by Andrew Flachs
Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, Purdue University
Most of my days begin with a cup of coffee. Sometimes I grind my own, sometimes I go to my local hipster cappuccino place, and most days I drink pre-ground Folgers because it’s free at the office. The rich smell and the warmth of the cup help me ease into the morning, as I am decidedly not a morning person, while the lingering buzz gives me an extra hour of focus after I come home and put our baby to sleep. When I am feeling fancy, guilty, or otherwise aware of my consumption choices, I go for organic and fair-trade shade-grown coffee. The rich smell and warmth of the cup is the same, but the packaging reminds me of the various plants, animals, and humans who might benefit from this process. Paige West, along with others like Sarah Lyons and Daniel Jaffee, have shown how some of this alternative agriculture branding can break down in practice, failing to provide the remunerative benefits it promises or exoticizing the people who grow coffee. In other ways, the coffee trade opens up new possibilities for sociopolitical power by bringing farmers into new relationships with money, resources, or ownership. I began learning from South Indian farmers participating in fair trade and organic agriculture in 2012, with my first lessons coming not from coffee but from cotton. Yet I have found surprising links between coffee and cotton – most importantly, such programs are always complicated and locally variable.
This initial project compared farmers’ experiences planting mutually exclusive genetically modified (GM) cotton and organic cotton seeds in Telangana, South India. After months of walking through GM cotton fields, I had learned to see the beauty in uninterrupted rows of chest-high green stalks, to smile at nectar-drunk bees playing amongst the pink and yellow flowers. Like cotton growers, I began to appreciate the way the sun catches cotton hairs when you look from the right angle across rural India’s neoliberal capitalism. Annual hybrid cotton, the Gossypium hirsutum that Telangana farmers plant, has a vibrant green for much of its life cycle. If farmers apply fertilizers at the ideal moment, just before a gentle rain, the fields will beam, verdant against the black earth.
I never quite got used to the mingled smell of diesel and pesticides that lays across fields recently sprayed for whiteflies and aphids. The combination of urea, diammonium phosphate, and bug neurotoxins has always reminded me of A1 steak sauce, a thick and sinister umami that lingers in my nose long after I leave a field or fertilizer shop. Raised on the border of protected state hunting lands in Pennsylvania, I never truly grew accustomed to the bags of GM cotton seeds, sacks of fertilizer, pesticide bottles, plastic bags stamped with shop brands, and innumerable other bits of litter that blow like tumbleweeds on Telangana farms. As a former Enviro-thon middle schooler, these bits of garbage in the cotton monocultures rankled me.
And so I was immediately struck by the diversity of plant life when I stepped onto an organic cotton farm in 2012 sponsored by a private company based in Hyderabad. I later found that organic cotton farmers here managed more than twice as many useful plants in their fields than the GM farmers of Kavrupad. This is not an inherent feature of organic agriculture itself but an explicit design through which these farms meet regulatory demands for a diversified agriculture. Farmers are subsidized by the program to plant more biodiverse fields, with special areas set aside for food crops. Rows of cotton are interspersed with lines of pigeon pea, a nitrogen fixer and a food. Trap plants like castor lure bollworms away from the cotton while ornamentals like marigolds serve double duty as festive garlands that attract predatory wasps and deter nematodes. A1 steak sauce does not linger in my nostrils in these places. Instead, the smell of the earth mingled with cow manure dominates. Farmers do not wash out fertilizer bags and pesticide bottles in the streams where children (and sweating anthropologists) swim and fish, because they don’t use them here. I am professionally cautious of being too optimistic about organic agriculture. All interventions make certain kinds of demands on farmers, require audits, accumulate capital off the farm, and contribute to agrarian imaginaries that are not always in farmers’ best interests. But if I were guided by my nose rather than a close reading of agrarian political economy, I know which farms I’d rather support.
India is home to more certified organic farmers than any other country, totaling more than a quarter of all certified organic growers on the planet. Every crop and production system is different, though. The search for a good comparison to the ways of learning and managing socioecological relationships in dryland cotton brought me to certified organic coffee forests in the Eastern Ghats, a mountain range a few hundred kilometers east of the cotton farms. When I visited Araku’s coffee gardens in summer 2018, organic coffee farmers were still recovering from the Hudhud, a cyclone that devastated these forests in 2014. It would have been the perfect moment for skeptical farmers to abandon the project, throwing up their hands at onerous regulations and constant surveillance of watchful project managers. Yet they didn’t. For some reason, this system passed a real-world test of resilience, and coffee farmers were expecting their first full crop after waiting four years for the forest to regenerate.
Organic cotton is grown under the open sun. While measurably more biodiverse, those fields reads to this US American (used to maize monoculture) like a farm field. These conditions would kill coffee bred to grow under the shade, and so coffee agroforestry feels more like a managed woods to me. The harsh summer light on a hot July day vanishes as we step into the hills. We are immediately engulfed in dark green, reflecting off coffee’s thick, waxy leaves and down again from the snakes of black pepper vines above. The temperature drops ten degrees and birds, rarely seen on cotton farms, chirp warnings at us. Organic coffee gardens are literal forests in the hills, and stepping into these spaces during a sunny day turns my vision emerald. Like organic cotton farms, biodiversity is built in by design. But the options multiply in coffee agroforestry, where agricultural plants are grown in accordance with the niches afforded by a forest ecosystem. One typical farm might have pineapple and ginger on the ground, chest-high coffee trees, a mid-level canopy of papaya and banana ten feet above, followed by silver oaks that provide shade and a straight pole for black pepper’s vines ten feet above that. Interspersed in this forest are mangoes, figs, Pongam oil trees, gooseberries, and other useful crops, to say nothing of hilltop meadows and lowland farms where grains and vegetables grow.
All of this habitat, especially because it is managed without chemical fertilizers or pesticides, provides space for birds, insects, reptiles, and a wide array of non-economic plants that farmers see no need to destroy. The tree cover traps moisture in the soil while the underbrush drops dew onto our sandaled feet. Instead of fertilizers or manure, this forest is alive with the funk of rotting leaves and humus. In the wake of the cyclone, many of coffee trees are new and young, next to decaying stumps. The alternative to replanting is clear when we reach the top of the hill and look across the landscape – forests cut down for timber and mountainsides ripped open for mining.
Although much forested land is owned or claimed by state agencies like the forest service, or the integrated Tribal development agency, Adivasi, members of India’s Scheduled Tribe communities, managed these areas long before and after the Indian government and extractive industries took an interest in the bauxite under Araku farmers’ lands. The Eastern Ghats, where Adivasi farmers have lived for generations, received new attention when veins of bauxite, the world’s primary source of aluminum, were discovered under the hills. Adivasi farmers have faced an uphill battle for socioeconomic mobility across India. Displaced from optimal farmland in India’s ancient past, the British colonial government considered many tribal communities to be inherently criminal and restricted their access to land and other rights. After independence, many Adivasi communities fought with the forest service for control over land, timber, and minerals until a series of reforms culminating in the Forest Rights Act of 2006 strengthened their tenure. Growing coffee and staying on the land is one way that Adivasi communities can secure contested territory for themselves, assembling political power and forcing the state to honor regulations that prevent non-tribal landowners from taking forested land and resources.
The added value of certified organic coffee as a commodity pales in comparison to the value of land rights and enduring tenure for current and future generations made possible through organic farming as a relationship. Farmers risk losing titles and jeopardizing bank loans when this land is incorrectly registered, a bureaucratic hurdle that favors extractive industries with legal expertise but one that can be overcome when organic programs certify farmers. Organic certification and enduring land rights give these farmers a way to imagine a future as coffee farmers, on their own territory, managing their own forests. Noting how many of the younger generation and those without land seek wage labor in urban centers, one farmer explains, “as long as you have your own land, you can make money. You can get money each month and you need not leave.”
Farmers and project officers complain that some banks would prefer to cultivate more lucrative mineral or timber extraction contracts, and so regularly delay or deny financing for Adivasi farmers thought to be wasting these resources with subsistence livelihood activities. Organic programs help farmers work through this bureaucracy and diminish the risk that outsiders will seize land because of misfiled paperwork, creating value for farmers not just through the recognition of hard work but through the recognition of formal land tenure. Farmers with connections to outside institutions like the organic coffee cooperatives have an easier time persisting in such legal and financial struggles.
When I admit that I prefer the cool hills, the green light, the smell of humus to the sensations of Telangana’s cotton farms, farmers laugh. Of course the environment’s better here, the air and the water are cleaner here than in the cities, one young man explains to me. Cradling his newborn daughter, he says that he hopes to send her away to better schools in the nearby city, but makes it clear that she should return, away from the smoke and dust. Ultimately, we all want to live here, he says, gesturing at the hills. If, today, organic agriculture is a way to stay among these sights and smells, he’s for it. Understanding the nuances of aspiration and valuation on organic coffee farms helps us understand what drives long-term commitments to alternative agriculture and design programs better suited to improving life for historically marginalized people. But it also helps us understand how parallel values – what I value as a picky organic consumer holding a steaming cup, what farmers value, what project intermediaries value when they audit farms, even what the ecosystem seems to value – might all reinforce one another even as they offer their own directives for the future of farming.
All photos by Andrew Flachs.
Flachs, Andrew. 2016a. “Redefining Success: The Political Ecology of Genetically Modified and Organic Cotton as Solutions to Agrarian Crisis.” Journal of Political Ecology 23 (1): 49–70.
———. 2016b. “The Economic Botany of Organic Cotton Farms In Telangana, India.” Journal of Ethnobiology 36 (3): 683–713. https://doi.org/10.2993/0278-0771-36.3.683.
Flachs, Andrew, and Sreenu Panuganti. Forthcoming. “Organic Aspirations in South India.” Economic Anthropology.
Jaffee, Daniel. 2007. Brewing Justice: Fair Trade Coffee, Sustainability, and Survival. 1st ed. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Lyon, Sarah. 2010. Coffee and Community: Maya Farmers and Fair-Trade Markets. Boulder: University Press of Colorado.
West, Paige. 2012. From Modern Production to Imagined Primitive: The Social World of Coffee from Papua New Guinea. Durham: Duke University Press.