Every year in December, Jade Gowda would pray for better rates after harvesting coffee in the Biligiri Ranganathaswamy Temple Tiger Reserve (BRT) in Karnataka’s Chamarajanagar district. Gowda was among the handful of Soliga tribe members who cultivated coffee in the wildlife sanctuary. Some middlemen would make advance payment in June itself and collect the produce in December.
These middlemen would under weigh the harvest and the rate would be just Rs20-30 per kg. If Gowda argued, he would have to walk through the forest with his produce to sell it in the nearest market about 15 km away. That was 2010.
Today, members of BRT Soliga Coffee Project pick up the harvest from Gowda’s doorstep paying between Rs130 and Rs150 per kg for organic coffee that is being sold across Karnataka under the brand Adavi (means forest in the local language). The rates vary as per the international markets and have put an end to the exploitation of tribals in the region.
Brewing a new life
The change in the lives of Soligas has come about following the intervention of ATREE or Ashoka Trust for Ecology & The Environment, which started working with them in 2018. It is training the tribals in organic cultivation of coffee without the use of any chemicals or fertilisers. And ATREE has also ensured a fair market for their produce.
ATREE also connected the tribals with Coffee Board of India, which is now implementing the BRT Soliga Coffee Project – a four-year intervention (2018-2021) scheme to enhance the economic conditions of the Soligas and promote environmental sustainability. “The Coffee Board gave seedlings as well as pulping machines to the farmers,” says Dr Sidappa Setty R, Fellow, Centre for Environment and Development at ATREE.
“Besides connecting them with the market, we are providing the Soligas knowledge about making compost, managing weeds, water conservation through best plantation practices and environmental sustainability without over harvesting natural resources,” he says.
C Madegowda, himself a Soliga, who manages marketing and production of Adavi coffee, says this change has brought about an improvement in access to education as well as healthcare in the community.
The coffee cycle – from forest to retail shelves
Coffee plants grow under the shade of native trees. Farmers use compost made from fallen leaves, which are in plenty in the forest. Only about 5 percent of the population has livestock as locals are not encouraged to keep animals in the wildlife sanctuary. “So farmers who own livestock make manure as well but the rest use compost,” Madegowda says.
A new coffee plant takes about 3 to 4 years to bear fruit, called the coffee cherry. It is ready to harvest when the colour is bright, deep red. The cherry’s skin and pulp are removed by the Soligas using the pulping machines given by the Coffee Board. The pulping machine is a rotating drum that presses the fruit against a slotted plate, separating the seed and the pulp.
The cherries are later sun-dried and packed in jute bags for transporting them to Bengaluru, where they are graded, sorted and processed under the BRT Soliga Coffee Project. The coffee is then packaged and branded as Adavi coffee and sold through retail outlets in the state.
Karnataka is the biggest coffee producer in India, where coffee production stood at 2,99,300 million tonnes during 2019–20.
ATREE is now trying to take the organic Soliga coffee to the overseas markets. So it is working to secure Rainforest Alliance Certification, which implies that the product was produced using methods that support sustainability. “This certification will give them an opportunity to tap a much wider market,” says Setty.
Enterprise-based conservation model
Soligas cultivate Arabica, Robusta and Chicory coffee besides black pepper. Other non-timber forest produce in the reserve includes gooseberry, honey, turmeric, jackfruit etc. ATREE has decentralised units for processing non-timber forest produce and one such unit is in BRT also.
“We have formed a committee managed by the Soliga community members to look after processing of the forest produce. Honey, black pepper, gooseberry (into powder and pickle) and lemongrass are locally processed. Due to the complexity of coffee processing, it is not done onsite,” says Setty.
This is an enterprise-based conservation model, in which people bring their produce to the processing unit for value addition.
Madhegowda says, earlier, crops were primarily consumed by the locals and not sold. “But that has changed as there are facilities for selling produce without middlemen.”
The Soligas were living in the forest much before it was declared a protected area under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. Under the 2006 Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, people have rights to cultivate and to use the resources of the forest in a sustainable manner to secure livelihoods.
Recently, ATREE enabled 2,000 Soliga families to secure individual rights to forest land. They are one of the first communities to secure rights under the Act.
Setty says ATREE’s work has two components. “The first is the socio-economic component to monitor the income being generated from the resources and from the landscape. The second is biological conflict-related issues, which studies the ecosystem and how the resources are being harvested by the community. This is done to reduce the impact on the forest due to any over harvesting,” he says.
For now, the Soligas are a happy lot as they have found a new market and a sustained source of income. They are now pinning hopes on the Rainwater seal, which will give them an entry in the overseas market and add to their income and happiness.
(Lead pic courtesy of Dr Sidappa Setty R, Fellow, Centre for Environment and Development at ATREE.)
(Sravasti Datta is a Bengaluru-based independent journalist, who writes art, culture and human interest stories)