India File

Coffee in crisis

Vishwanath Kulkarni | Updated on September 24, 2019

Kodagu farmers remember the hillside crashing down on their plantations following heavy rains

Coffee growers in Karnataka and Kerala are staring at a grim future due to climate change.

Karnataka is the largest producer of coffee in the country, accounting for over two-thirds of the output, followed by Kerala. Coffee growers in both these States have been witnessing erratic weather patterns over the past 5-6 years. Heavy precipitation within a short duration has often triggered flooding and landslides in the key growing regions of Kodagu, Chikmagalur and Wayanad.

If it was parts of North Kodagu that bore the brunt of heavy rains and landslides last year, the growers in South Kodagu faced nature’s fury this year.

“I was having my coffee at around 10.15. It was raining heavily since morning. We heard a strange sound, like that of an aircraft flying at low height. As the noise got louder, we came out only to see that part of the huge mountain was bearing down. Within a few minutes the crashing hillside came down on a huge coffee plantation of around 15 acres, three acres of our paddy farm and a few houses in the hamlet, besides uprooting huge trees and claiming precious lives as well,” says Keti Belliappa at Torra hamlet in South Kodagu.

It was the same with Mudigere taluk of Chikmagalur. Growers are still reeling as continuous, heavy rainfall for about nine days since August 2 has left a trail of destruction.

“We had never seen this kind of rainfall,” says Basavaraj, a coffee grower at Kaduvhalli, near Ghattadahalli in Mudigere.

“We are hoping that the Government, which has been announcing packages for various sectors, will also do something for the plantations,” says BS Jairam, a coffee grower and former president of Karnataka Growers’ Federation, a body of small growers. There’s hardly any coffee left due to the berry droppings triggered by excess rains, Basavaraj says.

The incessant rain has triggered berry droppings and fruit rot, which could shrink the output.

A few months ago, the coffee growing regions of the State had above normal temperatures and arabica plantations across the region saw an increase in incidence of the white stem borer (WSB), a dreaded pest attacking the mild and premium variety of coffee.

The white stem borer is unique to India and research efforts initiated so far by various agencies, including the Coffee Board, to find a solution to the infestation have not yielded any results.

Arabica production has been witnessing decline over the past few decades. Going by the situation in the traditional growing areas of Karnataka, the arabica variety may soon become a thing of the past, growers fear.

The erratic weather pattern has thrown the plantation calendar out of gear for both tea and coffee producers. “Till a few years ago, we used to have a precise calendar to carry out farm operations, such as spraying of the bordeau mixture, among others. But these days, it is difficult to predict when we will take up the operations,” says N Bose Mandanna, a veteran planter.

As growers continue to reel under the impact of the changing weather pattern, the state-run Coffee Board is yet to wake up to the ground realities.

“As such we have not done a systematic assessment of the climate change and its impact at the landscape level. There are only a few studies tracking changes in individual meteorological parameters like temperature, rainfall, etc, and their influence on fruit set and premature fruit drop. These studies are going on only for the past few years and we need long-term data to arrive at any conclusion. But climate change is much broader and to measure its impact on coffee, we need to study the interaction between various meteorological parameters using modelling approach,” says Y Raghuramulu, Senior Adviser, Coffee Board.

“Moreover, since most of the Indian coffee is shade grown, our production system is already insulated against climate change effects up to a certain degree,” says Raghuramulu. “In the absence of shade cover, the deluge over the last two years will have resulted in a much bigger calamity,” he adds.

The producing regions in Karnataka and Kerala have suffered extensive losses due to unprecedented rains during 2018 and 2019. “Not sure if these two years’ events can be attributed to climate change. However, Coffee Board extension teams participated in joint surveys along with Karnataka State Revenue Department, Agriculture & Horticulture departments and assessed the extent of crop & land losses in coffee plantations during 2018 and submitted report to concerned Deputy Commissioners. During 2019, similar joint surveys are in progress,” he says.

Published on September 24, 2019

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