From coffee to biodiversity: Nelson Institute study reveals how coffee farms influence tree species diversity in India

In a study recently published in the Annal of American Association of Geographers, scientists in the U.S. and India report that plant and animal biodiversity in the Western Ghats region of India is contingent upon the growing conditions of local coffee plantations.

Through a survey of 344 coffee farm owners in Karnataka state, the study revealed that farmers who grow Arabica coffee varieties support biodiversity, the variety of life found in an ecosystem, by maintaining dense tree canopies that are needed for the shade-grown varieties. When diverse tree canopies are sustained, the study states that shade-grown coffee plantations can serve as “key conservation sites” that support rich bird species diversity, as well as some mammalian diversity. However, these plantations, which tend to be larger in size and maintained by a permanent labor force, are far from the majority in Karnataka, putting into question the future of the region’s biodiversity.

Paul Robbins, dean of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, is the lead author on the study. By collaborating with researchers at the Centre for Wildlife Studies (India), the Indian School of Business (India), and Vaishnavi Tripuraneni, a Nelson Institute graduate student, Robbins found that small coffee farm owners, referred to as coffee smallholders, tend to choose simple production methods that are less labor-intensive in order to save money. Specifically, by growing Robusta coffee varieties that fare well in an open-canopy system, coffee smallholders reduce tree maintenance, which is one of the most labor-intensive aspects of farming in the region.

The study states that roughly 75 percent of coffee plantations in the Western Ghats region are smaller than 10 hectares, indicating that the large majority of the region’s coffee farmers manage small, family-run farms. Given the prevalence of smallholder farms, Robbins said that coffee smallholder decisions have great implications for the size and diversity of local tree canopies.

“Start with farmers! The future of biodiversity conservation has a great deal to do with what commercial producers do with their land, after all, especially small farmers,” said Robbins. “Our finding, that biodiversity has been underwritten for decades by the availability of cheap labor on big farms, should therefore worry us all.”

A Karnatakan coffee canopy. Photo by Paul Robbins
A Karnatakan coffee canopy. Photo by Paul Robbins

Due to factors including urbanization, labor migration, and reduced fertility, the Western Ghats region, and rural southern India more broadly, has suffered from widespread and ongoing declines in agricultural workforce availability. This decline has been followed by steep inclines in labor wages, creating new economic challenges for smallholders, who, with fewer available resources, are unable to afford a robust farming workforce.

The study reports that coffee smallholders often remove large, older shade trees to avoid tree maintenance costs. And since Robusta coffee varieties can tolerate more direct sunlight, tree removal results in little consequence for the coffee crop. Even more, Arabica coffee varieties, which have historically sold at much higher price points than Robusta varieties, have experienced significant devaluation in recent years, resulting in even less incentive for farmers to maintain the tree canopies needed to grow Arabica coffee.

With small coffee farms trending towards more cost-effective production methods, the study implies that the fate of tree diversity in India’s Western Ghats is left in the hands of a relatively few large-scale coffee plantation owners that maintain diverse tree canopies. But the study also found that large plantations tend to use higher levels of herbicides and pesticides, adversely impacting other forms of diversity, such as avians and amphibians. To address these issues, Robbins said that innovative solutions aimed at helping coffee smallholders maintain and encourage tree species diversity are needed.

“As farm labor becomes scarcer and more expensive in India, we will need to work creatively with farmers to find ways for them to make wildlife-friendly decisions in turbulent markets,” said Robbins. “The fate of rare birds and countless other wild taxa will hinge on things like automation, subsidies, and labor migration as much as it does on protected areas, control of poaching, and other conventional conservation concerns.”

Vaishnavi Tripuraneni, a PhD candidate in the Nelson Institute’s Environment and Resources program, worked side-by-side with Robbins throughout the project and is listed as the second author on the study. Her roles included cleaning and analyzing data from the farmer interviews, as well as examining agrarian theory and background research, a significant component of the publication.

Tripuraneni grew up in Hyderabad, the capitol city of Telangana, India, and a neighboring state of the study area. But her interest in rural agrarian livelihoods didn’t develop until she began working with Robbins in 2014. Tripuraneni said that their research reveals the importance of studying the connections between people and the environment.

“Given that we live in a world with declining biodiversity and so much human impact on the environment,” Tripuraneni said, “this study actually is finding that human-managed landscapes can actually protect and preserve biodiversity.”

But the question is, Tripuraneni asks, “Under what conditions can that happen?”

As labor scarcity, rapidly rising labor costs, and urbanization of coffee-producing regions continue to intensify, the study indicates that failure to address these issues could result in long-term impacts on biodiversity in the Western Ghats, and beyond. In response, the study’s authors suggested the need for policy aimed at supporting smallholder farms – policy that will encourage smallholders to manage their farms in ways that help sustain a rich and diverse environmental future.

“If farmers want to have coffee plantations, what kind of policies do we need? What kind of support can they be provided so that how they structure their farms is beneficial for biodiversity?” said Tripuraneni. “We can’t just take people out of the landscape. I think historically we know that leads to other kinds of problems. So, you have to work with the people that are already there, and what they need.”

The study suggests possible solutions including farm wage price supports and subsidies, which would address how the rising cost of labor is influencing farming decisions.

Currently, Tripuraneni is in the process of writing her dissertation, which focuses on smallholder farm debt in southern India. With expected completion in spring 2021, her research explores yet another aspect of how economic forces shape agrarian practices and livelihoods in India.