Evan’s research on agroforestry in Ecuador inspired me to learn more about coffee in India. No coffee seed sprouted outside Africa or Arabia before the 17th century. Legend has it this all changed when a pilgrim named Baba Budan smuggled fertile coffee beans out of Mecca strapped to his stomach. Returning to his native India, he successfully cultivated the beans near Mysore.Commercial cultivation began in 1840 when the British rule established Arabica coffee plantations throughout the mountains of Southern India. Till today much of the production comes from the Western Ghats. Initially Arabica was widespread, but huge infestations of coffee rust disease led many farms to switch to Robusta or Arabica/Liberica hybrids. Today India is the 6th largest producer of coffee in the world – behind Brazil, Vietnam, Indonesia, Colombia and Ethiopia – boasting a total production in 2010 of some 5 million bags. It exports around 70% of this – with exports of greens roughly split between 25% Arabica and 75% Robusta. The indian arabica is very sought after.
In India, traditionally in shade coffee cultivation multiple native species were used over the coffee. During my visit to a Spring Valley plantation a few kilometers away from Cardamom County, I asked if coffee was ever grown in wild forests in India. The answer is no. First because forests are now protected. Secondly because coffee requires partial shade, unlike cardamom which can live under total shade. Recently the australian variety Silver Oak (Grevillea robusta) has gradually been replacing native species in the canopy. The Silver oak timber provides the planters with an additional source of income during times of fluctuating coffee prices. But over-reliance on this single alien species severely affects the conservation value of coffee plantations, first because it leads to an overall loss in biodiversity and secondly make the coffee plantation more vulnerable to diseases.
Shade coffee when done right has been shown to improve the quality of the coffee.