Culture and Coffee:Mediums For a Peaceful Relationship Between Coffee Plantations and WildlifeinCoorg, IndiaLaura EmmersonIntroductionCoorg1, a district that lies in the southern part of the South Indian state ofKarnataka, holds a unique culture and landscape that flourishes with coffee plantations.These plantations hold rows upon rows of the plant composed of small bushels of waxy,thick, and green leafs. When looking out upon the Coorg landscape, one sees dark greenthick hills, which is mostly due to these seemingly endless coffee plantations. When Iwas in the first stages of creating the proposal for this research, I was unclear of myintentions and had no clue it would leadto this lush forested land. All I knew was that Iwanted to study a culture to create ideas for preserving the natural landscape and wildlifeof an area in the Western Ghats.Originally I was hoping to do a study in Kerala; the state is known for its amazingwildlife and it’s someplace that I have yet to visit. Doing a study there would have been agreat opportunity to learn about someplace new. When Dr. Rao2suggested Coorg, I washesitant at the start. Coorg is the next district over from Mysore, only 120 km away. Myoriginal hesitancies lied within the fact that it was so close to Mysore, but my doubtswere soon cleared when researching the district. The Coorg district is one that is unlikeany other in the state, even in the whole nation of India.It is well known to those whohave experienced India that virtually every region differs from another, whether it belanguage, food, dress etc., but Coorg is a special case.Culturally it has many differences1Also referred to as Kodagu2Director of Vivekananda Institute of Indian Studies
from even the surroundingSouthern districts and states. I had come to find with living inCoorg for almost a month that even comparing Northern Coorg to Southern Coorg, onecould find much cultural diversity. The main question to be asked is how did such a smalldistrict of Karnataka come to be so distinct from the rest of Southern India? The answerlies within a source that is powerful and omnipresent: the environment. Throughout theworld, one’s environment constantly influences culture and the daily lives of people.With research and simply living in Coorg, the presence of environment is an extremeinfluencing factor of how this unique culture has come to be.In this study, my original goal was to learn about agriculture, especially coffee,and its effects on wildlife in Coorg and how understanding the culture would contributeto preservation. To begin to accomplish this goal, I figured that exploring attitudestowards one’s environment in Coorg could be a way in understanding a farmer’srelationship with his/her land. Only being here for a few weeks, this task was a dauntingone, finding that discovering human effects on wildlife would be an intensive scientificstudy in which I did not have the full skills, access, funds, or time for. So my study wastransformed into a cultural study, exploring the people of Coorg’s relationship with theirenvironment, focusing in part on coffee planters. With site visits to a couple coffeeestates and nature hotspots around Coorg, I was able to get a handle on where my studywas to be directed. Talking with/interviewing people made the research that much morerelevant.There are two major parts to this paper: the culture of Coorg and case studies ofcoffee planters’role regarding effects on the environment. Having a comprehensivehandle on some cultural aspects such as weddings and festivals provides an avenue to
explore the ways that Coorgs3express themselves and identify as a people. Since coffee isalso a major cultural aspectof Coorg culture, exploring ithas helped me to view mystudies from the eyes of a member of Coorg society. My final goal was to use the resultsfrom article readings, interviews, and field visits to create a window from which tounravel potential compromises between coffee planters and the wildlife that depend onthe land in which coffee plantations cover.GeographyThe Coorg region can be found on the eastern slopes of the Western Ghats. Itoccupies 4,102 km2(india.gov.in. N.p., 2010), with bordering districts of Mysore, Hassan,and Kerala.There are many hills in the region, the highest peak being 1,750 meters. Thedistrict is known for itsagriculture including coffee,cardamom, and pepper.The major river that flowsthrough the district is theCauvery (or Kaveri) whichpeople hold in high spiritualregard, as it provides watersfor a good harvest.Figure 1:AgriculturalLandscape as of the District ofKodagu as of 200743A name for the people of the region4Figure 1: (Garcia, Claude, Shonil A. Bhagwat, et al. 2009)
Part One: Festivals and CelebrationsHuttari FestivalSomething special about Coorg are its festivals. One of the most important, if notthe most is the Huttari Festival, or the harvest. It falls in between late November andearly December, the date depending on the full moon and a particular star. This timeperiod is special because it marks the traditional date when the first rice of the year wasto be harvested. Rice is significant in South India, especially Coorg because it used to bethe dominant crop, and still is the staple of virtually every Coorg dish. Even though it’slosing to coffee production because of major labor costs, it can be seen in Figure 1 thatrice still takes up significant space and is widely spread through outKodagu. Huttari is afestival that calls upon Laxmi, the goddess of wealth to bless the families of Coorg with agood harvest. This practice can be traced back to rice being the basis of the economy,before coffee was more prevalent.The festival is a big family event; the first thing the family does is go out intotheir rice field and cut the first grains of the season. After going to the fields, the familygoes to their ancestral house or Ain. It’s important to incorporate ancestors into festivals,in fact, one interviewmentioned that in Coorg,when is comes to “ancestral worship, godscame later” (Muthanna, 2011).Although many of the foundations of the festival are no longer in practice, forexample, because of new agricultural technologies that provide faster growth of paddy, itis no longer necessary to wait until January to harvest rice. Also, Coorg is lesseconomically dependent on rice since the spread of coffee plantations. Originally, theHuttari festival was more important because winter marked the end of going without rice.
Knowing that rice is steadily available to people year round, I asked the interviewees ifthey believed this fact has taken away the importance in the festival. Replies indicatedthat the festival is important to them because the tradition and ancestors involved aresignificant in their culture. Nisha, my host mother replied that “we all can join together inthe mand, we can meet others, our minds will be relieved talking with each other, we candance enjoy. Children will also be happy meeting their friends,” (Kotramada, 2011).Socially, tradition is carried on, and even though rice isn’t being produced the way it was,it still signifies tradition and wealth: “paddy is nothing but wealth for us, so god has cometo our house [to bless us],” (Kotramada, 2011).Cauvery FestivalAnother important natural occurrence in Coorg is the Cauvery River. It bringswater from its starting point all the way to the Bay of Bengal, it is regarded as scared toHindus, considered the Ganga of the South. The people of Coorg celebrate the CauveryFestival in which people gather at the starting point of the river, Talacauvery, on theauspicious day in mid-October when the water bubbles up to the surface in the sacredtank. This day of celebration is important as it, “is the day they say Cauvery visits theEarth and gives up the seeds to the people of Coorg who worship her” (Muthanna2011).For these celebrations all water sources are included in the pooja, not only theriver. It is important to perform pooja and give food offerings such as banana leafcovered with dosa, pumpkin curry, honey, and ghee and others so there will be assurancethat Goddess Cauvery will bless Coorg with a bountiful rice harvest, similarto the Huttarifestival. When I asked Udayif he believed the Cauvery festival is important his reply was,“I do feel the festival is very important for us because it’s been passed on from the
ancients… our forefathers have done it and Coorg has always been a country which hasnever seen much difficulty, let it be …any floods or any native problem or majorincidents. Nothing has happened and that’s because we feel it is Goddess Cauvery’sblessing,” (Muthanna 2011). These traditions are deep-set within Coorg and throughinterviews of Coorg people and living here, it has become evident just how importantwater and land is to their culture, economy, and lifestyle.WeddingsAnother example of the environmental significance of this region can be seen in atraditional Coorg wedding. During my short stay, I was lucky enough to attend one andfound that aspects of both the Huttari and Cauvery festivals can be seen in a weddingceremony. In the reception the close family members of the bridegroom surrounded himand threw rice at him. The husband proceeded to touch the elders’ feet as a sign ofrespect. Afterwards the family of the bride performed much of the same thing with slightvariation. When looking from an anthropological viewpoint, there can be meaning foundin every aspect of the wedding.The actual wedding ceremony took place on the next day from ten in the morningto about ten at night, an all day event. The main events of the day were the meeting thebride and groom, blessing them, and the Ganga Pooja. All of the people that attend thewedding lined up to bless the bride and groom and give them presents or money for thestart their life together. There were hundreds of people in attendance so this event took afew hours. Before giving the gifts the guests through rice at the bride or groom. TheGangaPooja consisted of the bride and a couple of the women relatives. The bride had towalk very slowly from one side of a room to another with water on top of her head while
people danced around her. The dancing and walking lasted two and half hours.Sometimes it can last even longer, for example, Nisha had to perform this for five hoursat her wedding! The people dancing represent them trying to “stop” her from reaching herdestination. The water acts as a test for the bride to show her dedication to the marriage(more or less), representing the diligence and dedication of the river. It seems to be moreof a practice of tradition these days, but still a vital part of every Coorg wedding.A common theme found in these festivals and celebrations is the attachment tonature that is found among the Coorg traditions. Like in the festivals and weddings,harvest and holy water are very integral parts of daily life. Coorg lifestyle includes livingnear or in forests all of their lives, which acts as a guide toward the way that the coffeeplantations are run. Almost everything becomes linked back to the environment, makingthe analysis of coffee plantations that much more important.During the month that Iconducted research in Coorg, I was able find deep instilled traditional connections to theenvironment, passed down through generations. There has been loss of interest in suchcultural traditions in the newer generations, but true practice can be seen in the familyfarms of Coorg.Understanding cultural connections through coffee plantations may bring to thestage a way to view the planting methods and how theyaffect the land,in turn creatingstrategies to work with farmers to ensure that sustainable methods are upheld. Myfindings are meant to unravel a bit of the coffee influence on culture, lifestyles, and theland of Coorg.Part Two: Coffee PlantationsCoffee culture
Along with the festivals and marriages, coffee is something passed on throughfamily. The three planters that I interviewed during my weeks of research were allmiddle-aged men who had picked up coffee farming from their fathers or communitymembers, which tends to be commonplace in Coorg. Coffee estates often have a man’slast name and sometimes mentions his son, for example the estate near my temporaryhome was titled “Kotramada and son”. Although larger corporate farms do exist, themajority percentage of acres for coffee plantations are family-owned estates, which aremain contributors to the identity of Coorg on a broad scale. Many people grow up eitheron plantation or are constantly surrounded by it their whole life. The growing of coffee inCoorg “is one of the major drivers of the regional economy, the landscape, and even thecultural identity of the district,”(Garcia, Claude, Shonil A. Bhagwat, et al. 2009) forexample, whenever I visited a person’s home I was offered a cup of coffee and my hostmother, Nisha, served coffee harvested from her estate at least twice a day. Through myexperience living and researching in this region, I found that Coorgs are very prideful intraditional practices and because plantations make up much of the landscape, analyzingthe coffee farming practices and culture will be beneficial to understanding the area’senvironment.In 2009 it was documented that when it comes to coffee production, “one-thirdcomes from the district of Kodagu in the state of Karnataka,” and “coffee plantationsoccupy 33% of the district,”(Garcia, Claude, Shonil A. Bhagwat, et al. 2009) makingcoffee a major contributor to the condition of the environment and extremely important tothe people that live there. So I set out to find what the benefits and issues were when itcame to coffee planting in this district.
BiodiversityFrom interviews and exploring the coffee plantations I learned that coffee is oneof the most sustainable planting out there because Indian shade-grown coffeeincorporates forest cover into its design. Among the forest cover, plantations offer fairlyrich biodiversity, which attracts many wildlife birds. Instead of endless fields ofmonoculture, these farms offer more crops. Not only does the farmer gain more of aprofit from this, the agriculture provides a better niche for wildlife. Crops such as “pepper(Piper nigrum), citrus (Citrus spp.), areca nut (Areca catechu) and vanilla (Vanilla spp.),”(Anand, Krishnaswamy, Kumar, and Bali 2010) can be found. During my visits I alsofound Coorg oranges and cardamom, which could easily be seen growing among thecoffee plants. Cardamom, which is entirely shade grown is also beneficial to theenvironment, said to be one of the most sustainable because less forest cover needs to becleared.Environmental IssuesAlthough there is much support for the sustainability of coffee plantations, recenttrends have shown that increased mechanization and economic incentives push forpotentially harmful methods:The shift from Arabica (Coffeaarabica) to Robusta coffee(Coffeacanephoravarrobusta), motivated by the easier management, betterpest resistance of Robusta varieties (Raghuramulu 2006), and the massivedevelopment of irrigation systems, has reduced the need for dense shadecover. Increasing use of chemical fertilizers, as in Mesoamerica (Perfectoet al. 1996), has replaced earlier use of green or organic manure,”(Garcia,Claude, Shonil A. Bhagwat, et al. 2009)The desire for convenience is shifting the way coffee is grown and will continue tochange with the endorsement of pesticides over organic methods.
When asked, the three farmers interviewed during my stay mentioned that theydo not use pesticides, but do use chemical fertilizers. A couple of the farmers interviewedmentioned that organic farming is preferable, but with the profit demand chemicalfertilizers help produce far more plants in less amount of time.Non-native treesAnotherpotential environmental issue that is increasingly taking hold is the use ofnon-native shade trees within the plantations. Like using the chemical fertilizers, thesetrees can hold an economic gain over non-native trees. One example used is Silver oak,which is prevalent onnumerous farms in Coorg for a few reasons: they “1.Grow fast, 2.Provide a good stand for pepper, 3. Have easily available seeds and seedlings, 4. Easy tofell, transport and sell,”(French Institute of Pondicherry 2008) and according to Uday,farmers do not need permission from the forest department to fell these trees, unlike theirnative tree species counterparts. In turn, the silver oak and other non-native species canbe turned into plywood.These trees are good for money in the farmer’s wallets, but “instead ofcontributing to the soil fertility they degrade the soil and also remove water from theground water table,”(Bopanna 2011). Also, they are not as supportive to other wildlifespecies because the trees are foreign to the Coorg forest ecosystems.Human elephant conflictSpeaking of wildlife, the human and elephant conflict is a major issue that leadsto tensions among coffee planters and elephants. On the one hand, the biodiversity of thecrops and other plants found in the plantations attracts the elephants to the farms, a goodsign that there are productive, healthy relationships between coffee farms and wildlife.
On the other hand, the elephants are entering into the plantations and destroying crops,costing the planters money. Reasons behind elephant infiltration can be attributed to“human demographic pressure, expansion of cash crops in previously forested areas andthe subsequent overlap of habitats,”(Bal, Nath, Nanaya, Kushalappa, and Garcia 2011)leading the elephants away from the ranges they lived in previously.Some of the plantersthat I talked to mentioned that when they make complaints to the forest department, theyreceive money compensation, but the problem still continues.Solutions are beingconducted too slowly in order to calm the problems between the elephants and humanfarmers. Other protected wildlife often forage and travel through the plantations, but theelephants tends to make the biggest mark on the land.Discussion/Potential SolutionsWhat I have come to find is that because of its importance in the economy andsocial influence, coffee plantations will continue to be prevalent in the region of Coorg.Even with its negative environmental impacts, there are many benefits and potentialpositive symbiosis- relationships within coffee and Coorg wildlife. Farming is somethingthat is a cultural tradition in Coorg, but since this coffee is grown in one of the world’smost important biodiversityhot spots, wildlife should be given special attention. It isespecially important then to create a compromise with the coffee plantations and wildlifeof the region. Below are some ideas and means to solving some of the leading causes ofthe disturbances between farmers and forest life.Motivation for Coffee PlantersFrom all the article references drawn together for this research, all of themmentioned a need for involvement of community members in promoting sustainable
practices for the preservation of the forests. In the case of Coorg, coffee plantations havebecome a large cultural and economic staple in the region, so a way to performcommunication participation is considering “farmers as stakeholders in conservingbiodiversity and actively solicit them as partners,”(Garcia, Claude, Shonil A. Bhagwat, etal. 2009) meaning that the farmer’s concerns need to be heard if change is to be had.Economic IncentivesOne of the problems stopping this sustainability is economic incentive, wheremotivations like “a healthy environment” are not enough to influence most planters to usesustainable farming methods. Conflicts brought up earlier in this paper include the use ofchemical fertilizers, non-native tree species, and the human/elephant conflict, all of whichare of concern for the health of wildlife and the Coorg farmer’s crop production. All ofthese concerns can find their emergence linked back to the profit of the planter. If thefarmer is going to accommodate the conditions of the environment into his/her farmingmethods, the government and other organizations involved with coffee production needto find major ways to provide economic incentives to protect wildlife. Because coffeeplays such a large role in the district, it should be one of the top priorities for thesestakeholders.The Forest Department could provide economic incentives such as “carbon credit”for planting native trees. Organizations such as the Karnataka Growers’ Federation,Coorg Wildlife Society, and the Rain Forest Alliance should work with the farmers moreto help make farming methods more sustainable.Having focused my project around theculture of Coorg, below are methods in which these cultural studies may be beneficial toall of the stakeholders involved in the management of a healthy forest ecosystem.
Coorg PrideA way that all of the stakeholders can view this issue is to keep traditionalforesting methods as a top priority. Coorgs are a unique people that are very prideful oftheir land and culture, so going back to the basics could do some good for theenvironment and preserving Coorg heritage. Part of the solution could be to promotetraditional ways of planting (for example, stop the usage of chemical fertilizers) andadvertise this as the “Coorg Way”. From my research through observing daily life andspecial celebrations I found that Coorgsdraw much inspiration from their ancestors,whose traditions are rooted in nature, such as the harvest and river festivals. Thegovernment could support these projects and provide help to the coffee planters, whichmight be in their best interest considering how much money coffee brings to the region.Also, if the planters still need economic incentives, “possible solutions include promotionof sustainable products such as timber and nontimber forest and agroforest products (e.g.,pepper, cardamom, Coorg orange, and honey)” (Garcia, Claude, Shonil A. Bhagwat, et al.2009), which are already found in many of the coffee plantations. Knowing how muchvalue Coorg puts on its coffee farms, in time it will become clear that when biodiversityis preserved, it will help keep the land fruitful. Simply allowing several plants onplantations and lessening chemical fertilizers can be a start this preservation.While in Coorg I was able to witness some of the events and meet some of the“partners” that are involved in the sustainability of coffee plantations. Currently a mannamed Krishnamurthy Pushpanath is generating buzz within the region through an eventcalled the “Walk for Climate Justice”. The walk is trying to attract attention towards theglobal climate issues and is calling upon the help of coffee farmers because, “India is the
only country that grows all of its coffee under shade”(Karnataka Growers Federation2011) and their biodiverse farms can support wildlife and other natural systems. Becauseof the large proportion of coffee farmers in the region, promoting sustainability in theseplantations can lead towards a healthier Western Ghats forest. Based on conclusionsreached through analyzing literature and interviews, I believe that events like the climatewalk, which reaches out to the community of coffee planters can lead farming methods tomore sustainable means (if done properly).ConclusionsThis month-long internship has allowed me to learn about a unique culture thathappens to lie in one of the richest forest ranges in the world. Having the opportunity totalk with people, even though my time and resources were limited, I have discoveredinteresting cultural aspects of a whole region of people that take pride in their traditions,ancestors, and environment.My main setback was the Kannada/English language barrier that got in the wayespecially when it came time for interviews with coffee planters. I was unable to have aconsistent translator, but was able to talk to some people efficiently. When it came timeto talking with people on the phone, even if they spoke in English it was often difficult tounderstand him/her. Despite the setbacks, people were very kind and tried to help withmy project the best that they could. After all, Coorg is known for hospitality, which attimes is almost too helpful.Honestly, there isn’t enough written work easily available online or in print aboutthe region, so the project was based off of the few written sources that I could find andthe first-hand experiences. Being in the region that I was studying made a big difference
when it came to creating a project and learning about coffee and Coorg as a whole.Physically being in Coorg put the information gathered into perspective. Talking topeople, viewing the plantations, and experiencing day-to-day life in Coorg gave medistinctive results that I never could have received from a textbook or an article. Also,living with a Coorg family made a difference, as it allowed for an insiders view of acoffee estate owner’s home.Through all of this work I was able to partially accomplish my goal of using theevery-day life examples of Coorgs and coffee culture to discover some issues amongplantations, andusing what I learned to find ways in which the coffee can peacefullycoincide with forests of Coorg and everything they have to offer.Sustainability inthisregion is a major topic that has been explored by others, but I believe that everycontribution to the mater counts and more studies should be done.Lastly, one of the major things learned during this research is that culture plays alarge role in altering natural ecosystems of Coorg and vise-versa. With my project onlybeing one month, I merely skimmed the surface of all of the research that could be done,but it feels like some sort of conclusion can be made. Coorg will truly be missed and Iamgrateful for this opportunity to learn about such a special region of Karnataka.
Work CitedAnand, M.O., JagdishKrishnaswamy, Ajith Kumar, and Archana Bali. "Sustainingbiodiversity conservation in human-modified landscapes in the Western Ghats: Remnantforests matter." Elsevier Ltd., Biological Conservation. 143. (2010): 2363–2374. Print.Bal, P., C. D. Nath, K. M. Nanaya, C. G. Kushalappa, and C. Garcia. "Elephants AlsoLike Coffee: Trends and Drivers of Human–Elephant Conflicts in Coffee AgroforestryLandscapes of Kodagu, Western Ghats,India." Environmental Management. 48.2 (2011):263. Print.Bopanna, P.T. The Romance of Indian Coffee. Bangalore: Prism Books Pvt. Ltd., 2011.96. Print.Coffee and Environmental Services in the Western Ghats." French Institute ofPondicherry. 21 May 2008. Web. 03 Oct. 2011. <http://www.ifpindia.org/Coffee-and-Environmental-Services-in-the-Western-Ghats.html>.Garcia, Claude, Shonil A. Bhagwat, et al. "Biodiversity Conservation in AgriculturalLandscapes: Challenges and Opportunities of Coffee Agroforests in the Western Ghats,India." Conservation Biology. 224.2 (2009): 479-488. Print.“Indian Coffee” Karnataka Growers Federation 2011. Web. 9 Dec 2011.<http://kgf.org.in/indian_coffee.html>."Karnataka." india.gov.in.N.p., 2010. Web. 11 Dec 2011.<http://india.gov.in/knowindia/districts/andhra1.php?stateid=KA>.Kotramada, Nisha. Personal Interview. 29 December 2011.Muthanna, Uday. Personal Interview. 29 November 2011