Coffee that will keep the Cauvery flowing

The cauvery evokes strong emotions. It brings angry people to the streets; chief ministers fast demanding its water. And why not? This water brings life to millions. From mega cities like Bengaluru to industries and farmers across Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and even Puducherry and Kerala, all want a share of its water.

Where is this water coming from? Kodagu, formerly known as Coorg, is the region in the Western Ghats where the river originates. This land of forest, coffee, spices and paddy brings some 50 per cent of the river’s water. What I learnt on my recent travel to Kodagu tells me that it is time we thought long and deep about the origins of our rivers. Their birth is our life.

This region provides us a mosaic of nature’s best. Here, unlike in many other parts of the world, natural landscapes are made productive by human intervention. The extensive coffee, pepper and paddy plantations improve recharge and keep the river alive. The question environmental activists are asking is whether this will change as new developments creep into this bit of paradise. But the question I am asking is different: what is the development model that will work in this ecological hot spot—a way in which we value the river but can develop and grow to meet new aspirations and challenges?

One major change that was pointed out to me was the switch towards “sun coffee”. Let me explain. In this region coffee is traditionally grown in shade. The best coffee plantations are those with 30 to 50 per cent shade. Trees are grown between coffee plants to provide shade. On these trees, spices like pepper are grown. This brings farmers extra income. But this practice of “shade coffee” cannot compete with “sun coffee”, where no trees are grown and all the land is used for plantation. I learnt from coffee planters in Kodagu that while “sun coffee” farmers can get up to 1.5 tonnes of coffee per acre (0.4 hectare), “shade coffee” productivity is lower—some 0.75 to 1 tonne per acre. The productivity of organic coffee is even less at 0.5 tonne per acre. The premium paid for organic coffee does not make up for the difference, so farmers are switching to “sun coffee”. The delicate mosaic of coffee and trees is breaking apart.

But “sun coffee” is not the only reason. Our lack of appreciation of this natural-human system also brings disruption. When I was in Kodagu I chanced upon a newspaper article about a strict warning from the forest department to the plantation owners that they would not get permission for trimming or felling trees for the next four months of monsoons—a time when they need it most. Why? Because the forest department is short-staffed and will be busy planting trees. Instead of recognising and rewarding a system that plants trees, this forest-style red tape is clearly the worst disincentive. Then the forest department says the permission can be given if the tree is exotic—mainly silver oak—but not if it is indigenous. So, what would you do as a farmer? Another opportunity to build nature’s wealth is lost.

This is not all the disruption. Farmers, particularly lowland paddy growers, are finding it more lucrative to sell their land for housing and tourism projects that are fast taking over in the region. The ideal balance for the Cauvery’s birth is to keep the mosaic of forests and coffee at 30 per cent each, and paddy at least 15 per cent. Then there is the matter of other development projects from roads to railways. All disturb this balance. Farmers’ troubles are exacerbated by the success of forest and wildlife conservation. All across the region, I also heard of how elephant attacks were making workers flee and lands unproductive.

So, what can work? Environmentalists suggest a payment for ecosystem services Kodagu provides. In other words, farmers would be paid for maintaining the mosaic that keeps the river alive. This would create the economic incentive for the forest-coffee-paddy mosaic to thrive. I agree. This clearly is one way ahead. In addition, steps must be taken to improve the productivity of this mosaic itself. This is where tourism can play an important (and not destructive) role. If well-managed and regulated, tourism can work within this mosaic and add to farmers’ income. It means deliberately promoting homestead and nature-friendly tourism, which does not pollute or degrade the environment. Instead it builds on its intrinsic beauty and adds to our knowledge of nature.

This becomes even more important in the age of climate change, which is bringing extreme heat and other weather variations to the region. Coffee is particularly touchy about extreme heat. This year, Vietnam’s coffee productivity is down by 30 per cent because of extreme heat and drought. This is where “shade coffee” will survive. That’s why this biodiversity-rich “shade coffee” should be promoted and indeed celebrated.

So next time you smell your coffee, think of this shade—the trees, the spices, the butterflies, birds, bees, honey and all the other biodiversity. It will keep the Cauvery flowing.

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