Research: Coffee and sacred groves in India

by JulieCraves on April 6, 2009

Comparing tree diversity and composition in coffee farms and sacred forests in the Western Ghats of India. 2009. S. Ambinakudige and B. N. Sathish. Biodiversity and Conservation 18:987-1000.

The Western Ghats of India is a global biodiversity hotspot with high endemism. And like many other tropical montane regions, a lot of coffee is grown there. This study took place in the Kodagu (a.k.a. Coorg) district of Karnataka state, where both arabica (Coffea arabica) and robusta (C. canephora) coffee are grown. It’s one of the most densely forested areas remaining in India.

There are several types of land tenure and timber rights in the coffee lands of India. On unredeemed land, the coffee farmer owns the land, but the government owns the rights to the trees; tree rights belong to the farm owner on redeemed lands; and sacred groves are forest patches with little human impact used for communal activities that are the most pristine forests left in the region. The study was straightforward: comparing the diversity and abundance of trees in each category of land ownership.

The results regarding tree diversity were unsurprising, with sacred groves containing the more species (62) and more unique species (51) than either of the land tenures planted in coffee. The most common species in the sacred groves was Dimocarpus longan, a native fruit tree.

Redeemed and unredeemed lands had nearly the same number of species (38 and 39), but examination of dominant species showed the influence of government regulations on timber rights. On unredeemed coffee lands, where the government owned the tree rights, rosewood (Dalbergia latifolia), was most common. A high-value native timber tree, it can only be harvested under special license. On redeemed coffee lands, the most common tree was Grevillea robusta. This Australian tree is commonly used as a shade tree in Indian coffee farms. It grows quickly, straight and tall, so it is used as a living trellis for a common companion crop (pepper vines) before it is harvested for timber.

Species composition in these plots is not static, and highlights the ironic destructive nature of laws designed to protect native tree species in this region. In interviews with coffee farmers that were part of this study, it was found that growers were concerned about coffee prices and wanted to plant timber trees to hedge against low prices. Grevillea was not only planted in redeemed lands for this reason, but farmers were also planting it in unredeemed lands because it is easier to get permission to harvest non-native trees (Grevillea is apparently totally unregulated). This is encouraging the planting of Grevillea, where it is supplementing or (more often) replacing native species.

Not only does this diminish tree biodiversity, but diversity of other species as well. Birds, for instance, that depend on insects to eat find fewer insects adapted to feed on non-native vegetation. In another study, an increase in Grevillea from 33% to 55% was associated with 91% reduction in the abundance of one restricted-range, endemic species, the Malabar (Crimson-fronted) Barbet (Megalaima malabarica), shown above.

This has implications for any type of shade certification scheme that might be used in India, as encouragement of “shade” without adjustment to regulations regarding harvesting native species will only further serve to promote planting of more non-native trees, especially Grevillea.

Photo of barbet, taken in Karnataka, by Shiva Shankar. Used by permission.

Revised on November 14, 2019

Posted in Research on coffee growing

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