The guardians of the Blue Mountains coffee

13 Apr 2023

“Nilgiri” is the union of the words “blue” and “mountains,” and the name of the “Blue Mountains” in southwestern India, among which numerous peaks above 2,000 meters stand out.


Producers of the Slow Food Nilgiris Coffee Coalition Community

In these mountains, the “Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve,” the largest protected forest area in India, was established in 1986, and in addition to being a biodiversity hotspot of plant and animal species, it is also home to many tribal groups.

The history of these tribal groups, such as the Kurumba and Irula peoples, is rooted in the centuries before Christ, but they are increasingly threatened by various factors, including climate change, which are driving them out of the forests in favor of entering cities and intensive tea cultivation. The indigenous tribal communities of the Nilgiri Reserve base their economy on the collection and cultivation of forest products (including coffee), handing down their cultural, agricultural and linguistic traditions from generation to generation.

Accompanying the indigenous peoples of the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve in asserting their rights and commercializing their promucts, while safeguarding the environment, are the focus of the 30-year work of the Keystone Foundation, promoter of the Slow Food Nilgiris Coffee Coalition community together with Aadhimalai Pazhangudiyinar Producer Company Ltd. Specifically, the purpose of the local Coffee Coalition community is to accompany the producers of the Kurumba and Irula peoples in marketing the coffee they harvest in the forest.

This Slow Food community fits into a context where there was already another community with the more general goal of “the preservation of traditional food culture and the revitalization of indigenous crops, seeds and recipes in the Nilgiris.”

Robusta for breakfast in the edible forest

In the country where tea and spice infusions are the most commonly consumed beverages, drinking coffee is a relatively recent custom. Yet among the indigenous communities of the Nilgiris Reserve, it is a tradition to drink a coffee infusion in the morning. Robusta coffee, which grows wild in the forest, has been harvested for centuries by these people for primarily community consumption.


The traditional depulping process

Unlike tea, which in India is mainly grown as a monoculture, Nilgiris coffee grows in the wild or is cultivated in an agroforestry system in association with other plants such as fig, mango, and millet-a true edible forest. In both cases, coffee is naturally pollinated by the bees that live in the forest. These particularly aggressive bees, from the Apis Dorsata family, then produce honey (aboard the Ark of Taste) in honeycombs in the forest trees, where it is harvested by local communities, following traditional climbing techniques.

The ripe coffee, is harvested by hand and still processed using ancient techniques: plucked by hand with pestles to strip it of its outer pulp and then dried in the sun on patios outside homes.

Selling Nilgiris forest coffee can help pass on the traditions of local tribes

Those gathered in the Nilgiris Coffee Coalition community are considered PVTGs, or “Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups.” The goal of the Slow Food Community is to create more market access opportunities for the products of tribal communities, and the Coffee Coalition can be the market platform for their coffee.

Without adequate recognition of the added value of the products grown and harvested by tribal communities, some of the members are increasingly likely to leave their places of origin. This alternative assumes a gradual depopulation of the forest and the loss of languages, traditions and methods of controlled conservation of agroforestry biodiversity.

Promoters of Participatory Guarantee Systems in India

Well before the definition of organic farming existed, communities in the Nilgiri Mountains were growing and harvesting forest products without altering the forest’s balance. For proper recognition of their work in the marketplace, the Keystone Foundation promoted producer adherence to organic farming standards, but in a way never before experienced in the in India: through Participatory Guarantee Systems. The establishment of PGS initiatives, with the support of IFOAM-Organics International, meant that local communities never had to bear the cost of third-party certification or receive inspections by external auditors.

On the strength of this experience gained in the early 2000s, the community embraced the Coffee Coalition and helped in the creation of its Participatory Guarantee System, a prerequisite for roasters who buy their coffee to sell it with the Slow Food Coffee Coalition logo.


Producers sign up to be part of the Participatory Guarantee System

“By being part of the PGS initiative,” explains Jestin CEO of Aadhimalai Pazhangudiyinar Producer Company Ltd, the company where the producers have come together to review the products they harvest and grow in the forest, “the producers are able to receive 20-30% more profit. This is obviously a very strong incentive for everyone to join the initiative, improve the quality of their coffee by staying in their places of origin.”


Producers sign up to be part of the Participatory Guarantee System

Keystone Foundation’s work with the Nilgiri communities has also been instrumental in the government recognition in India of Participatory Guarantee Systems as an alternative to third parties for organic farming. Today, PGSs are one of the ways in which producers can access organic certification.

Albero del caffè and the long relationship with Slow Food the forest of Nilgiris

Today, Alessio Baschieri is the owner of a small roasting company near Bologna, L’Albero del caffè, that aims to promote organic, ethical and fair trade coffee, sourced mainly from tribal communities from various parts of the world. His relationship with Nilgiris, however, began many years ago, when the roastery did not yet exist.


Alessio and Jestin at Terra Madre 2022

“My work with Slow Food and Nilgiris began when we carried out the study on the pollination of coffee and honey from wild bees, which was later named as a product of the Ark of Taste,” Alessio tells us

Much of the coffee produced in the Blue mountains of Nilgiris is consumed in India, thanks to the operations of a local roasting company, but some of that coffee has gradually reached our homes precisely because of Alessio’s roasting company.

“2014 was the first year that Nilgiris coffee arrived in Italy, and we started selling it right at Terra Madre.”

It was thanks to the continuing relationship between Albero del caffè and the Keystone Foundation that some of the coffee produced by Nilgiris communities reached Europe. Maintaining the friendship and collaboration over the years meant that there could be a direct relationship and ongoing advice from Alessio, specifically in what concerns product marketing and roasting. Until the Nilgiris Community joined the Coffee Coalition, Albero del caffè was the only roastery in Italy to sell its coffee. Now the situation is changing.

“Through the Coalition, the hope is to create the relationships necessary to have an ever-increasing shortening of the supply chain: we need to overcome the impasse where 60 percent of the cost of green coffee is still distributed on the post-production stages. With the Coffee Coalition we have the opportunity to create a stable market for good, clean and fair coffee and simplify the logistical difficulties of approvals through active collaboration between producers, traders and roasters.”


Alessio at Albero del caffè

The communities living within the Nilgiris Biosphere are unique in the world. Giving fair pay to producers is critical so that new generations have the opportunity to stay in their places of origin and continue to grow coffee and the other forest products as guardians of biodiversity.

“What we can do from our point of view is to continue marketing and promoting this type of coffee, not only because it is excellent organoleptically, but because through a direct line we can support the lives of the producing communities. In Nilgiris and all the other places in the Coffee Coalition.”

Albero del caffè is a coffee roasting company in Anzola dell’Emilia. You can visit them or contact Alessio to purchase Nilgiri robusta coffee. Here:

A coalition, by its definition, is a coming together of different stakeholders to achieve a common interest. In the case of the Slow Food Coffee Coalition, the common interest is to change the coffee supply chain, making it fairer for producers by promoting coffee of superior organoleptic quality that is not harmful to the environment. 

Join the Slow Food Coffee Coalition, sign the manifesto, and if you have already done so, invite your friends to do so to help us change the supply chain bean by bean.

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