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.
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.