The elephant in your coffee

Got a cup of coffee in hand as you read the paper this morning? Much of the coffee we drink in India is grown in the hilly, southern districts of Coorg, Wayanad and Nilgiris. To the east of these picturesque and popular holiday destinations is a vast tract of impoverished dry-land agriculture. Farmers here have traditionally grown rain-fed crops of millets, pulses and oilseeds.

While coffee is grown by the relatively well-off, farmers in the plains rarely have the capital to invest into seeds and fertilisers each sowing season. They borrow from local moneylenders, who charge annual interest rates between 40 and 300 percent. Few farmers are able to repay these debts, which turn into crippling inheritances passing from father to son.

For decades, this was the saga of farming here. But since the 1990s, a massive but quiet economic revolution has unfolded, driven by trade in a rather unusual commodity.

Cattle dung. Nearly all the 30,000 farmers in these dry-lands keep cattle, mainly as draught animals and also for dung, traditionally an important input into farming. Farmers began selling this humble cow-dung because it fetched a far higher price than chemical fertilisers: for the price of one kilo of cow-dung you could buy 10 times its subsidised chemical equivalent.

But who was buying such expensive manure? It was coffee growers from the adjoining hills. They had had a major windfall in the early 1990s from soaring global coffee prices. The market leaders, Brazil and Colombia, suffered a series of frosts and droughts to which they lost half their produce. This seriously dented the global supply and pushed prices to heights never seen before. Smaller players like India made a killing, bringing massive profits to coffee growers in this region.

Flush with cash, they sought organic manure because it improved the yield and quality of coffee. And of course, conscientious and discerning consumers like you and I were willing to pay higher prices for coffee grown on organic inputs. Does this not sound like a fantastic example of consumer choice benefitting the last link in the value chain—the impoverished farmer of our story who supplied cow-dung to the coffee grower?

But, let’s not stop with the farmer. Let us take this story a step further. Lying just beyond the fields of these farmers is a large and spectacular tract of forest, stretching from Nagarahole and Wayanad, to Bandipur and Mudumalai. Together, these jungles hold nearly a fifth of the world’s remaining tigers and Asian elephants.

Is our demand for organic coffee driving elephants in southern India to the brink?

Which brings us to the twist. The cow-dung that goes into organic coffee, comes straight out of the cattle that graze—illegally—inside the last strongholds of the tiger and the elephant. Farmers have nowhere but these fragile forests to graze their cattle, which number in lakhs. And since the dung trade began, their populations have risen sharply. These cattle convert the forests, with ruthless efficiency, into first class manure. As they have marched in, the forests have retreated and the numbers of wild herbivores—deer, wild cattle and elephants—have declined.

Thus, in a strange juxtaposition only globalisation can bring, the frosts in faraway Brazil and, not to forget, conscientious consumers of organic coffee worldwide, have helped convert some of the best and last remaining elephant and tiger forests in the world first into cow-dung and then into coffee.

So, as you take your next sip of coffee, perhaps you want to check if it tastes… just a little bit strange.

– M D Madhusudan and Pavithra Sankaran

This article appeared in the Times of India dated 25 June 2010.

12 thoughts on “The elephant in your coffee

  1. I’ve not read a more well-written story about this issue. How complex are the challenges that confront conservationists!

  2. excellent! Most well researched and true. Having lived in those belts, I know what this means. Death knell as cattle which dont even produce much milk graze in all available forest.

  3. Nice article which highlights the plight of our forests. It’s not only here but I guess the forests across the nation are facing this. With the acute shortage of fodder, the farmer or cattle owners leave their cattle out in open thus destroying the natural habitats.

    Well I feel a lot needs to be done on this front. Destruction of such natural habitats can be prevented and conservation can be successful only when the government does something to provide alternate source of fodder for these cattles / cattle owners / farmers. As long as the farmers / cattle owners keep venturing into the forest in search of free fodder, conservation would be very difficult. Further it would also give rise to the man-animal conflict.The cattle owners are used to free availability of fodder for their cattle. Strict law enforcement is the need of the hour. It should be backed by alternative strategies like

    1. Provision of inexpensive cattle feed to farmers.
    2. Provision of cattle grazing zones / pastures.
    3. Development fodder industry. Promote entrepreneurship in this sector. (India has an acute shortage of cattle feed / fodder).

    It will require a collaborative efforts from Government, NGO’s coupled with education and awareness. All the above, will take a lot of time and needs deliberation but is feasible and will certainly contribute to conservation.

  4. Nice article that can be understood by everyone who would read it.. U have explained the complex problem in a simple way..

    Hope to see more..


    A big issue into our prtected areas..The only way is to find a way such that both the issue of wildlife conservation and livelihood of the people living on the fringes of the park/sanctuary should be dealt.

    The plight is always on both the sides. It happened with me when I did my interns in Gir national park with the Siddhi tribe and the Maldharis. I mean we can’t neglect one aspect and think of the other. Its all interlinked like a web. And that is where the challenge lies for our govt. and for NGOs to reduce the pressure on the forest and subsequently help the farmers/villagers to earn their livelihood through Micro enterprise development, Micro finance activities, alternative income generation programmes, SHGs etc. Once their income is in continuity and with proper guidance where to use this money things can change.

    Now my words will look a little void but ofcourse Changes can really be seen !!

  6. Madhu and Pavithra,

    Sorry to disagree but for once I think you are off target could be a case of small sample size or lack of time .

    Cow-dung is used in all agriculture crops in India and in comparison to ginger cultivation use of cow-dung in organic coffee cultivation is just a blip. The Ginger cultivators who came in hoards to Coorg and Gudalur districts after the ban on Ginger cultivation in Kerala are more responsible for the sudden rise in demand for cow-dung than any boom in Coffee prices. Introduction of ginger cultivation has upset the ecology and economy of these districts. The recipe for Ginger cultivation is, use loads of cow-dung and ‘Top off every tree in sight’. Organic Coffee growers might be using 0.01% of the Cow-dung used in Ginger cultivation. Is there even a market for organic coffee in India let alone a premium niche market? I am not aware of any. So it’s not the BOOM in Coffee prices that created a premium market for cattle dung. Now that the Karnataka government aggressively promoting organic farming the demand for cow-dung is only going to rise.

    The conventional non-organic Coffee growers don’t get a dime extra for quality so certainly they are not using cow-dung for that reason. Cow-dung is recommended in every agriculture manual by the scientists be it from the Agriculture University or the Spice Board or even the Coffee Board. Cow-dung is added not for its NPK value but as food and booster to micro organisms, The very micro organisms which have been decimated by indiscriminate use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

    Coffee, buy the way was India’s largest Forex. earner for a long time before the resources hungry IT industry took over. The Coffee industry is in doldrums after the Boom Day and the Government has announced a relief package to help the coffee farmer. One boom is 60 years is too little to hear, The coffee farmer has his own share of troubles even though not as acute as that of the farmers living around the forest areas or any other place.

    Coffee cultivation is the most ecologically friendly means of earning a living in India, Just get the numbers on Carbon sequestering , the small mammals and the birdlife in a coffee estate and the large pool of micro organisms which are on a regular diet of Cow-dung! The trees in the coffee estates act as water sponges to feed the river which originate from these areas. What would have happened to our water sources if we had Tea, or our staple diet Rice, Wheat or Millets growing in these regions instead of Coffee.

    Our soils are so devoid of micro-organisms due to the heavy use of chemicals in farming that agriculture cannot be practiced without cow-dung. Unless the practice of chemical farming is reversed and Natural Farming catches on there’s no stopping the use of cattle dung in agriculture.

    An alternative to depriving ourselves of coffee and having headaches would be to promote amongst the cow-dung dependent farmers and coffee farmers ‘zero Inputs natural agriculture’ in tune with its surroundings a method now being popularly known as Permaculture.

    So until such time please remove the Elephant from the coffee cup and put it where it belongs –In the cow-dung prescribing scientist’s plate.

    Imran khan

  7. Good analysis about how Organic Branding is tasting Bitter for nature.
    This story highlights the problem. We cannot expect the authors to come out with an immediate solution for it. It is now thrown open for discussion.
    Let us think & help to evolve a better practice.

  8. I think rather than fighting over whether coffee is good for the forest vs ginger or tea or any other crop is pointless. What we need to specifically look into is the monocultural farming practices combined with clear-felling and topography modification. We can sustainably grow all our crops with minimal impact if a variety of crops are grown in mixed patches amongst old growth forest trees. Permaculture and edible forest gardens are the way forward. Though this is going to make our food more labour intensive, that is one monetary cost we must bear.

  9. Ten years ago C R Sarath and I were discussing this same point just outside Kabini…its the same thing with milk cooperatives for cattle owners around forests..where do the cattle graze ultimately. In Sri Lanka they are making elephant dung paper and selling it in American zoos outside Asian Elephant enclosures, as ‘eco-friendly’ products. The dung belongs in the forests it came out of! What is to be done about this?

  10. Hi everyone

    Yes, park conservation issues are indeed complex.

    In particular, this is a response to Imran Khan’s comments. Imran, we tried to tell a complex story in 600 words. In telling this, we had no choice but to omit many details. The linkage between coffee and ginger is one of the fascinating details we had to omit from our story.

    Yes, you are right that today a large part of the dung being traded goes to fertilise—not coffee estates—but ginger fields in the districts of Kodagu, Wayanad and Nilgiris. And ginger is not even part of the story so far. But, it is equally fascinating to trace how the boom in coffee made ginger such an important crop in these regions today. During the coffee boom of the mid-1990s, coffee prices skyrocketed [1,2] and profit margins for coffee growers went up by as much as eight fold [1]. One of the consequences of this boom-time in the coffee economy was that wage labour rates went up substantially [2, pg 27].

    In the coffee-growing districts, coffee has always been grown on the slopes and uplands , with the valleys being dedicated mostly to the production of wet rice paddies. Very often the same farming households that grow coffee on slopes also own wetlands in the adjoining valleys. As wage labour rates went up in the mid-1990s, it became more and more expensive to cultivate paddy which is highly labour-intensive, but farm-gate prices for paddy had not gone up. Hence, it became extremely difficult to continue growing paddy. Also, in the previous twenty years producers of paddy only saw prices go up by 178%, but for ginger, farmers for 4960% more than they had got 20 years ago [3].

    Yet, it had not been possible for farmers in the region to switch to ginger because of the high input and capital costs involved in ginger cultivation. But with profits they made during the coffee boom, they were able to start ginger cultivation where they earlier grew the economically unviable wet rice paddies. Yet, because cross subsidies from the highly-profitable coffee to the uneconomical paddy was possible, and perhaps also partly because of the cultural significance to paddy, these conversions were not large scale.

    There is a further twist to the tale. From the late-1990s onwards, into the early 2000s, coffee profits in the region crashed in a big way, thanks largely to the fact that Brazil, Colombia and the new entrant into the big league, Vietnam were doing well. The global coffee markets were flush with coffee, and producer prices at times of such surplus were at an all time low. With the crash in coffee prices, farming in Kodagu, Wayanad and parts of Nilgiris was plunged into crisis. Cross-subsidies to paddy from coffee profits was no longer possible. Here was the second major reason for large scale conversion of paddy to ginger which, in comparison to coffee, has had stable and high prices ever since. In fact, India is the world’s leading producer of ginger, accounting for over a third of the global production.

    The cumulative effect was a serious decline in paddy cultivation, and a huge spurt in ginger cultivation in the region of Wayanad, Kodagu and parts of Nilgiris. Since the mid-1980s paddy cultivation in Wayanad has declined by 61% [3]. In Kodagu, an estimated 4,000 ha of wet-paddy has been converted to ginger [4]. Converting wet-paddy in the valleys to ginger doubled the profits, whereas cultivating ginger on the uplands and slopes (where coffee grew) left profits unchanged [5].

    In summary, the final result of a boom followed by a bust in the coffee economy of these three districts and the agrarian distress that came after [2, 6: Pp 7, 11] caused the shift in land-use in the valleys from wet-paddy to ginger. A fascinating paper by Ambinakudige and Choi [7, Pg 332-33] documents the land-use changes—including the large scale conversion to ginger— that occurred in Kodagu as a consequence of fluctuations in the global coffee market.

    Now, what of the dung that ended up in the coffee? Where was that going now? Ginger, as said before, is a crop that depends heavily on fertiliser input. In fact, over a quarter of the cost of cultivation is accounted by fertiliser [8]. Thus, in the decade of the 2000s, with a crash in coffee prices, and with the expansion of ginger, most of the dung that was sourced from dryland villages around parks like Nagarahole, Bandipur and Mudumalai was now going to fertilise ginger, rather than coffee. Thus, unbeknownst to the poor dryland farmer, he had been saved from the knock-on impacts of the crash in coffee prices, thanks to the large scale conversion of wet-paddy to ginger in the same places that previously bought the dung!

    In fact, so serious were the conversions of wet-paddy to commercial crops (as well as for real estate development) that the Kerala Government passed a legislation in 2008 [9] to regulate the conversion of wet-paddy to crops like ginger. But no such regulation exists in Karnataka. As a result, it has today become common for leaseholders from Kerala to grow ginger in regions like Kodagu, Mysore and Chamarajanagar where other subsistence crops once grew. Thus, as market exposure has increased and direct links have been forged between producers of coffee and global markets, the changes in global markets have caused far-reaching transformations not just to the production system for coffee, but also to the overall ecology and land-use where it is grown as well in neighbouring areas which supply resources (like dung) to coffee.

    I hope this clarifies the issues somewhat!


    [1] Madhusudan, M. D. 2005. The global village: linkages between international coffee markets and grazing by livestock in a south Indian wildlife reserve. Conservation Biology 19:411-420

    [2] Joy, C. V. 2004. Small coffee growers of Sulthan Bathery, Wayanad. Discussion Paper No. 83. Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram.

    [3] Kumar, N. A., Gopi, G., and P. Prajeesh. 2010. Genetic erosion and degradation of ecosystem services of wetland rice fields: a case study from Western Ghats, India. Pages 137-153 in Lockie, S. And Carpenter, D. (eds.) Agriculture, Biodiversity and Markets: Livelihoods and Agroecology in Comparative Perspective. EarthScan, London (UK). Preview this book

    [4] Korikanthimath, V.S., and Govardhan, R. 2001. Comparative economics of ginger (Zingiber officinale) cultivation in paddy fields and uplands (open, vacant areas) Mysore J. Agric. Sci. 34:346–350.

    [5] Korikanthimath, V.S., and Govardhan, R. 2001. Resource productivity in ginger (Zingiber officinale) cultivation in paddy fields and upland situations in Karnataka. Indian J. Agron., 46: 368–371

    [6] Nair, K. N., Vinod, C. P., and Menon, V. 2007. Agrarian distress and livelihood strategies: a study of Pulpalli Panchayat, Wayanad District, Kerala. Working Paper 396. Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram.

    [7] Ambinakudige, S. and Choi, J. 2009. Global coffee market influence on land-use and land-cover change in the Western Ghats of India. Land Degradation and Development 20:327-335.

    [8] Madan, M.S. 2005. Production, marketing and economics of ginger. Pages 435-468 in Ravindran, P. N. and Babu, K. N. (eds.) Ginger: the genus Zingiber. CRC Press, Boca Raton (USA).

    [9] The Kerala Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Act, 2008

  11. Sir/Madam

    I am also thinking of doing such study on elephant conservation can i get any support from your side by providing some articles regarding conservation Vs livelihood

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