that there are no takers in the next generation as high profits on coffee cultivation start to dim.

So is coffee all about  about cash and commerce ? Is its  value limited to   commodity indices  and high menu prices? Does no one recognize its intrinsic value and its role in maintaining  biodiversity, acting as a carbon sink, globally sequestering about 6 billion kgs of carbon,  and  conserving wildlife and ecosystems ?The value of coffee lies way beyond  its economic price tag – its value in providing ecological services is indeed priceless.

During my recent visit to Chikmagalur, I met a coffee planter who said that he himself had personally planted over 100,000 trees in his life time –  this was way before the world was hot on climate change , carbon trading and clean development mechanism. And standing on his coffee estate I thought to myself - indeed these small planters are not Gordon Gekko s children !

The silent coffee planter that protects India s rich biodiversity and forests, does not need   a trading mechanism to protect our natural resources and create a better world. What he needs is for his voice to be heard while a different crisis brews.
It is indeed time to wake up and smell the coffee.


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  2. Don't Know who gave you this bit of information, that " of which 98% are small farmers, cultivating on less than 10 hectares."
    It's incorrect. Do visit again and get it right. Most of the coffee estates are owned by landlords, some of them residing in Bengaluru.They have 'writers' as they are called, who look after production.They own vast hectares of land and most of them are Gowda's.

  3. Dear Anonymous
    Yes ,there are big planters - some even owning over 10,000 acres and yes, they have writers managing their estates- these are few in number owning large tracts of land . But my story is not about them. My story is about the small holder -they are very much there and struggle.

  4. Hardly 10 days after I posted this, Financial Express published an article "Unseasonal rains to pull down coffee production this year" (May 2nd)

    Here is the link

  5. The article is good and throws some insight to the importance of shade grown Indian coffee, the impact of climate change and how it has affected the small growers. Viva your correct there 98.5% of coffee growers who are small and this the most vulnerable section. The international community should look towards the role of carbon sequestration in coffee plantations and how this can be protected by supporting the small coffee growers
    Karnataka Growers' Federation

  6. Great post - its high time attention is drawn to the problems that the coffee planters in south india face. As a daughter of a coffee planter from Coorg, your article hits the nail on the head. I see my family struggling in dealing with crazy weather patterns - coupled with labour issues and the pull of urbanisation which is making young Coorgs leave their plantations - its no more a vialbe option - selling the land to develop commercially is very lucrative and this is a trend that even Coorg is witnessing today.
    Thank you for your contribution in raising awareness
    Cheppudira Nikki Ponappa
    Attur Village South Kodagu

  7. A nice article...but ...."the silent coffee planter that protects India s rich biodiversity and forests, does not need a trading mechanism to protect our natural resources and create a better world. What he needs is for his voice to be heard while a different crisis brews.
    It is indeed time to wake up and smell the coffee." is not entirely correct! He needs a trading mechanism and that's why Coffee Board exists.

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  9. Dear Broadwit
    Thanks for your comment :-)
    I am not sure if a trading mechanism will solve the problem - I think climate risk needs to be addressed -access to finance and technology for adaptation is key, Coffee plantations in south india cover about 475,000 hectares and have about 80 million trees - this is a huge carbon sink. If coffee is no longer economically viable and planters forced to sell and get out of coffee, there will be massive de-forestation. That will be disaster as the first casulty will be water. Most of rivers in karnataka orignate in coffee plantations . And there is the other issue of labour as well -so lots of challenges which can be over come - we need to have both sustainable production as well as sustainable consumption. I just met some coffee planters 3 days ago - and already there is dread - the monsoons have been weak this year in Sakleshpur ...and its not looking good.

  10. Dear Viva. I am glad I stumbled upon your blog during my search for the situation for coffee in India. I am originally from Mumbai and now work in Italy for Slow Food ( and am wondering if you could help me. I am looking for small-scale coffee producers who maybe grow a coffee species or type that is on the brink of extinction and where the traditiona and culture are intrinsicly linked wih this species of coffee. The reason for this is that Slow Food has many biodiversity related projects related to the local culture and tradition. A good example in this case is an Ethiopian coffee ( I would love to include Indian coffee as well as from what I read, there is a need to encourage people to continue doing this to keep our rich cultural (and biodiversity) heritage. If I may request, it would help me tremendously if you are able to give me some contacts of either producers themselves or small co-operatives so that I can maybe start the process. What do you think? If you wish, please feel free to email me at Many thanks in advance.

  11. Hello Viva,

    Are you trying to say technology replacing labour to a certain extent will solve the labour unavailability problem? Will that decrease the cost of production?

  12. Dear Viva,
    Congratulations for writing such a fine piece on Indian coffee. The impact of increasing weather variability on coffee plantation can hardly be overestimated in present times. I am a research scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru university(JNU), Delhi and I am working on small coffee growers' understanding of climate change. It would help me immensely if you can share with me contacts of few small scale coffee growers in Karnataka region especially Coorg and Chikmanglur.
    On a different note, I would love to invite you to our centre (Centre for studies in Science policy CSSP/JNU) to share your view on Indian coffee.
    please do write to me at
    Eagerly waiting for your response.

  13. Dear Viva,

    I am a German student studying Environmental Policy in the Netherlands. Due to my master thesis I am currently in India investigating different perceptions on climate change. I would really like to contact you. I already tried it via csm but I didnt get any response yet.

    Please let me know if there is any way to contact you.

    Thank you and best regards,

  14. Dear Simon
    I am sorry that we did not respond to you - do email me at viva at

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