Tracking those cup o’Joes

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We Indians love our coffee, but do we really care where it is coming from? Is it organic, does it harm the biodiversity or conserve it? What kinds of practices are adopted? Come to think of it, considering the amount of coffee we consume, there could not be a better time than now, to start dwelling on these questions. 

A coffee addict and a conservationist, Arshiya Bose, aware of the ecological footprint of each cup of coffee she consumes, started by not only being a conscious consumer but also initiated a similar change among others through her establishment, Black Baza Coffee — where wildlife conservation and incentivised shade-grown coffee production go hand in hand.

Having completed a PhD in Sustainable coffee certifications and Biodiversity conservation from the University of Cambridge, in the year 2014, Arshiya has come a long way in applying theories on ground.

“India is one of the few countries in the world where shade-grown coffee has been the norm for over 180 years. It’s now, in the recent past, that these practices have been compromised for quicker yields and better profits,” says Arshiya, who spent several years investigating the practices and challenges of coffee growers in Coorg. The coffee estates in the Western Ghats host several wildlife species — right from myriad species of migratory birds to small mammals.

While she understands the need to protect these species, Arshiya believes it can be best achieved by positively engaging coffee growers by incentivising best practices. She started her project with a few coffee growers in Kodagu, on three estates. “The process of engaging has been slow and yet fruitful. I approached farmers and explained the sustainable and long-term benefits of shade-grown coffee. The farmers agree to adopt certain practices and we buy their coffee in return and ensure improved economic returns. The practices don’t just help sustain wildlife, but improves the water and air quality, besides the health of the soil.”

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The farmers grow coffee under the shade of forest trees, keeping at least 60 per cent tree canopy cover — a minimum of 100 trees and 20 species of indigenous trees per acre. “We reforest farms by planting rare and endemic forest trees that provide critical habitat for a wide variety of wildlife. Streams, rivulets and ponds on farms and surrounds are protected from harmful effluents and of course, no chemical pesticides are used,” explains Arshiya.

Though a majority of coffee growers still ensure their estates harbour several species of native trees — the demand for quicker yields is pushing more farmers to plant exotic species like the silver oak (Grevillea robusta) that affect the condition of the land. Explains Arshiya, “The big exotic tree is silver oak, increasingly the most common shade tree especially for new conversions to coffee. An average plantation usually has 20-30 per cent shade cover, 60-80 trees per acre, where over 20 per cent of all trees are silver oak with less than 10 species of trees per acre. In our plantations, we have over 60 per cent shade cover, 100 trees per acre, and less than 20 per cent of all trees are silver oak. We plant over 22 species of different native trees per acre.”

Know your source
Talking about fair-trade market practices, Arshiya says, “Just certifying healthy practices won’t benefit farmers. The kind of market they are exposed to matters most. We want people to be more conscious of the kind of coffee they drink everyday and know more about the farmer who grows it for them,” she asserts.

Arshiya, through her enterprise, ensures that farmers are economically benefited for their practices and a coffee drinker feels proud to be involved in conservation by making right choices.

Arshiya has been monitoring the impact for the last few years, including camera trapping to document wildlife in the estates. “We measure the impact of our changed farming practices through monitoring the diversity of trees, birds, insects, mammals and all sorts of biodiversity. Our estates support a range of wildlife species.”

Many of these species may frequent several neighbouring coffee farms too, but Arshiya believes these protected patches of coffee estates can be potential roosting spots for several birds and a safe habitat for diverse small mammal and macro-life in the future.

The article was published in the Deccan Herald

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