The myriad bursts of coffee beans on their waxy bushes look like mistletoe from the distance. A very Christmassy touch, except that this happens to be in a remote area in Andhra Pradesh near the Orissa border. The neatly arranged rows of coffee bushes on the rich, black slopes of the Araku valley seem to have been planted by a God with an obsession for symmetry. Under the shade of sal and teak trees which tower over the crouching bushes, the tribal villagers, the custodians of all they survey, cannot quite comprehend the fact that their coffee is sought after by the Chanel classes in the rarified world of Viennese sophistication and Parisian chic. For them, knocking around their coffee bushes is just another day's work.
Coffee-tasting juries from all over the world come to this breathtakingly beautiful part of the Eastern Ghats to certify coffee for foreign markets. This branding exercise ensures that the coffee fetches far higher prices than the market rate both in India and abroad. In the degraded lands where coffee cannot be grown, a vast array of saplings — from cherries to sweet limes to tamarind as well as others like drumsticks and papaya — await planting. The driving force behind this re-afforestation-cum-income generation scheme involving 3 million trees is the French dairy products company Danone which has partnered with Naandi Foundation in Hyderabad to create sustainable livelihoods for the tribals.
To make afforestation a livelihood-based community-owned sustainable programme, Naandi has roped in the ITDA (Integrated Tribal Development Agency) to give NREGA wages to adivasis.
How little we know or care about tribals and their way of life can be seen in the little hotels in the Araku valley. Hordes of tourists come to take in the area's mist-wreathed beauty and have a look at how ‘these people' live through a quick visit to a rather run-down local museum. On a good winter day, the little town is awash with vocal Bengalis going through idlis and upma like combine harvesters, gearing up for a little jolly and a jaunt to work up an appetite for lunch. The more rapacious come to cart off tribal instruments and other craftwork to sell in markets looking for novel ways of one-upmanship.
The thickly forested area holds many surprises. In the middle of seemingly nowhere, I came across a gigantic coffee processing unit. On closer inspection, I found a crumbling plaque proclaiming that the peripatetic Jairam Ramesh, in his earlier avatar as commerce minister, had opened the plant. Row upon row of peanut-coloured coffee beans nestled under their tarpaulin covering to keep out the heavy dew. Nearby, around a towering inferno of a bonfire, tribal women danced to primeval beats under the star-lit sky, not for the benefit of tourists of which there were none or for me. It so happens that this happy campy ritual is their way of life and one into which they don't particularly welcome voyeuristic intrusions.
Why on earth would Danone want to exercise itself by planting trees in an area where Maoism still thrives? Simple, it makes good business sense. For every tree planted, the company can rake in carbon credits. That the tribals gain in the bargain is a bonus. David Hogg, livelihood director of Naandi, is literally elbow-deep in manure when I met him on a hillock in Araku. I have never met anyone more enthusiastic about waste products from cow dung to vermicompost. He enticed me to a pit where he is marinating marigolds to be used as a pest repellent. He has spent decades studying the variety of crops and trees best suited to the area. He holds forth at length on the glories of local knowledge and wisdom in agriculture to me and the bandbox fresh Rajiv Dubey of the Mahindra Group who has come to survey the area to see what his company can contribute to re-afforestation. Hogg's offer of a sniff of fresh manure is accepted gamely by the elegant Dubey and with horror from me. David and his team has organised 20,000 adivasis to plough 12,500 hectares with coffee and livelihood giving trees ranging from teak to bamboo to pomegranate etc. And this is now the world's largest organic coffee cooperative.
As night falls, the stars seem to zoom closer to earth in a sort of fantasy that de Beers dreamed up. The clear night air almost hurts my lungs used to large amounts of particulate matter in Delhi. Emerging like spectres from the forests at this time are the tribals from the various agricultural cooperatives. A local worker informed me that some among the blanket-clad wild-eyed men were Maoists. If they were, I have never seen a more clubbable bunch of people.
David saw no threat from the locals either owing to his efforts to introduce new farming techniques or from the fact that he is a New Zealander. The threat he felt came from ill-informed schemes that governments and some corporates tried to impose crops and farming patterns alien to the region and who, in addition, had an eye to robbing the genetic diversity of the flora and fauna. India, he said, was home to the only variety of cow which was immune to foot and mouth disease. And its genetic material has been whisked away by a Scottish company right under the lazy eye of the Indian authorities. The hardy cow which is native to Kerala is near extinction in India which appears totally indifferent to the enormous wealth of biodiversity it has or for the need to monetise this for the benefit of farmers in whose name politicians shed weight and tears.
The myth that money in the hands of tribals goes on drink and destroys families is belied by the fact that almost all the children in the area are in schools. Progressive NGOs and corporates have value-added to the local schools. The girl students I met had certainly begun looking beyond the lives of their parents. They literally aimed for the stars under that indigo sky. Their general knowledge put me to shame. I couldn't help wondering what a trail they would blaze if they had access to the kind of education that most of us in the cities take for granted. This is the model of holistic development that India needs. Education is the offshoot of income generation from agriculture which is an offshoot of conservation by way of afforestation of degraded lands which, in turn, buys carbon credits and reduces greenhouse gases.
The interesting and heartening thing about the tribals here is that they are neither resentful of governmental indifference, nor do they expect any hand-outs. They have taken control of their lives, taken help wherever they could get it. They have, in the words of TS Eliot, measured out their lives with coffee spoons.