From pondering to coffee procurement — navigating self-doubt, power and people’s desires in BRT
The second episode of Coffee Grounds is a chronicle of coffee procurement from podu to podu in BR Hills — both of the activity itself and conversations around market control, equality, and trading fairly that lie underneath this activity in a new coffee-producing landscape.
Sannarangegowda keeps meticulous records of every producer — coffee yields, landholdings, shade trees. Photograph by Vivek Muthuramalingam
I’m running a 101-degree fever and reeling with self-doubt as I arrive in Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Wildlife Sanctuary (BRT) from Bangalore. January 2017 has been colder than expected. Coffee harvesting in BRT has been complete for a few weeks now, but I’ve been waiting for the village council to announce a minimum price. Initially, I was taken by how active the council had been in safeguarding producers; I would later realise, that the council was mostly a mouthpiece for local traders. In BRT, there is one — Mallappa (name changed).
Sannarangegowda, who works with us at Black Baza Coffee, meets me at the bridge at Manjigundi turn. I meekly request twenty minutes to brew myself some coffee. Two Aeropress rounds later (for five takers), we depart for Yerakanagadde. Dasegowda, a local resident, provides an expensive jeep hire, but we proceed: vehicles in BRT are rare sightings. Such opportunities must be captured before all the jeeps in vicinity are hurtled off to Yelandur, the nearest town, to ferry supplies of refined cooking oils and the like.
Surveying every half-acre coffee farm is time-consuming but necessary so producers know to whom they are selling their coffee. Photograph by Vivek Muthuramalingam
En route, Sannarangegowda tells me that Mallappa has “quarrelled” with a few Soliga people the day before, questioning why they are selling their coffee beans to outsiders. “He threatens to stop leasing out pulping machines. Can we get pulpers from elsewhere?”
I don’t know the answer. Mallappa is a source of more than coffee pulpers: most Soliga coffee growers also use Mallappa as their quickest source of finance. Funds for school tuition fees, family weddings, medical expenses, and house construction are conveniently obtained by showing up at Mallappa’s house and striking up a deal. Loan me money today, and you can “adjust” it against the coffee I promise to sell you later in the year. This year, Mallappa has started his procurement two weeks earlier than planned, with the intention of sweeping up coffee beans before any other buyer (that’s us) is active. Sannarangegowda is concerned that there is no coffee left with growers. “I think everybody has sold away their coffee,” he says. We sit in silence.
Coffee cherries in BR Hills are entirely hand pulped. Pulpers are controlled by local traders; this year, we may have to stick to unpulped Arabica cherry. Photograph by Arshiya Bose
Achukkegowda’s house is the drop-off point for farmers in Yerakanagadde to bring their coffee. His house sits atop his coffee homestead. The approach path has Lantana thickets on either side. As we drive up, I shiver each time the thistly Lantana branches scratch and screech against our jeep’s pastel-blue body. The vehicle halts mid-path, and we alight and climb over a bamboo fence towards his house.
There is a 6×6 feet nursery of saplings — bitter gourd, wild pumpkin, passion fruit and pepper. The bathing area is an enclosed one-person stone structure where water is heated over a wood fire in a brass bucket. Achukkegowda usually lays his ragi crop out in the sun. When I arrive, he is sitting on his porch, sharing space with his son’s motorcycle.
“How is our Soliga coffee selling?” asks Achukkegowda, as he does every time we meet. Before I can reply, Sannarangegowda interrupts.
“We need to hurry,” he says. “At 6pm they will lock the forest gate and we won’t be able to return after collection from other podus.”
Sannarangegowda’s worries are well-founded. ‘They’ are the Forest Department, the government department under whose official custody is the BRT Wildlife Sanctuary (also a Tiger Reserve). Soliga podus and coffee homesteads are strictly defined enclaves within a larger area protected for wildlife. Access to a few settlements is closely monitored and restricted between 6pm to 6am — even for local residents. Outsiders like myself — not resident in BRT, unacquainted with Forest Department rangers — need permission to visit podus regardless of timing.
Encounters with elephants, gaur, bears or wild boar could all quickly turn unfavourable — assuming, that is, that a tiger or leopard is sharp enough to avoid us.
A ‘kere’ (water tank) in BRT Wildlife Sanctuary. Photograph by Arshiya Bose
Sannarangegowda knows that if we’re delayed and the gate is locked, we will have to abandon our vehicle for the night and walk 8–10 km to the nearest podu before we can find a few people with scooters to drop us to Manjigundi (my base for the night). Encounters with elephants, gaur, bears or wild boar could all quickly turn unfavourable — assuming, that is, that a tiger or leopard is sharp enough to avoid us.
Sannarangegowda phones a few people while some young things are sent running to call Veeregowda and Basavegowda — brothers whose house and farms are located downhill. Achukkegowda drags six jute sacks from inside his house. I realise immediately why he was keen that we load and transport coffee from Yerakanagadde first: for about ten days, the coffee sacks have occupied much of the floor space in his house. Have I done the right thing in authoritatively proclaiming that no coffee must be exposed to moisture or stored outdoors at any cost?
Finally, two cultivators arrive, one of whom I recognise from an earlier group meeting. They have carried their coffee sacks uphill. Achukkegowda gives them a lota of water heated over a wood fire. A pink file is fashioned which records the farmers name against his estimate of the quantity of he is willing to sell us:
- Nanjegowda (son of Chaluvadimadegowda) — Washed Arabica — 31 kilos
- Siddegowda (son of Kolukanananjegowda) — Washed Arabica — 29 kilos
- Achukkegowda (son of Jadegowda) — Washed Arabica — 73 kilos
- Tammadi Basavegowda (son of Thammalinanjegowda) — Washed Arabica — 47 kilos
- Tammadi Veeregowda (son of Thammalinanjegowda) — Washed Arabica — 36 kilos
- Achukkegowda (son of Jadegowda) — Natural Robusta — 210 kilos
Siddegowda, the older of the two men who have brought their coffee, pushes his sack forward. “Here, please take my coffee. How much are you willing to give me for it?”.
I ask him: does he know the ‘market price’ of coffee? He doesn’t. I offer a newspaper and point out the Coffee Board of India’s printed prices.
Prices published in newspapers are not minimum or stipulated prices. Coffee prices in India are unregulated but New York and London Stock Exchanges are often used as reference; that’s what the newspapers print. The purpose is more indicative. This price is acceptable to Siddegowda, as the local trader is offering him two-thirds of what we are. I explain that these are useful reference points but that we want to average the price over the next six months to buffer against volatility. Coffee prices oscillate daily! “How many kilos do you have?” I ask. Siddegowda seems puzzled. “Will you not weigh the bags in your godown and inform me later?” Now it’s my turn to be thrown. Farmers in BRT have never taken charge of their coffee before. Siddegowda doesn’t know what a fair, transparent and respectful process is.
Now it’s my turn to be thrown. Farmers in BRT have never taken charge of their coffee before.
“We need a weighing scale,” I tell Sannarangegowda. We apologise to Siddegowda for our oversight, hurry back to the jeep and drive down to Kollegal to purchase a portable scale and thick jute rope.
Kollegal is dusty. Roads are unpaved and the town is a haze of construction sand, with a noticeable number of hardware stores. Yet we ramble around for the next hour looking for a shop that stocks handheld weighing scales. We find this, but we are too late to continue any procurement today. Cut pineapple in a thermocol bowl is reward.
Achukkegowda looks on as his coffee is weighed in 2017 — the first time this has happened in 30 years. Photograph by Arshiya Bose
The cold breeze on my feet — or maybe it’s my fever or fear, gripped with aloneness — keeps me awake through most of the night. I wonder: am I the only person naive enough to believe that injustices cultured over decades can be mended through practices as simple as trading fairly? I wonder whether other fools have come and gone, having been quicker learners.
By 8am next morning, Sannarangegowda and I are in Yerakanagadde. Bedegowda, Sannarangegowda’s classmate from school, has been cajoled into helping out. Every bag of coffee is weighed out in front of the individual farmer. I insist on the farmer reading aloud the weight of his coffee, but this is tricky because many are unfamiliar with English numbers. A calculator is used to do the math slowly and reconfirm at every step that the individual producer is comfortable with how things are unfurling.
Proof of purchase — Madappa calculates the amount due to him. Photograph by Arshiya Bose
In my naïveté, I do not realise that most Soliga people do not have bank accounts. Cash ebbs and flows for men and women alike. This means that I have to stand in the middle of the podu and count out money — twice. Twice because demonetisation in India has left people confused. Rupees twenty denomination notes are being used interchangeably with Rs 2000 — they are of the same colour. In BRT, colours, not numbers are used to distinguish between rupee notes. I try and maintain my composure but I am certain my body language gives me away. This is uncomfortable, awkward. My body revolts against these gestures of power. Handing out money is surely as unsettling as receiving it.
Handing out money is surely as unsettling as receiving it.
It’s something of a historic moment in my life. I never thought I’d be buying coffee from so many people all by myself; for the producers, it’s perhaps forgettable, routine. I later realise that people in BRT are most comfortable going with the flow. If there is the option for a fair and transparent process, many will prefer it. If the only option is a trader whose intention is to provide the lowest price per kilo by whatever means possible (in 2017, this was 46% lower than our price), there will be no vocal or violent demand for better prices or process. Once money is handed over, a thumbprint is used as a sort of proof of purchase. Many growers cannot sign their names — even in Kannada.
We move from podu to podu, replicating the process with each coffee grower at a quick pace. There is an unspoken unease between Sannarangegowda and I. When could Mallappa show up for a “quarrel”? Will we find that nobody has any coffee beans left — and what could that mean for the future of our project, and for Soliga coffee growers in BRT?
Yerakanagadde producers wait for their bags to be weighed at Achukkegowda’s house. Photograph by Arshiya Bose
At the end of five days, we have collected coffee from 160 farmers in total. We exceed our procurement target by 2000 kilos because most producers have hidden away coffee from Malappa — wanting to keep aside at least fifty kilos each for us. On our way back from Nellikadaru, the last podu from which we have collected coffee, we decide to reward ourselves. Choices are slim, so Giri Darshini it is — the only eatery in BRT. At lunch, I order two papads for each of us. After lunch we sit outside on a small parapet and dunk chocolate-cream Bourbon biscuits into tea. Tea. This is the kind of ironic moment that has become so commonplace in India that it is no longer worth mentioning out loud.
By now we are a fairly big group outside the eatery. Many have been enlisted to help weigh and load coffee. I double dunk my biscuit into the tumbler of tea and devour. Some smoke a beedi. Sannarangegowda and Bedegowda giggle about Nanjegowda’s intoxication from a few weeks ago: apparently he was found fast asleep in his ragi field. In these moments there is closeness — from having spent many hours together shifting, lifting jute sacks, sharing hunger pangs, two papads each. And perhaps also from a shared uncertainty about the future, of wanting something for which none of us have a clear blueprint.
I look on as Sannarangegowda looks through a handheld telescope. Photograph by Vivek Muthuramalingam
First published by Medium