A `brown revolution'

Print edition : July 30, 2004

A `BROWN revolution' is happening in the tribal areas of Visakhapatnam district. The tribal people are being taught, and encouraged, to grow "socially responsible and environment friendly" coffee to cater to the demand from developed countries.

The Coffee Board has embarked upon the challenging campaign of promoting the coffee grown in these remote areas as niche coffee for markets in the West. Niche coffee, determined by consistent quality and the socio-economic well-being of the local people, is a $55-billion market world-wide.

Although the tribal people of Visakhapatnam district have been growing coffee since the 1970s, it is only recently, particularly after eyeing the organic market, that it is being given a thrust. Some 30,000 tribal people of Andhra Pradesh, who once practised slash-and-burn `Podu' (shifting) cultivation, are now growing coffee as a shade crop under the canopy of silver oak.

What the tribal people of Visakhapatnam are cultivating may be a minuscule part of India's annual coffee production of around three lakh tonnes. But, according to the Coffee Board, what is significant is that apart from regenerating the forest cover in those parts of the Eastern Ghats where it is cultivated, coffee has helped at the micro level by boosting the income of the tribal people. Their per hectare income from coffee is estimated at Rs.15,000 compared to Rs.10,000 for pineapple, Rs.1,500 for niger seeds and Rs.1,000 for maize.

The Coffee Board cites the instance of 50-year-old Linganna Padal who owns a demonstration coffee plot, which has generated enough income for him to own a house and educate his children. His success is now sought to be replicated throughout the Integrated Tribal Development Agency areas of the district.

However, it is not just a case of the good intentions of the Coffee Board and the ITDA of Paderu to help the tribal people. Some argue that there could even be a sound marketing base to all this. World over, there is a burgeoning demand for organic coffee. In those areas of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala where over 90 per cent of India's coffee is grown, any shift to organic coffee cultivation would necessitate a break in cultivation as the soil has to be left fallow for a few years to wash out traces of chemicals. But the tribal areas of Visakhapatnam can cultivate organic coffee as no chemical fertilizers or pesticides are used, as much owing to financial constraints as the lack of exposure to modern methods of cultivation.

Trying to turn this into an advantage, the Coffee Board and the ITDA launched the programme to grow coffee in the Araku Valley. Coffee Board officials, however, say that it seems far-fetched for Araku Valley coffee to sell in London or New York. But the process is moving in that direction. The Coffee Board has even created a logo for the "Araku Valley Coffee" brand.

According to the Coffee Board, the quality of Araku Valley coffee will be improved through systematic development of on- and off-farm processing facilities. Self-help groups of tribal farmers are to be strengthened to facilitate pooling of coffee so as to offer consistent and larger quantities. A physical platform for auctioning is expected to give a fillip to marketing and the prospects of exporting coffee to Japanese, Australian and American markets through Visakhapatnam port are to be pursued.

Araku coffee is turning out to be a potent brew indeed.

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