Wildlife & Biodiversity

Labour scarcity makes coffee plantation ecosystem in Western Ghats fragile: Study

Rising labour costs, urbanisation and increased use of pesticides point to a growing conservation concern in the Ghats

By DTE Staff
Published: Tuesday 29 September 2020
Agroforestry plantations in the Western Ghats, especially coffee plantations, have contributed to conservation of biodiversity. Wikimedia Commons

Agroforestry plantations in the Western Ghats, especially coffee plantations, have contributed to conservation of biodiversity by providing habitat for key species of concern. But rising labour costs, urbanisation and increased use of pesticides may threaten that.  

A new study has evaluated the relationship between farm management and biodiversity in commodity production agroforests, particularly the coffee plantations, in the Western Ghats.   

A team of scientists surveyed 344 coffee plantations in the Chikkamagaluru, Hassan and Kodagu districts of Karnataka. The team found the following were associated with higher variety of tree species necessary for sustaining wildlife habitat:

  • Larger farm size
  • Increase in canopy density
  • Cultivation of coffea arabica varieties

The size of the land holdings in coffee plantations, according to the results, was affected by the densification of the tree canopy in the last decade. This correlated with tree species diversity, which was necessary for bird diversity as well. 

The study was conducted by scientists from the Indian School of Business (ISB), Centre for Wildlife Studies (India), and Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison (USA). It was published in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers on September 21, 2020.

Labour costs

To sustain the biodiversity-friendly conditions, however, more labourers were needed. A disruption in labour supply impacted the management practices, which in turn impacted biodiversity.

The study stated:

In coffee plantations, tree maintenance demands a large amount of seasonal labour force. This is compounded further because labour costs make up 65 per cent of input costs. With declining supply and increasing costs of labour, preferred management options tend towards reducing tree canopy and tree diversity, especially among small landholders.

Due to insufficient labour and an increasingly volatile market, small landholders in the Western Ghats were gravitating towards production and management practices associated with maintaining fewer tree varieties, it added.

This simplification of production impacted the smallest landholders the most, the study added.

A labour-scarce environment also prompts higher usage of pesticides along with substitution of Arabica with Robusta coffee plantations. As a result, several households studied converted farms from Arabica to Robusta as the price difference between the two varieties almost reached parity, the study stated.

Roughly 75% of coffee plantations in the Western Ghats were smaller than 10 hectares as a result of the conversion, the study found.

According to Ashwini Chhatre, co-author of the study and associate professor of Public Policy at the Indian School of Business (ISB):

Biodiversity is the latest casualty of the pandemic-induced lockdowns that triggered mass reverse migration. The current situation makes it harder for coffee planters to hire labour, and for labour to get to coffee plantations without significant hurdles. In addition to the blow to livelihoods and costs to the larger economy, our analysis shows that the cascade of effects will eventually impinge upon the birds and the bees.

He added that the study’s results also pointed to ways in which economic policy can be used to mitigate the impact on biodiversity through better support for smallholder coffee producers.

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