Black Baza: Where Biodiversity-Friendly Coffee Takes Wing
Arshiya Bose, founder of Black Baza Coffee Co., gives us a glimpse into India’s chequered coffee-growing history, introduces her fledgling business and explains why biodiversity-friendly brews make for a better cuppa.
Photo: Arshiya Bose.
I started Black Baza Coffee Co. knowing little about coffee and nothing about running companies. I simply felt a restlessness to act on the problems I was seeing, and loneliness when I looked around and found nobody else with me. So I reconciled myself to the idea of starting an imperfect project and promised myself that I would work on getting it progressively less wrong as I went along.
At the time I was a PhD student at Cambridge University researching market incentives for conserving biodiversity. My fieldwork required me to travel extensively across coffee growing districts (mostly Kodagu, Karnataka) and interview over 300 coffee growers about farming practices, philosophies and decisions on how to manage productivity. It struck me then that coffee is about as perfect a seesaw between ecology and economics as it gets. Grow coffee alongside natural vegetation, under the shade of fairly large, woody trees, and the number of coffee berries per plant is moderate. On the other hand, grow coffee with fewer trees or scanty shade and yields are tangibly higher. This seesaw is visible in most coffee producing countries. In Brazil (the largest producer of coffee in the world), Vietnam, Columbia and parts of Central America, Southeast Asia and Africa, vast tracts of forest have been clear felled to grow coffee. Coffee in these regions grows under direct sun with few or no shade trees.
Photo: Arshiya Bose.
The Indian Estates
Our coffee history in India is more chequered. The early colonial planters cleared forest trees to develop coffee estates and then quickly planted natives back once they noticed increased pest activity. So Indian coffee was by and large shade-grown from the late 1800s to the 1970s. Thereafter, remote sensing data and ecological surveys show rapid removal of native shade trees from coffee farms. For example, data collected by the French Institute of Pondicherry shows that in some coffee growing districts (for example, Kodagu) almost 33 per cent of forest cover was lost from 1970 to 2008 – not from encroachment or timber felling in wildlife sanctuaries or reserved forests but from coffee farms. The straightforward logic is that any rational farmer wanting to optimise his coffee yields does so most cost-effectively by thinning tree cover on his farm. This is compounded by another trend – replacing native tree species with the exotic silver oak. The land tenure system and the regulatory frameworks do not permit the sale of native tree species. As a coffee grower, I need an elaborate set of permissions from the Forest Department (often including tax levies) before I can harvest and sell trees such as rosewood, jackfruit, mango, pongamia, pterocarpus, terminalia or other commonly found native tree species. However, as silver oak is exotic, I don’t require permissions and can plant, harvest and sell as I please. Some scientists contend that this ‘tree rights’ system has incentivised coffee growers to actively plant silver oak as opposed to retaining native trees.
Many coffee estates are now ‘technified’ – coffee is grown under a single dominant species (in the case of India, silver oak). The effect of these trends on biodiversity has been documented too. For example, the CAFNET project (Coffee Agroforestry Network), one of the most extensive research studies on the coffee agroforestry system in India, showed that farms where more than 20 per cent of the total trees were silver oaks, negatively impacted bird densities.
Trade offs are a universal phenomenon across conservation problems, but in coffee these trade offs are doubly relevant because coffee has always been a highly commercial crop (as opposed to subsistence), grown for the sole purpose of being sold. The opportunity costs of growing coffee under forest trees can be tangibly measured in the weight of coffee lost due to shade cover. While I was doing fieldwork, I encountered scientists, and local and regional environmental groups campaigning for the ecological importance of shade trees.
Photo: Arshiya Bose.
Inspiration in Anchovies
As a wayward researcher, I myself often digressed from objective data gathering to leading conversations on how natural vegetation and shade trees can support biodiversity, especially since the occurrence of coffee plantations coincides almost identically with the Western Ghats. My impression from these discussions was that environmental campaigns could generate awareness but behaviour change required something more tangible. For many conservation problems, this may not hold true but for the coffee-conservation conundrum I agree with this ideology. As a rational farmer with limited access to resources, new technologies and market avenues, I too would focus on how to generate income from my farm. In years of high coffee prices and productivity, I would try and maximise output and sale price so that I have a buffer to tide me through the low years. Even if you did convince me to maintain tree cover and stop chemical use, my coffee would be bought by regular traders at market price and eventually end up in a pool with coffee from farms that use toxic pesticides like Gamoxin or Lindane and have very scanty tree cover, few birds and almost no visible amphibians and reptiles.
At around this time, midway through my PhD fieldwork, I heard Patricia Majluf give a talk at the Society for Conservation Biology conference on the Peruvian anchovy. Her talk described the impact of the anchovy fishing industry in Peru (the largest single-species fishery in the world) as a case where tonnes of anchovies were fished and exported as fishmeal to be consumed by animal husbandry industries across Peruvian shores.
I was inspired not only by Patricia’s rational scientific approach but also her efforts to engage with anchovy consumers. She launched ‘Anchoveta Week’, a campaign that roped in some of Lima’s most renowned chefs and fine-dining restaurants to popularise eating anchovies. The message was this: fishing for direct consumption could be made more sustainable than fishing for fishmeal. However, it involved consumer advocacy to create a market demand for a product that Patricia believed led to better conservation outcomes.
It turns out that coffee is not dissimilar to anchovies! One approach to curtail or reverse the conversion from shade to sun-grown (or silver oak grown) coffee would be to create a demand for shade-grown coffee. I wanted to push the idea one step further to prove that shade cover by itself wasn’t adequate and in fact the diversity of trees and the farm’s conduciveness to being a natural habitat was a more holistic metric. And so, Black Baza Coffee became ‘biodiversity-friendly’.
Photo: Arshiya Bose.
A Biodiverse Business
As a conservation project at its core, Black Baza Coffee starts off with ‘conservation agreements’ with growers. Producers commit to maintaining 100 trees an acre, at least 22 species with no single tree dominating over 20 per cent of the total abundance, 60-70 per cent shade cover for Robusta and 70-80 per cent shade cover for Arabica, and at least a three-tier canopy structure. Farms also restrict the use of any chemical pesticide. The majority of the farms we work with at the moment (146 of 150 farms) were default organic but for those that did use chemical fertiliser we also agree that this will be reduced to 1.5 kg. of NPK (nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium), with the aim of transitioning to zero. In return, Black Baza Coffee guarantees a buyback at a 15-20 per cent premium over the market price. Equally importantly we run capacity building programmes throughout the year to improve coffee quality and farm management. We are also exploring price fluctuation buffers and insurance schemes. We have also done the following: mapped farms and created checklists of tree species, monitored shade cover at regular intervals throughout the year, surveyed spider families, and documented mammals using our coffee farms.
Our biodiversity assessments do not as yet tell us with scientific accuracy whether our approach to shade-grown farming is yielding any biodiversity outcomes. However, they do tell us that we could be on the right track. Shade canopy has increased as farms stopped lopping tree branches. Farms look more ‘rustic’ and there is plenty of research from Central America that shows that increased canopy cover and a diversity of trees support a diversity of birds, insects, amphibians, reptiles and small mammals.
As a coffee company we have grown in the market to include many more growers than we originally started out with. We started with four, then expanded to 35 and this year we hope to reach out to 150 farmers across the Western Ghats. This of course also indicates that the area under biodiversity-friendly cultivation has increased manifold. Equally interesting is the fact that coffee drinkers across the country now start their day with a tiny conservation story on their breakfast table. You can French Press the Ficus Blend, drink the Otter coffee through an AeroPress, enjoy a Lion-Tailed Macaque (we call this coffee the ‘Wanderoo’, an ancient Sinhalese word for the Lion-Tailed Macaque) or have The Whistling School filter kaapi! This is our approach to consumer advocacy. The vision is that if coffee drinkers demand that their coffee comes from farms that conserve biodiversity, perhaps more farms will be urged to cultivate in ecologically acceptable ways.
As we scale month after month, I realise that there are many unanswered questions that we will have to tackle very soon if we are to keep adapting for the best biodiversity outcomes. For example, we need to address issues around fragmented areas of good farming to increase ecological contiguity across the farms where we work. We need to measure the trade-offs more carefully to understand how increasing shade canopy affects yields (so far we haven’t seen yields drop) in order to adapt our incentives. It could be interesting and useful to also look at species specific impact – perhaps our farming methods could be refined to greatly protect certain endemic species rather than generic biodiversity. These are all relevant conservation markers but our two-fold message remains strong and unchanged: (1) that we can use the market to urge coffee producers to tangibly change their cultivation practices such that farms can support biodiversity and (2) coffee drinkers need to make conscious choices to drink coffee that protects or maintains biodiversity rather than that which destroys it.
A self-described accidental entrepreneur, Arshiya Bose is the Founder of Black Baza Coffee Co., and holds a PhD in sustainable coffee production from Cambridge University.
Author: Arshiya Bose.