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January 27, 2013 at 8:00 PM

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India's coffee industry gains strength


ERIKA SCHULTZ/ THE SEATTLE TIMES

Workers bring down bags of freshly picked Arabica at Badra Estates' Bettadakhan Estate. The forested plantation, located in a mountain range called the Bababudan Giris, is no stranger to coffee pests like Indian wild bison, elephants and king cobras.

Five or six hours outside of high-tech Bangalore, India, reporter Melissa Allison and I visited a rustic Hindu temple at the highest point of the Bababudan Giris, part of mountain range in Karnataka. According to legend, the 17-century Muslim pilgrim Baba Budan smuggled seven coffee beans from Yemen to this region of India and today, coffee fields blanket the hillsides in all directions.

Melissa and I have reported on stories about coffee in Central America, but working on this story -- the rise of the little-known Indian coffee industry -- was full of surprises.

Among them was how well the Indian coffee plantation companies treat their workers, who are provided full-time housing, pensions, maternity leave, health benefits and child care.

I was also surprised and humbled by the warmth and hospitality of the Indian workers and our hosts in Karnataka. Workers at Badra Estates and Balanoor Plantations were wonderfully kindhearted and open to sharing their lives. Not all cultures and communities feel comfortable with outsiders, particularly photographers. I really enjoyed how workers welcomed us into their homes, and even broke out their own cell phones to take photos of us in the fields. The access they gave us helped our storytelling because it allowed us to share more intimate perspectives of their culture and daily lives.

“Everyone is so proud of what they have,” said Rohan Kuriyan, manager of corporate affairs at Balanoor Plantations. “No one is shy about the way they live.”

Costa Rican and Indian coffee fields are very different in their appearance. The Indian coffee plantations look like dense forests. Some Arabica plants are so large that workers have to climb branches to reach the highest cherries.

And then there are the snakes… King cobras are known to slither about the plantations. Thank goodness we didn’t encounter any as we traversed the plantation’s steep hillsides.

Jacob Mammen, managing director of Badra Estates, said their company faces two big challenges: a labor shortage as workers choose to migrate to the cities and climate change. We didn’t even bring it up – he did, repeatedly. While there are many differences between the coffee industry in Central America and India, they do share the effects of climate change on their industry.

For more information about India’s emerging coffee industry, please read Melissa Allison’s article: “As India gains strength, so does its coffee.”

Our 2011 article, Climate change takes toll on coffee growers, drinkers is also available on The Seattle Times website.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Hindu priest Shivashankar, in orange, works in a temple at the highest point in the Bababudan Giris. According to legend, the 17-century Muslim pilgrim Baba Budan smuggled coffee beans from Yemen, introducing the crop to India. Coffee fields are now visible in all directions.

ERIKA SCHULTZ THE SEATTLE TIMES

Vijayalakshmy, 33, picks Robusta at Badra Estates. Most of the coffee grown in India is Robusta. Although Robusta's reputation has improved, Starbucks and other high-end roasters still do not use it.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

The orange hues of a December sunrise illuminate the misty hills of Karnataka in southern India. Coffee is grown mostly in the south, including Karnataka, while tea is grown mostly in the north.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Kushma, a coffee worker of 25 years, wears a bindi like many Hindu women. She picks coffee at Balanoor Plantations, which also cultivates a variety of other crops including tea, coffee, pepper and rubber.

ERIKA SCHULTZ/ THE SEATTLE TIMES

Women sort freshly picked coffee cherries at Badra Estates in December. Women often wear men's dress shirts while working in the fields. Despite benefits including maternity leave and free childcare, India's coffee estates suffer from a labor shortage.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

After the workday, a workers gather water at worker housing at Badra Estates.

ERIKA SCHULTZ/ THE SEATTLE TIMES

A baby lies in its crib at a Badra Estates coffee plantation. Mothers apply kohl to a child's face to ward off the "evil eye."

ERIKA SCHULTZ/ THE SEATTLE TIMES

A portrait of Gangadhara, a coffee employee of 35 years, is taken inside his home at worker housing at Badra Estates. The majority of the workers who pick coffee live at the plantation. Many of Gangadhara's neighbors have amenities like satellite television or electric spice grinders.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Poornima, 24, washes her son Ganesh, 2, inside worker housing at Badra Estates. In addition to free housing, under government regulations, coffee workers receive a set wage -- currently about $4 a day. (India's average income is $1,490 a year.)

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Pictures of figures in the Hindu religion, including Parvathy, center, are displayed in worker housing at Badra Estates.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Prabhamani cooks inside her family's kitchen at Badra Estates' worker housing. Many of the kitchen stoves are fueled by wood. But, the housing offers electricity and other amenities.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Laxmi, a retired Balanoor Plantations worker, poses for a portrait outside of worker housing. Under government regulations, workers are paid a set wage and receive, medical care, maternity leave, child care and pensions.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Children pray before eating lunch at Balanoor Government Higher Primary School, built by the plantation in the 1990s for workers' children. The government pays for school salaries and other expenses.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Children play at recess after lunch at Balanoor Government Higher Primary School in Karnataka, India.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Children write the English alphabet on the blackboard at Balanoor Government Higher Primary School. Kannada is the predominant language of India's Karnataka state.

PHOTOG NAME / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Children write the English alphabet on the blackboard at Balanoor Government Higher Primary School. Kannada is the predominant language of India's Karnataka state.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

A worker uses a spreader to dry coffee on the patio at Balanoor Plantations.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Coffee workers gather for a picture during a break while picking Arabica at Balanoor Plantations.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Jayanthy, 40, holds freshly-picked Arabica at Balanoor Plantations. Many of the women wear colorful bangles on the wrists and bracelets on their ankles. They often cover their saris with mens dress shirts while in the fields.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Shoba climbs in a tree to harvest coffee at Balanoor Plantations in the southwest Indian state of Karnataka. The coffee is grown in thick forests of silver oak with ferns as well as evergreen, jackfruit and fig trees.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Susila lays out a mat while picking coffee in the thick coffee forests at Balanoor Plantations.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

P.M. Chengappa works as a general manager at Balanoor Estates.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Women carry bags of coffee at the end of the day at Badra Estates' Bettadakhan Estate. The forested plantation, located in a mountain range called the Bababudan Giris, is no stranger to coffee pests like Indian wild bison, elephants and king cobras.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Workers weigh bags of Arabica at Balanoor Plantations at the end of the day. The coffee cherries are unloaded into a transport truck and then brought to a nearby processing facility.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Women workers hoist bags of Arabica into loading trucks at Balanoor Plantations workers in Karnataka. The Indian government pooled and sold farmers' coffee until the 1990s, when growers started marketing it themselves, improving quality and profits.

ERIKA SCHULTZ/ THE SEATTLE TIMES

Lingu, a 43-year-old coffee worker, harvests cherries at Balanoor Plantations. Lingu has worked as a picker for 11 years. Many of the workers at the plantation live there year-round.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

At the end of the workday, a woman worker reties the plastic bag around her waist that carries the picked coffee cherries.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

A Hindu leader engages in puja, a religious ritual, for Balanoor Plantations workers after the workday. Balanoor has nine Hindu temples. The temple priests and religious leaders also work by day in the plantations.

ERIKA SCHULTZ/ THE SEATTLE TIMES

Visitors walk near a temple at highest point in the Bababudan Giris, a mountain range in Karnataka, India. Coffee fields are visible in all directions.

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