Coffee Agroforestry: A Shady Affair?

The Western Ghats, India. Photo by Alosh Bennet

The Western Ghats, India. Photo by Alosh Bennet

Coffee plantations are expanding fast at the cost of disrupting ecological systems. Coffee Agroforestry System (AFS) seem to have positive impact on environmental services; or do they?

Kodagu, located in the Western Ghats in India, produces 2% of the world’s coffee. The Western Ghats is one of the top ten biological hotspots in the world; over 137 species of mammals and 508 species of birds can be found here, including a sizeable population of majestic elephants.

Over the last 30 years, coffee has expanded tremendously in the region to the detriment of the forest and its dwellers. The intensification of coffee cultivation is also leading to the removal of shade trees which is directly linked not only to better growth of coffee but also to numerous ecological benefits. Water is another critical resource affected. The main rivers which provides water all over Southern India, originate from these coffee areas of the Western Ghats.

The tree composition of this coffee landscape has been affected by changes in farmers’ management practices, such as irrigation to stimulate coffee mass flowering, or introduction of exotic tree species (mainly silky oak) for timber production and pepper.

Speaking at the World Congress on Agroforestry WCA2014, Philippe Vaast, an eco-physiologist from ICRAF & CIRAD, said trees are important not only for providing shade but also for providing a microclimate for other organisms, but farmers are not adept at managing shade.

“The right amount of shade is important for coffee; too much or too little is harmful. This manipulation of shade is not done well or understood by farmers. A lot of work needs to be done in this area. ”

A project undertaken by ICRAF and partners studied for 3 years how the change in tree cover from predominantly native tree species to exotic species affected the water dynamics in coffee AFS of the Kavery watershed of Kodagu district, the most important coffee district of the region.

The research threw up a mixed bag of results: the native trees were better than exotics in terms of providing optimum shade and a better environment for coffee growth, but the exotic trees were superior in recharging aquifers.

According to Syam Viswanath, a scientist at Indian Council of Forestry Research & Education (ICFRE), two important factors have to be taken into account for coffee agroforestry system: yield and quality.

“The kind of tree a farmer finally plants on his farm is a result of many factors: growing speed, maintainability, robustness, economic value or simply its attractiveness to an elephant!”


By Nitasha Nair

Ms Nair is a Senior Communication Officer with the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) – India

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3 People have left comments on this post

» Ganesan RP said: { Feb 14, 2014 - 01:02:12 }

I think, farmer will adopt to the system, if you prove the benefits very clearly. A team may have to study and suggest according to farmer’s land condition & etc.

» kushalappa cg said: { Mar 15, 2014 - 01:03:21 }

It is sad that the presentation by Dr.Philippe has been misquoted and the title of the blog is not right . It is not that coffee is expanding at the cost of forests but coffee plantations were established in legal private wooded area and not on government forests . Being legal owner of the land the farmer is free to take up any cultivation he intends and our studies under CAFNET over four long years has indicated that Coffee farming in Kodagu is the most environmentally friendly farming practice and if any other crop was taken up by the farmer then all the trees that we see in the landscape would have been lost by now. I am professor of Forestry at College of Forestry and a small coffee farmer like most other farmers in Kodagu and we take up cultivation of coffee in a sustinable manner which not only provides economic returns to farmers but also key ecological services to the communities that live in the region. Hence I would wish to inform that Coffee cultivation is not a Shady affair but a Sound Ecological Economic affair and the coffee farmers in the region need to be complimented and provided with incentives rather than being branded as agents who are involved in deforestation. I am sure the article is poorly written with a bad title .

I hope the author would offer her comments

With regards

» Daisy Ouya said: { Mar 17, 2014 - 10:03:54 }

Thank you for your comments Prof. Kushalappa. The title refers to the studies by Vaast et al. on shade dynamics It did not imply that coffee farming is a shady – i.e. dubious — affair. We apologise for the erroneous impression given by the title.

Vigyan Bhavan & Kempinski Ambience

10 - 14 February 2014 Delhi, India
organised by


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