I drink coffee, espresso usually, because I’m Italian. I almost never drink other preparations of coffee, unless there’s nothing else. So now I find myself in a village of an indigenous community, the Irulas, in the middle of the Nilgiris forest in South India. I’m here because I’m guiding a 11 day-long study trip of nine students from the University of Gastronomic Sciences in an area around Bangalore. We’re visiting the Bhangalapadugai Women Progressive Group facility, where products coming from other Irulas villages are processed and packaged. An old woman approaches offering what I think is chai, tea boiled with clarified butter, because that’s what they commonly drink around here. Then I smell something more familiar and take a cup. Coffee, but not espresso. I kindly thank the woman and take a sip. I freeze. I’ve never had such a good coffee in my life other than the best espresso. So now I want to know more about the community and the coffee.
The Irulas lives in several villages in the low altitude regions in South and East Nilgiris and North and East Coimbatore, in the state of Tamil Nadu. It’s believed that they moved from the plains to the mountains for better farming possibilities in the forests, but they still maintain connections to markets in the plains. To complete their income, many men and women work as pickers in the huge fields of the big conventional tea companies, but no one would do just that. They see it would limit their freedom.
The head of the village shows us the processing facility. They have a little seed bank and handle cotton; spices; nuts; honey from rock bees which is harvested dangerously from hives on trees and high rock walls; amla fruit and coffee. They receive the Arabica variety coffee from the other Irulas villages and use a little machine that separates the skin from the bean, then they do the drying. After that the beans are sent to another facility nearby for the roasting and final processing and packing. The latter facility is run by Last Forest Enterprise, a company set up by the Keystone Foundation, an important institution in the Nilgiris Biosphere. The Foundation does a remarkable job: it carries on research projects, organizes lessons and conferences, involves schools and children, supports about 20 different indigenous communities with farming knowledge, product processing and marketing. It also provides networking means such as a local radio run by the communities themselves and a printed monthly newsletter in three languages, Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. This helps the communities to make a living, maintain independence from the big tea companies neighbouring them and keep their dignity and traditions.
I would like to have some more coffee, but it’s time to jump on our jeeps to visit another Irula village, where the coffee, amongst other crops, grows. After 30 minutes through the forest on a bumpy and windy, narrowing road, we get to the village. It’s made out of seven or eight humble but neat houses where around 40 people live. They are all hunters, farmers and gatherers. In doing so they only use NTFP (non timber forest products). They’re shy at first, then our translator explains who we are and what we are doing there, and they start to open up, especially when one student surprisingly and easily climbs up a tree to get a jackfruit, gaining their respect. They show us around. There are cotton, jackfruit, amla, and other fruit trees, plants of different chilli and pepper varieties, and there are Arabica coffee plants everywhere, also some Robusta. The Irulas used to grow millet too, but they dropped it, because the fields were on the trails of the elephants: There was no reason to stand in the way of those giants. All what the Irulas plant grows wild in the nature. They use no treatments, and I wouldn’t even say it’s consciously organic, it’s simply natural the way the community understands agriculture. As an expert told us later, there is a different understanding in India of “organic” than in the Western countries. In India “organic” means that the soil cares about itself and the plants, and plants do the same with the soil. Man shouldn’t intervene in this balance too much, if not at all. Nature knows how to handle situations.
I still have the taste of the coffee in my mouth and start to understand. This is a healthy environment, people respect nature because they live in the middle of it, with it; it’s their richness. The coffee plants have their roots in a soil rich in nutrients, get the right amount of water and shade from the higher trees, at the right altitude. The Irulas simply know that the plants will do their job and give good coffee beans. They just collect them when it’s time to do so. And they are rightfully proud.
After the talk on these issues and some pictures, we thank and say goodbye to the head of the village and his people. We all depart happily, because we got to know and learned from each other. Back in Italy I’ll have espresso again. But now and then I would like to have that cup of delicious coffee…deep in the forest.
Raimondo Cusmano is a tutor at the University of Gastronomic Sciences. Find out more about the university at www.unisg.it
Photo: © Raimondo Cusmano