Bastar catches up with coffee cultivation — though with drawbacks

Bastar catches up with coffee cultivation — though with drawbacks

Bastar catches up with coffee cultivation — though with drawbacks

While Bastar is a non-traditional area for coffee cultivation when compared to the best estates of the south, the promise of profits and good yields have farmers abandoning traditional crops.

Bastar: There is perhaps nothing more divine than the tempting aroma of roasted coffee beans. The British established coffee plantations in the 18th century in southern India, and two names stand out for being exceptional: Coorg in Karnataka and Araku Valley in Andhra Pradesh.

There’s an unlikely entrant in the industry that’s been trying to be part of India’s coffee journey lately — Bastar. This district in Chhattisgarh, known for its waterfalls and hilly slopes, is attempting to shed its insurgency-ridden image through several initiatives aimed at the economic development of its Adivasi population. One such initiative involves the introduction of coffee plantations. And given the required elevation of over 600 metres above sea level, Bastar has favourable conditions for the crop.

However, such upland areas are also more sensitive to Naxal activities, pointed out Bastar District Collector Rajat Bansal.

“So through coffee plantations as part of an improved livelihood option for farmers, the government is trying to ensure that the beneficiaries do not get swayed by the rebels.”

Left-wing extremism has plagued Bastar for the past five decades. It’s among the country’s 115 backward districts, where the Centre has been pushing for rapid development under its Transformation of Aspirational Districts programme launched in 2018. One of its goals in such places is to double farmers’ income. In Bastar, farmers traditionally cultivate paddy and small millets, or turn to the collection of minor forest produce for a livelihood.

Coffee in Naxal heartland

In 2017-18, coffee was planted for the first time in Bastar’s Darbha block over just 20 acres. The yield that came about in 2020-21 stood at 8 quintals. Coffee beans were processed, and the product was sold in the market at Rs 1,200 per kg.

After this initial success, the plan at present is to extend production to 5,000 acres by this year, according to a November 2021 study on coffee cultivation in Bastar, authored by KP Singh and others. Singh is the man behind Bastar’s coffee drive and is posted at the College of Horticulture and Research Station in Jagdalpur, the district headquarters, since 2014.

(Left) White flowers in bloom on coffee plants, Araku Valley, Andhra Pradesh (Photo- Wassan) ; (Right) Bastar, Chhattisgarh expanding coffee plantations in the district (Photo- KP Singh)

Currently, coffee cultivation is being extended to Urukpal and Dilmili villages of Darbha, where farmers usually cultivate dryland paddy, millets and tubers. In Dilmili, 33 farmers want to experiment with coffee in the face of low yields and hard labour entailed in growing small millets like kodo and kutki. In fact, many of them have stopped growing these crops.

The village, which has an elevation of 750 metres above sea level, is best suited for coffee here, said Durjan Singh Kashyap, the sarpanch of Dilmili gram panchayat. 

“Planting is on across 100 acres of land sanctioned last year for coffee cultivation. Of it, work has taken place in 50 acres, and the rest will be completed by this monsoon. The gram sabha has sent a fresh proposal to cover an additional 250 acres to the horticulture department. The total target is 500 acres under coffee in Dilmili,” Kashyap said.

Explaining why farmers are turning to coffee, the sarpanch added that many were inspired by the initial success of coffee grown on 20 acres. Another reason was that 15 to 20 years ago, after farmers stopped growing millets, lands were left fallow. So these are now being utilised to grow coffee.

According to Singh, income from coffee grown in the new areas annually is expected to be around Rs 50,000 per acre. Farmers will also derive additional benefits from shade trees like silver oak, mango and jackfruit. For the initial four to five years, drip irrigation will ensure water supply, following which shade trees will ensure required humidity and reduce water use.

The scientist also pointed out that deforestation had occurred due to the van pattas (land ownership documents) granted under the Forest Rights Act 2006. So the agroforestry method of coffee cultivation in Bastar will increase green cover. 

“As coffee plants need plenty of shade, trees like silver oak, mango, mahua, jackfruit and jamun have been planted,” Singh said. 

Silver oak is especially favoured as it supports black pepper vines when it grows up to 25 ft. However, there are ecological implications of silver oak. The non-native species is favoured in agroforestry, but it reduces carbon stock and tree diversity.

Pepper wines are planted alongside coffee in Aruku valley plantations for additional income, Andhra Pradesh (Photo- Deepanwita Gita Niyogi)

Gaurav Kushwaha, the founder of e-commerce platform LokaBazar that sells Bastar’s handicraft products, is happy with the enthusiasm over coffee in the district. 

“Currently, LokaBazar is packing Bastar coffee in jars to gift to guests. There’s limited stock, but around 2024-2025, there will be more to offer customers from the new plantation initiatives,” he said. 

Coffee plants need three to four years to bear fruits. These turn bright red when ripe and ready for harvest.

Ecological implications of coffee

Although it comes with great promise, growing coffee has its downsides. Just like tea, coffee plantations also lead to deforestation, according to international non-profit Rainforest Alliance, which stresses that coffee is one of the agricultural sectors that impacts forests. 

“Coffee production has increased over the past decade, potentially also expanding into forest areas. In addition, it is expected to become a bigger driver of deforestation over the coming decades due to increasing demand and climate change impacts that will likely shift suitable regions to higher altitudes, which now comprise valuable forests,” the report says.

Coming to south India, where coffee estates are causing the disappearance of traditional crops in Andhra Pradesh, in Karnataka, opening up of abandoned plantations is blocking elephant movement. The latter is captured in a study published in Tropical Conservation Science in 2019 titled ‘Distribution and Habitat Use by Asian Elephants in a Coffee-Dominated Landscape of Southern India’.

Devullu Pachari, who is associated with non-profit Sanjeevini and works in Araku Valley, admitted that there was deforestation in the region 20 to 30 years ago due to the coffee grown all over the slopes. In Araku, now part of the Alluri Sitharama Raju district, newly declared last month, the Andhra Pradesh Forest Development Corporation introduced coffee in tribal areas “to wean them (farmers) away from felling forests for shifting cultivation (podu)”.

In Araku, now part of the Alluri Sitharama Raju district, the Andhra Pradesh Forest Development Corporation introduced coffee cultivation in tribal areas (Photo- Wassan)

Moreover, traditional crops like the proso millet, pulses and the white kidney bean are fast vanishing in Araku due to coffee. And according to Sanyasi Rao, who works as a programme manager at WASSAN, a Hyderabad based non-profit, the area under these crops is shrinking as coffee now dominates the upland areas, leading to monoculture.

Rao, whose special focus is on millets, said that coffee in Araku was an intervention under joint forest management in the 1990s. 

“But as coffee replaced millets and pulses, there was an adverse effect. Farmers lost food grains necessary for survival and nutrition. But the gain hasn’t been much. Coffee farmers in Araku are making a maximum income of Rs 15,000 to Rs 20,000 per year.”

New crops have always been introduced in non-traditional areas across the globe. But Punjab-based food policy expert Devinder Sharma believes that just like there’s a doomsday vault in Norway, where the world’s seeds are preserved safely, tribal areas are the living vaults of the world and shouldn't be disturbed.

“To help tribal farmers economically, there’s a need to give them better income for what they grow traditionally. Introducing exotic crops in such areas is not the right way to go about it,” Sharma cautioned.


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