Coffee Cultivation in the Northeast: A Re-appraisal

Coffee is grown in the Northeast India under Agro-forestry which is said to produce quality coffee and coupled with traditional system of cultivation pans chemical inputs in the soil, the coffee can be categorized as ‘Default organic coffee’.

Coffee is believed to have originated in the forest of Ethiopian plateau which is located in eastern Africa. An illiterate goat-herder by the name ‘Kaldi’ saw his goat becoming lively and hyperactive on eating red berries from certain surrounding shrubs. He also experienced same feeling after eating the same and thus COFFEE was discovered. Dried Coffee beans are roasted to varying degrees depending on the desired taste and flavor. The resulted black liquid that is brewed after mixing with hot water is what is known as coffee beverage in the modern world. The hot and aromatic vapour that steams from the cup when the decoction is placed on the table permeates the surrounding atmosphere with an odour invigorating the brain, soothing and refreshing the mind. This beverage became so popular that the ‘find’ was soon destined to shape the economy of many countries.

It is recorded that this flavor inherent product was introduced into India by a Hermit named Bababudan around the mid and late 1600s, who smuggled the seeds from Yemen and planted in the surrounding of his hermitage in ‘Mullayanagiri’ hills in Chickmagalur district in the present day Karnataka. Coffee is also found to have medicinal properties. It contains high level of antioxidants and beneficial nutrients. Studies show that coffee drinkers have a much lower risk of several serious diseases. It is estimated that the world coffee production is approximately 9.00 million metric tonnes with Brazil topping the list producing a third of the total world production. Coffee is mainly grown along equator and 90% production takes place in developing countries providing significant employment. Over 2.50 billion cups of coffee are consumed in the world every day. Coffee is a major export commodity and was the top agricultural product for 12 countries and the second most valuable commodity exported by developing countries.

Looking back on how coffee was introduced in Northeastern India and how it took a U-turn, it is very disheartening thinking of not realizing the losses by the planting community. Coffee took roughly 300 years to transverse to the shores of the seven states of the Northeast, a distance of approximately 3000 Kms from South where Coffee took a foothold in India. Wish it had arrived earlier! Coffee would have been in a different pedestal by now. Northeast India is mostly hilly or mountainous with some plain areas in different states. These hilly areas are inhabited with Tibeto-Burman and Sino-Tibetan people very similar to the people residing in South-east Asian countries. These tribal people practice Jhum system of Slash and burn cultivation which involves clearing an area of forest farming it for a year and then letting it generates for several years. Paddy and other agricultural products are grown in traditional system of cultivation completely free from any chemical inputs. The products are grown in pristine natural environment. This system of cultivation though was not sustainable for a large population and thus economic condition of the villagers remained poor.

The soil and agro climatic condition in the North Eastern region was found suitable for coffee and other allied crops. It was thought prudent to encourage coffee cultivation amongst the village farmers to provide an alternative crop for their economic up liftmen and also to stop degradation of forest cover. Available records indicate that the British tried coffee on experimental basis in the hills district of Assam during 1850s. Subsequently, post independence, respective regional government through its agencies endeavored to promote coffee cultivation amongst its farmers. Yearning for a new venture to bring about qualitative change from the present saturnine and penury condition, the villagers welcome the effort and embraced the new crop in the hope of ameliorating their lives. In its bid to promote coffee in a big way, the Coffee Board of India established required infrastructures. Through its Extension offices and Technology Evaluation Centers, the Board extended different schemes and financial benefits to the growers launched by the government and dissemination of latest technology involved in coffee cultivation. Strengthened by the support and patron of the government the growers created thousands of hectares under coffee, started trucking from all corners to Guwahati where a factory was established for processing and further dispatch to Mysore for auction.

The primary objective while launching the coffee development programme in the Northeast was to wean away the people from the hazard of Jhum cultivation and also to provide an alternative source for generating additional income for their economic up liftmen. After 4 decades of adopting coffee cultivation, the plight and woes have not disappeared and resulted in dwindling of production and productive areas. What are the likely causes of this retrogressive development? What ails the development of coffee in the Northeast? When coffee can flourish and thrive in neighboring South East Asian countries which have similar soil and agro climatic condition, why it is still in an experimental stage in this part of India, is perplexing! The growers who had adopted coffee in the fond hope of leading a better life could not find any perceptible change in their economic up liftmen.

A closer look into other crops grown here like orange, betelnut, chayote etc. indicates clearly the growers preferring such crops with hassle free and faster payment. A fast buck in the hands of the growers plays like an invigorating and energizing potion, growth and development of the products takes place with or without government support. Pooling of coffee, late disposal of the auction have played havoc and has demoralized the planting community. Coffee is grown in the Northeast India under Agro-forestry which is said to produce quality coffee and coupled with traditional system of cultivation pans chemical inputs in the soil, the coffee can be categorized as ‘Default organic coffee’. The craze and demand of organic products in the world market is rising and fetching premium price. Attracting the buyer with quick disposal of the product aided by remunerative price will go a long way in making coffee a sustainable venture in the Northeast. Green shoots in the form of ‘SMOKY FALLS COFFEE’ of Shillong and ‘ETE COFFEE’ of Nagaland have appeared in the horizon of coffee trade of North-east, which should be nurtured and more similar enterprise can act as a great organic coffee of India. With Central Government focusing in the region for many perspectives such as Tourism, Act East Policy, Start ups conclave, opportunities lying in front should be grabbed as fast as possible. A correct push is what is required.

Giving reference of how South India has created a very big space for coffee in the country, it is never too late to begin a good venture which will benefit in many aspects. It’s just about grasping the right opportunity at the right time with the right motif. And as the saying goes ‘BETTER LATE THAN NEVER’, it is time to flourish.

 (The views expressed are the writers’ own)

First Published:Sept. 29, 2020, 12:49 p.m.

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