Boil milk to 60°C – Check
Weigh out 20 grams of coffee beans – Check
Adjust mill for a medium grind – Check
Add coffee and water in a 1:10 ratio to the filter coffee maker – Check
Smack lips in guilt-free pleasure – Check
As a conservation organisation, our goal is very simple – to bring conservation to everybody’s breakfast table, through coffee. Coffee and forests overlap almost identically. The Brazilian and Columbian milds come from the Amazon. The Costa Rican Tarazzu, Guatemalan, El Salvadorian and Jamaican Blue Mountain coffees come from cloud forests in Central America and surrounds. The Kenyan AA comes from the highland forests around the Mt Kenya region and all of the Southeast Asian super coffees, right from the Vietnamese Robustas, to the Sumatran and Javan beans, to the Arabicas from Papua New Guinea, come from areas that were erstwhile tropical rainforests.
Coffee berries growing on the plant
In India too, coffee plantations are located in the Western Ghats in three southern states – Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu – although cultivation has more recently extended into Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Mizoram and other parts of the Brahmaputra basin. And despite our fancy for Italian or Brazilian coffee, the truth is that India grows some of the most unique coffee in the world. The story of how the Sufi saint Baba Budan smuggled 7 coffee beans into India and planted them in the area now known as Bababudangiri Hills is a well-known tale. The less popular but perhaps more important story is how coffee began to be grown – in forests, amidst the trees, and alongside beasts.
All across the world, in some of the most famous coffee locales, you are mostly likely to get beans from areas where forests were totally clear-felled to plant coffee. This means that in these regions, coffee plantations look like those of tea – endless rolling hills of coffee and one hilltop visible from the next. This method of ‘sun’ coffee is becoming increasingly preferred the world over for its booming productivity. In India however, coffee is entirely shade-grown. We are one of the only countries in the world where 100% of our coffee is grown under the shade of forest trees (disclaimer – for the most part). In most coffee growing regions in India, coffee plants compose the ‘undergrowth’ of a forest mosaic. Many trees found in dense forests also stand tall in coffee farms.
Coffee farms in India are also teeming with wildlife, especially if you look closely underneath leaves or in the soil. Many threatened birds either nest in coffee farms or use them as safe flying pathways between forest fragments. Charismatic elephants are weekly visitors, often ignored but sometimes shooed away for disrupting coffee-picking activities. Our estates support a range of wildlife species including: Flying Squirrels, Malabar Grey Hornbills, Brown Palm Civets, Small Indian Civets, Wild Boar, Mouse Deer and Small-clawed Otters. Both the civet species feed on coffee fruit, and of course, as you know, coffee beans harvested from civet droppings sell at almost 5000 rupees per cup from parts of SE Asia – but that’s not really a part of our strategy!
Coffee plantations commonly act as elephant corridors between fragments of forests.
At first glance, for a harmony-seeking person like me, coffee growing in India sounds perfect. Coffee farms exist. So do trees and wildlife. In reality however, like all coveted things, this harmony too is fleeting. Coffee growing has intensified exponentially in the last three decades. Forests, paddy and fallow lands have been brought under production. Shade trees on farms have been thinned out to allow in sunlight to boost yields. What used to be 100% shade-grown coffee is today less shade-grown and perhaps veering towards sun coffee – yields of coffee are much higher, almost double, if you get rid of shade trees. So, there are major economic incentives to remove trees from the landscape, and that’s why we have also been slowly shifting towards sun coffee. I think earlier, before the onset of irrigation, when people had to depend on trees to protect coffee plants during long, dry summers, the ecological importance of trees was quite relevant. However, as more and more people opt for irrigation, the ecological function of trees or the perceived benefits of having trees has certainly diminished.
Tree canopies are often modified to increase sunlight penetration.
This situation caused me immense coffee-related indigestion – not wholly due to the increased consumption of chemical pesticides and fertilisers that go along with intensified farming. As a conservationist and coffee addict, the knowledge that every cup of coffee destroys 3cm2 of rainforest, just doesn’t sit well. And 1.4 billion cups of coffee are consumed daily. As an aspiring conscious consumer, what must I do? If I want to become aware of the ecological footprint of coffee, where can I access information? If I want to drink filter coffee with minimal ecological impact, can I find it?
So I did what any sensible conservationist would tell me not to – I started a coffee company with the aim of producing the world’s first wildlife-friendly coffee. Our setup is quite straightforward – we operate through conditional agreements with different plantations and buy-back coffee only if the producer is willing to adopt certain farming strategies, which include:
- Keeping minimum 100 indigenous trees per acre
- Keeping a minimum of 20 species of trees per acre
- Restricting all chemical pesticides
- Minimising chemical fertilisers
- Protecting water sources (including adjoining rivers)
- Monitoring biodiversity indicators
Talking to coffee farmers.
For consumer-identification, at the moment, there is no label that differentiates coffees in terms of their ecological impact. ‘Organic’ labels differentiate this only as chemical inputs go, and this is of course, also important. However, there is no label that differentiates farms that grow coffee under the sun, grow coffee under exotic shade, grow coffee under minimal shade, or grow coffee like on our farms – with a high density and diversity of native tree species. In addition to selling coffee, we are in the process of using this exercise and related advocacy with certification agencies etc to develop a ‘biodiversity-friendly’ label that customers will soon be able to identify and therefore select to purchase.
Venturing into a conservation-oriented company isn’t straightforward. On the contrary, it is replete with dilemmas – ethical, moral and pragmatic. We may come out the other end with a project that has no impact at all – a coffee company that trades ginormous volumes, imposes rigid rules on producers but has little meaningful conservation or social impact. Or we could be too small, reaching only ten plantations in ten years. There is no ready prescription for the path we need to take but the ball has been set rolling. As we roll, we will continue to reflect on our work and its contribution to the sustainable coffee movement.
Until then, filter kaapi zindabaad!