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Coffee Cultivation in the Araku Valley Community amidst adversity

The subtitle of this article could as well have been community amidst diversity. When our trader Priscilla Daniel reached the historically impoverished Andhra Pradesh state on India’s eastern coast, she found as much cultural, lingual and religious diversity as one would expect to find across an entire country. In the Araku Valley, tribal dialects and belief systems can differ even within single villages, some so small as to house just a handful of families.

Incredibly, this has done nothing to slow down a remarkable and exceptional culture of coffee cultivation, stemming from the total 900 tribal families living and working in the Valley. As Priscilla discovered on her visit, the groups are not only bound by geography, but also by a harmony in their common objective: to produce the highest quality organic coffee from the provisions of their lushly fertile and stunningly attractive terrain.

Abundant with forest, waterfalls and naturally-occurring fruit trees, the Araku region is regarded as a particularly beautiful jewel in itself. Though its tribal inhabitants’ traditional farming method podu (or ‘shifting cultivation’) damages forest cover – the natural protection of topsoils by the towering higher trees – the Araku Valley has maintained both its coffee-cultivating characteristics and, Priscilla says, its “scenic splendour.”

This is partly due to the intervention of the Naandi Foundation, a nonprofit organisation created to nurture sustainable livelihoods for the people of Andhra Pradesh. After two years of training from Naandi, cups produced in the Araku region started to become regarded as consistent, clean and high grade. Now in its fifteenth year, Naandi has continued to develop and support coffee cultivation in the valley with a simple premise. The key is education. The questions asked of Priscilla by local coffee farmers were not of profitability, competitor markets, financial forecasting and so on, but of knowledge. Of understanding, as deeply and as meaningfully as they could: the subtleties of coffee production, of harvesting, processing, tasting and beyond. While local understanding is by no account inadequate – as evidenced by its exquisite coffees – the farmers are further driven by a desire to learn more.

Old-fashioned and potentially damaging farming methods replaced, the Araku peoples have been quietly shaping a considerable industry. And combined with Naandi’s international influence, covering organic and fair-trade certification and export support, these colourful farmlands are now home to a coffee production industry that extends beyond its own picturesque borders.

The devastating hudhud

Tragically, in October 2014, the hudhud cyclone ravaged the Araku Valley. Its destruction was devastating, uprooting trees – including those planted to provide shade for the coffee crops – and drowning the coffee crop itself. Over 20% of the bean-bearing plants in the region were affected, comprising 15,000 hectares of farmland and £50 million in estimated damages. Over the preceding years, Naandi and the Araku people had fostered their coffee production into a viable commercial enterprise. An example family – quoted by Naandi – saw their annual coffee income rise from 1,410 Rupees (~£15) to Rs 82,450 (~£865) between 2008 and 2012. Following the hudhud, however, production was stalled in some areas and rebuilt from the ground up in others.

Naandi, still compelled in their mission to improve conditions in Andhra Pradesh, fought back against the destruction and grief. Employing their own SAMTFCAS programme – the Small and Marginal Tribal Farmers’ mutually aided Cooperative Society – Naandi now represent over 11,000 farmers across the Araku region, including many affected by the hudhud. Their aim now is to further expand biodynamic farming across the valley.

Expert advice

Possessing the most melodious of accents, David Hogg – a New Zealander residing in Hyderabad – holds the position of Chief Sustainability Officer for Naandi. Hogg’s expertise is in organic, autonomous and sustainable farming methods. Among his methods, passed on to the some 2,000 farmers he trains in the Araku Valley, are complex systems of bio-fertilisation, the extraction of methane gas from cow dung, the sterilisation of water used in wet mills, timely crop picking and processing techniques. All are involved practices requiring significant understanding, but all readily absorbed and employed by the Araku peoples – an expanded vocabulary for a growing language of learned coffee cultivation. Alongside Hogg’s training, Naandi also encourage bio-pesticide use and the introduction of natural predators to help combat pest problems. Likewise, a good education in crop shading gives farmers better protection from white stem borer disease – another challenge in the region.

On the road to prosperity

Naandi’s aid is “passionate and committed”, says Priscilla. Combined with a global coffee market as inspiration, and a rich and vibrant landscape as its situation, production in the region has started to improve once again. Because the quality of Araku coffee is rising, exporting has becoming more successful. (Even over the length of our relationship with the Araku – having imported coffees from them since 2011 – we have noticed an increase in quality with every passing year). And more exports mean a higher quality of living for the Araku peoples, and a higher level of sustainability in their farming methods.

Even after four years of buying and providing Gems of Araku from the region, the coffee produced in the Araku Valley can still surprise and delight us. Achieving excellent results seems not only inevitable from the Araku people, but most likely a stepping stone to a truly superlative product in seasons to come. We eagerly await.

Following her return from India, Priscilla will present two lectures on coffee farming in the Araku Valley, entitled A Journey of Provenance. Both talks include a cupping session of the newest Araku crop:

Thursday 30th of April 2015  @1:30 pm at the coffee lab, London Coffee Festival (Truman Brewery)

Saturday 2nd of May 2015 @ 4PM at DRWakefield stand, London Coffee Festival  (Truman Brewery)