Four years ago, in August 2018, Karnataka, and particularly the district of Kodagu, witnessed massive floods and landslides due to excessive rainfall. Ever since, coffee growers in Kodagu have been in distress.
Plantation owners are suffering major crop damage, labourers haven’t got the required hike in their daily wages and exporters are facing a slump due to fluctuating prices in the international market.
This International Coffee Day, The Quint looks at the extent of damage faced by coffee plantations in Kodagu and other reasons for the losses to farmers.
Climate Change is Enemy #1
Coffee growers suffered a major blow in 2018 as 39 villages in Kodagu district witnessed landslides and floods, as hundreds of acres of plantations were washed away due to excessive rainfall and cloudbursts.
While plantation owners pleaded with the state government and also approached the court for compensation, blaming nature's fury, environmentalists and planners accused the government of allowing the construction of roads and other buildings without proper consultation. They say that in addition to nature, there are reasons to also call this a ‘man-made disaster’.
With more than 8000 coffee growers displaced by floods, the cultivators tried returning to normalcy only to witness more unpredictable rains.
Between 1 June and 17 June, 2022, the district of Kodagu received 109% excess rain, resulting in massive damage to coffee plants. The districts of Kodagu, Chikkamangaluru and Hassan were the worst affected.
According to Udaya and other farmers in the region, a coffee bunch would yield over 100 berries. But that has now dropped to a mere 40-45 berries per bunch. Due to excess rainfall, half the coffee berries falls to the ground and rot before they are plucked.
Speaking to The Quint, coffee planter Periyana Udaya Kumar from Suntikoppa said, “Incessant rain this year has caused the leaves to rot. Over 50% of the pre-mature coffee berries fell and were lost. We have lost hope for a profit this year.”
Coffee is consumed by more than 2.5 billion people around the globe, making it the second biggest commodity to be traded in the world. Today, Brazil continues to be the top producer of the crop, followed by Vietnam and Columbia. India is the 7th largest producer, of which Karnataka contributes 70%. The two popular types of coffee grown in Karnataka are Arabica and Robusta.
“I got new irrigation pipes, chopped off the branches to avoid shade and cleared the extra growth near the root to avoid wetness. However, there was also a dry spell in between that killed many of the flowers. Whatever was left of the crop was also damaged due to heavy rain in June. Since 2018, we have had no respite from nature’s unforeseeable pattern.”Periyana Udaya Kumar, Coffee Plantation Owner
While Arabica has more value in the market for its aroma, many farmers have shifted to growing Robusta. This is mainly because it is literally more 'robust' at fighting diseases, and coffee's big enemy - the white stem borer - an insect which lays eggs in the bark cracks of the coffee plant obstructing the flow of food and eventually killing the plant.
In a conversation with The Quint, B V Mohan Das, former joint director of the Coffee Board of India (Retd) said, "This insect has created a menace in Kodagu in the past. Now, we are able to reduce the disease using multi-pronged approach. However, the need of the hour is to be able to find ways to deal with erratic nature of the climate."
Coffee requires and even spread of rain. In March, the plantations need mild rainfall for the flowers to bloom, followed by reasonable rainfall in June and moderate temperatures till November for the planters to pick the berries. However, nature has not been kind to farmers.
Apart from unpredictable rains, Kodagu also suffered an unexpected dry spell in March 2022. The cultivators who anticipate rains in June, had initiated the clearing of branches of secondary trees in the plantation. However, little did they know that the sun would turn too harsh and the rising temperatures would cause the flowers to dry up and die.
Erratic Global Prices are Enemy #2, Govt Policy is #3
With Arabica taking 28 percent and Robusta taking 72 percent of the share from Karnataka, the state produced 34,500 metric tons this year. However, the produce wasn't enough to make profits.
According to data shared by the Coffee Board of India, export from India dropped to Rs 5388.90 crore in 2021-22 from Rs. 5451.90 crore in 2020-21.
Experts believe the main reason behind this is climate change, which destroyed over 300-500 kg of coffee per plantation in Kodagu alone. Echoing this sentiment farmer Chetan Belliappa from Napoklu said, "It is getting more difficult to keep up with the losses. In the past six months, I have lost Rs. 85,000."
Coffee prices in India took a beating after Brazil, Vietnam and Columbia witnessed bumper crop in 2019 and 2020. After adjusting for inflation, the price of coffee beans fell by 45% as compared to exports in 2011.
Coffee being a crucial commercial crop, it is controlled by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. This complicates the issue of compensation for the affected coffee growers, as that comes from the state agriculture ministry, after being processed by the revenue department.
However, when it comes to procurement of equipment and other benefits for growing the crop, the coffee farmers have to approach the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. This often creates bureaucratic complications.
Kodagu is part of the Mysore parliamentary constituency, while Chikkamangaluru is a part of Udupi. In this sense, there is a lack of 'coffee lobby' in Karnataka with reasonable political clout. Also, unlike other crops, there is no subsidy or minimum support price for coffee growers in India. This has created a huge lacuna in the coffee market.B V Mohan Das, Former Joint Director Coffee Board of India
Meanwhile, the government of India is likely to introduce the new Coffee Promotion and Development Bill of 2022 in the upcoming winter session.
The bill will be replacing the 80-year-old Coffee Act which places coffee production under the Ministry of Commerce and Industries, and instead proposes that coffee to be categorised under the agriculture department, with an aim to help planters.