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Case study: Bisoi Arjun, Araku Valley

Sustainability, Fairtrade, organic farming, equitable trading, supporting communities – these are all words and phrases that people will hear batted between coffee traders, with perhaps an inkling that they might be a good idea.

Cynics may be quick to brand labels such as Fairtrade and organic as one big marketing ploy. However, these individuals are probably stuck behind desks in marketing departments, from where they are absolutely unable to see the tangible difference that is made by these rigorous industry standards and certifications.

Bisoi Arjun's story

A farmer in the Araku Valley, Bisoi Arjun, is exemplary of the many thousands of farmers cultivating coffee – and other produce – in order to survive and support both themselves and their families in the Andrah Pradesh region.

From a small village called Mallisingram in the Araku Valley mandal, Arjun had been labouring in the fields for four decades, getting by on around Rs 500 per year in the 1990s. The 50-year-old farmer would have to borrow money from local lenders that came with extortionately high interest rates, which kept him and his family on the brink of starvation for almost a decade.

"I used to walk more than 30 km a day to Gondivalasa and other villages to work in the fields of the moneylenders," he says. "All we knew was to grow seasonal crops like cabbage or carrots on the hill slopes after clearing the trees."

He and his wife explained how whenever they were hungry, they would have to dry mango seeds and boil them with water and drink it in order to stave off the pangs. Apart from the vegetables from the fields, they never had anything else to eat. Times were pretty bleak.

The winds of change

Since Naandi started its operations in the area back in 2001, all of this has changed for Arjun and his family.

Not only has the organisation safeguarded sustainable and equitable trading processes – ensuring that indigenous peoples working in the fields no longer relied on the exploitative practices of local moneylenders – but it also provided them with the vital training they needed.

"Initially, we couldn't understand why there was so much training for us. We thought we knew how to grow things, but no. The amount of care that we had to take of the plantations was quite a lot – making manure, pruning the shrubs in a particular way," he explains.

He goes on to say that at the time, many farmers didn't actually believe it was really necessary. However, he says he is glad that everyone persevered, as nobody still using the older methods has come close to the sums they are now pocketing.

A true icon

Arjun is somewhat of an identifiable figure in his area – and all because of the fortunes the right support systems and resources have provided him with.

Decked out in bright red shorts, the farmer's main source of pride and joy is his golden wristwatch, which he bought to celebrate a bumper crop last year.

Now, he and his family enjoy three meals a day. Soup and vegetables regularly feature in their diet, and they are even able to enjoy chicken from time to time, which would have been absolutely unheard of just a few years ago.

"We are confident that we'll give our children a better life than what our parents could give us," says Kamala, Arjun's wife.

The driving force behind everything has been the formation by Naandi of the Small and Marginal Tribal Farmers Mutually Aided Cooperative Society in Araku – a 'by the farmer, for the farmer and of the farmer' tribal collective that has come to represent organic coffee farmers, such as Arjun, in the area.

In 2005, Arjun sold 80 kgs of his 120 kgs of coffee to local traders as he did not 100 per cent trust the new system, to which he gave the other 40 kg. His former sale made Rs 2,400; the latter Rs 2,800, despite being half the size. The figures speak for themselves.

Having earned Rs 50,000 in the last year alone, Bisoi Arjun represents a true rags-to-riches story, which has all come about thanks to Naandi's work and the economic resurgence it has brought about in the area.