Into the Araku Valley (India)

(Our roving ambassador, Phoebe, reports on her visit to a unique coffee source - the tribal area of Araku Valley in India)

In India’s hidden gem, theAraku Valley, rumors fly about poisonous spiders and Maoist rebels. And while it might be hard to stumble upon either one of these, what assuredly exists is one of the world’s newest Fair Trade coffee cooperatives, managed and founded by indigenous (adivasi) tribal groups. In a country where tea flows like water, locating a decent cup of coffee is a fraught undertaking; tracking down a Fair Trade, Organic cup of coffee is like trying to buy real estate in Neverland. When we heard that the Fair Trade certified Mutually Aided Cooperative Society (MACS), was growing organic, specialty coffee beans, we just had to learn more.

I’d been living in Indiafor three months, and had become accustomed to the constant noise, pollution, and the sometimes delightful, sometimes maddening chaos that reigns in the country. I hadn’t expected much different when traveling to Araku, tucked away in the state of Andrah Pradesh, and was struck by the Valley’s stunning mountains and the more tranquil pace of life. If the landscape, with its grassy knolls, ancient, towering mango trees, and clean streams seemed like the perfect setting for any fairytale, I was to learn about the real life fairytale of the MACS.

Indigenous tribal groups live in remote communities dotting the Valley’s sweeping mountains. However, economic strife and the ensuing slash and burn agriculture employed by some villagers has wreaked havoc on both the Valley’s precious eco-system and the tribals’ rich social fabric. programs promoting sustainable livelihood solutions have met with some, though not resounding success. In the early 70’s, and then again in the late 1990’s, the Integrated Tribal Development Agency sought to diversify the tribals’ income stream by introducing coffee. Officials handed out coffee and white pine seedlings to be planted side by side – the coffee as a cash crop alternative, and the pines to encourage reforestation. But adequate capacity building and training weren’t part of the package. I spoke one evening to a group of tribals who said the government agencies had never fully explained what coffee was. The community had harvested the unripe, green “cherry” fruit that encapsulates the bean. Villagers tried eating the crop, cooking, frying, and boiling the beans, all the while questioning the worth and function of this strange fruit. “We wondered what sort of gift this was,” one community member noted.

Luckily, a different sort of development assistance was on the way. The Naandi Foundation, an Indian organization dedicated to child education, healthcare, organic agriculture and poverty alleviation, began working with the tribal groups four years back. They have helped build a robust cooperative structure, introduced organic farming methods, and helped bring coffee to market, commanding higher returns for farmers. Already, the coop numbers more than 6,000 farmers and is looking to expand to over 25,000 in the next two years. Last year, the cooperative made its first sales, though not under Fair Trade terms, to an Indian company. Incomes have doubled, even tripled. As one tribal woman explained to me, “I can now afford to save. My family can also purchase gifts and clothing for our annual festival without depending on others [financiers] to give us expensive loans.”

Farmers proudly showed me the delicate fertilizer brew that Naandi has trained them to make – an organic, fermented mixture of cow urine, leaves and water – and brought me up the mountain slopes to show me their coffee trees. I spent a night in a remote village where farmers were amazed at the presence of their first foreign Fair Trade visitor. The villagers performed their sacred dances under the full moon and sang songs of celebration. “We aren’t asking for the world,” an elder explained when talking about coffee pricing, “we simply want enough money so we can stay healthy, send our children to school, feel safe.”

Dean’s Beans is working hard to bring the first shipment of this special coffee into the States during the coop’s coming harvest. So keep your eyes peeled and be amongst the first inAmerica to try this exotic, rich, tribally grown coffee!

-Phoebe

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