Conserving native trees in the coffee agroforestry landscape of Kodagu

CC Staff
Image: Mikhail Esteves/Flickr

Project report submitted to CEPF-ATREE

By: Dr. Cheryl D. Nath

French Institute of Pondicherry,
11 St. Louis Street, P.B. 33
Pondicherry – 605001, India


Kodagu district, in the Western Ghats of southern India, is a coffee-dominated region characterized by high diversity in terms of topographic features, climatic conditions and biodiversity. The privately owned coffee plantations, which contain 70 to 1200 trees/ha (Elouard et al. 2000, Nath et al. 2010) and almost 280 species of trees (Garcia et al. unpublished survey data), are far more dense and diverse than most other coffee plantation landscapes elsewhere in the world (e.g., Soto-Pinto et al. 2001, Bandeira et al. 2005). Interviews with local farmers reveal them to be aware of the significance of biodiversity in their plantations, which is probably due to their traditional cultural practices promoting conservation of sacred forest patches and species (Bhagwat et al. 2005a, b, Neilson 2008). Thus Kodagu is a good location in which to develop and nurture civilian conservation initiatives (Nielson 2008).

Although there is potential for biodiversity conservation in coffee plantations, modern plantation economics cannot be ignored. A large majority coffee plantations in the district are small (< 10 ha) and fluctuations in coffee prices, labour shortages and legal constraints often drive these farmers to intensify production. A project, funded by CEPF-ATREE, was carried out between October 2009 and August 2010 to identify viable means to encourage farmers to grow more trees of native species and thereby reduce biodiversity loss. The project involved assessment of native species’ growth rates and age-size trajectories, interactions to educate local farmers about the ill effects of exotic species dominance and to solicit their suggestions for participatory conservation efforts, as well as development of acceptable diversity-enhancing guidelines that local farmers would be willing to implement. The interactive nature of project development also was expected to promote dialogue between coffee farmers, the Karnataka State Forest department (FD) and other stakeholders.

Geographical context

Kodagu district in the southern Indian state of Karnataka is located on the leeward side of the Western Ghats, dominated by the valley of River Cauvery at the centre and bordered by the Western Ghats to the west and south. The altitude ranges from 850 m to 1875 m across the district, which covers an area of 4106 sq. km (Elouard 2000a). The eastern margin is relatively low in elevation compared to the west, and is lined with government protected forests including Yedavanad and Anekad reserved forests to the northeast, Devamachi and Dubare reserved forests to the East and Nagarahole National Park to the southeast. The presence of a high percentage of land with some form of tree cover, (approximately 80%, Elouard et al. 2000, Garcia et al 2010), which includes government protected forests (46%), ensures that floral and faunal diversity is very high within this small district. 

Biodiversity and coffee cultivation

Natural vegetation in the district has been classified into several floristic types ranging from wet evergreen forests through intermediate forms to dry woodlands and thickets (Pascal 1988, Elouard 2000a). However, landscape studies have revealed a gradual conversion of privately owned forests into coffee plantations, opening of the canopy, and increase of exotic trees during the last few decades (Elouard 2000b, Garcia et al. 2010). Despite these changes, the biodiversity harboured in the district remains higher than in most coffee cultivating areas of the world. A recent survey of coffee plantations in central Kodagu recorded almost 280 species of trees (Garcia et al. unpublished data). In addition other studies have recorded good numbers of other wildlife, including elephants, tigers, birds and fungi within the coffee estates of Kodagu (Nath & Sukumar 1998, Mahanty 2003, Bhagwat 2005a, b, Kulkarni et al 2007, Bal et al, 2011).

The high density and diversity of native trees in coffee plantations of Kodagu has been attributed to the existence of high indigenous diversity (Elouard et al. 2000) as well as the tough forest protection laws in the district (Ambinakudige and Satish 2009). However, farmers in Kodagu have expressed dissatisfaction with the existing laws and public policies, which prevent most of them from directly marketing their native timber. As a result, many farmers prefer to plant exotic trees rather than native ones (Elouard et al. 2000, Ambinakudige and Satish 2009, Garcia et al. 2010).

The popularity and problem of Silver oak

The Silver oak is favoured by agroforesters around the world in modern times due to its relatively fast growth rate and lack of competition with crops. Its high growth rate makes it useful (along with Dadups) for providing shade quickly when paddy fields and other open areas are converted to coffee plantation (farmers’ information). In Kodagu, however, farmers also mentioned the local land tenure system, which favours promotion of exotic species.

Despite its clear contributions to agroforestry, the Silver oak is viewed negatively by environmentalists, who tend to be concerned about its non-native status and invasive potential in coffee agroforestry landscapes of the Western Ghats (Elouard 2000b, Elouard et al 2000, Moppert 2000, Bali et al 2007). In response, local farmers have expressed interest in planting native species instead of Silver oak, provided the existing tree ownership and utilisation laws are modified to facilitate the legal sale of native timbers.

This report summarises the results of interviews and consultative meetings with farmers to identify biodiversity-friendly tree management practices.

Stakeholder views

Farmers contributed to project development and implementation from the inception of this project. A series of semi-structured interviews were conducted during October 2009 – June 2010 under the CEPF project, which involved 49 farmers in the district. These interviews made use of a formal questionnaire, which allowed discussions on related topics. Interviewees were located across the eastern and western sides of central Kodagu, covering 16 different villages. The following section summarises opinions and insights on issues related to tree recruitment and growth that were gained by interviewing farmers. 

Table 1. Distribution of farmer interviews across different farm size groupings in 16 different villages of Kodagu district, southern India. Farm sizes used for stratifying the interviews were: Small: < 10 acres (< 2.5 Ha); Medium: 10 to 25 acres (2.5 to 10 Ha); and Large: > 25 acres (> 10 Ha).

Table 1 - CD Nath


Why plant trees in coffee plantations?

Small farmers (i.e., those with farms < 10 acres) generally mentioned timber production (expected harvest in 15 years), shade for coffee, firewood and house construction as major reasons to plant trees. In addition, they used tree planting as a means to secure long term economic returns, keeping in mind the future generations of their family. Medium farmers (10 – 25 acres) mentioned timber sale (expected within 21 years), pepper cultivation, coffee shade, and planning for future generations most often as the reasons for planting trees. Large farmers (> 25 acres) did not appear to require trees for immediate benefits, but more often mentioned the gains for the future, timber harvest on long harvest cycles (generally 20 – 30 years) or shade for coffee plants. 

Tree planting efforts by farmers

The farmers recalled over 100 instances of tree planting in their estates during the last two decades (in some cases they recalled trees planted by older members of their family). Of these, the exotic Silver oak was the most frequently mentioned species, while only 19 instances involved planting the native Balanji (A. fraxinifolius), the next most frequently mentioned species, followed by 14 instances involving Dadups or Palwan (Erythrina subumbrans, another exotic species used for quick shade production).

Farmers had a strong idea of the optimal shade requirements for their plantations, and listed the problems associated with having too many or too few trees. In general, too many trees, or excess shade was expected to cause reduced coffee yield, increased incidences of black rot and vulnerability to borer attacks. Similarly, most farmers also agreed that too few trees or excessively reduced shade could be bad for plantations, by causing scorching of coffee and reduction in production of pepper.

Opinion regarding Silver oak

Generally seedlings of Silver oak and other fast growing exotic species were preferred by farmers. Compared to slow-growing hardwood species such as Teak (Tectona grandis) or Rosewood (Dalbergia latifolia), However, several planters considered Silver oak shade unsatisfactory for coffee due to the limited amount of shade manipulation possible. The species also is susceptible to high winds and fungus attack. Farmers also reported very slow decomposition rates for its leaves, which prevents their use in organic litter compost.

Rights over trees

Most planters were unhappy with the need to obtain permits to sell native trees from their estates. This system usually involves several trips to different Government offices. In addition, the system of selling native trees through the government auction generally results in lower value for timber than can be expected on the free market. Thus, the net value of native timbers for farmers is generally unfavourable when compared with the open market prices that can be obtained for the exotic Silver oak. Thus, although of lower quality timber, Silver oak continues to be favoured for planting by farmers of Kodagu.

Tree growth studies

A field-based study of diameter growth rates of four common native timber species in comparison with the fast-growing exotic species, Silver oak (Grevillea robusta), was initiated by me in February 2008 (with funding from the CAFNET program of the European Union) in order to identify native species with growth rates as fast as the latter, within the coffee plantation environment. The species were:

Acrocarpus fraxinifolius (locally known as “Balanji”), Dalbergia latifolia (“Beeti”), Lagerstroemia microcarpa (“Nandi”) and Syzygium cumini (“Nerale”). Growth performance was assessed for standing trees in situ, in order to develop guidelines regarding native shade trees.

In October 2009, while continuing to monitor standing tree growth for an additional year, I also examined wood anatomy in an attempt to validate the growth rates obtained earlier, with the aim of establishing long term age-size relationships for different species. Such relationships are required for developing predicting long term timber yield, which are of use in shade tree management. 


Across all trees, the average diameter growth rate in the eastern and western bioclimatic zones were similar (East: 0.92 cm yr-1, West: 0.96 cm yr-1). However, the following differences were observed between species:

East: G. robusta (1.37 cm yr-1), A. fraxinifolius (1.13 cm yr-1), L. microcarpa (0.79 cm yr-1), S. cumini (0.70 cm yr-1), D. latifolia (0.57 cm yr-1)

West: A. fraxinifolius (1.36 cm yr-1), G. robusta (1.24 cm yr-1), L. microcarpa (0.88 cm yr-1), S. cumini (0.82 cm yr-1), D. latifolia (0.44 cm yr-1).

The exotic G. robusta had the highest overall average growth rate (1.31 cm yr-1), followed by the native A. fraxinifolius (1.25 cm yr-1). However, A. fraxinifolius grew faster than G. robusta in the western zone, as large trees of A. fraxinifolius had very high growth rates (Fig.1).

Fig. 1. Box plot of diameter growth for four native and one exotic (Grevillea robusta or Silver oak) in coffee plantations of Kodagu.

Figure 1 - CD Nath

G. robusta showed the best long term growth performance in both bioclimatic zones (Fig. 2). However, in the western zone A. fraxinifolius had an average growth trajectory and 95% confidence intervals closely overlapping those of G. robusta. Tree rings identified in A. fraxinifolius also confirmed the general trajectories obtained from dendrometer studies. 

Fig. 2. Expected average age-size trajectories obtained by computer simulation of girth increments for five tree species in the eastern and western bioclimatic zones of Kodagu. Species are represented as follows: A. fraxinifolius (?), D. latifolia (?), L. microcarpa (?), S. cumini (?) and Silver oak (?). Dotted lines represent 95% confidence intervals (Further details are provided in Nath et al in press)

Figure 2 - CD Nath


Consultative town meetings

Three interactive consultative town meetings were organized during the final quarter of my CEPF project, in order to facilitate a two-way interaction with the farmers and other stakeholders. A key aim of these consultations was to obtain feedback on key points raised during the individual interviews. The meetings were held at three different locations within the Cauvery watershed area of Kodagu (Napoklu – 8 July; Siddapur – 12 July; and Kakkabe – 30 August, 2010), and involved the participation of local farmers, representatives of local Panchayats, local farmers’ groups and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The agenda included the following activities:

  1. Dissemination of results obtained from my studies on tree growth in Kodagu coffee plantations
  1. Sharing of information collected regarding farmers’ constraints and tree preferences
  1. Obtaining feedback and suggestions for improving native tree conservation efforts by farmers 

The meetings were attended by 12 – 25 people (Table 2), and several useful suggestions were raised. The meetings generally began with a short introductory speech by a local well-known farmer, summarizing local attitudes towards native and exotic trees in the Kodagu landscape, economic constraints and other problems such as tree ownership policies. This was followed by a detailed presentation of my work on shade trees, showing the most updated results and conclusions, as well as constraints on native tree uptake that had been identified earlier in the project. At least half of the meeting time was devoted to an open-house session promoting frank and open discussions with farmers, in order to obtain individual views and suggestions for tackling the different constraints. In particular, the discussions were aimed at obtaining practical and viable suggestions for ameliorating the bottlenecks in native species distribution as well as identifying long-term strategies for tree management in the district. During the discussions different solutions, some of which were raised earlier during personal interviews, were explored for acceptability and relevance in the larger community. 

At the end of the first two meetings, the farmers were presented with native tree seedlings and saplings that had been either donated by the Karnataka Forest Department nursery at Thithimathi, or bought with project funds from the Horticulture Research Station at Chettalli. The saplings included Balanji (Acrocarpus fraxinifolius), Nerale (Syzygium cumini), Nandi (Lagerstroemia microcarpa), Honne (Pterocarpus marsupium), Mandarin orange (Citrus reticulata), Sampige (Michelia champaca), Amla/Nellikai (Phyllanthus emblica), Bevu (Azadirachta indica), Karadi (Chukrasia tabularis), Kooli/Shivane (Gmelina arborea), Karmanji (Carissa carandas), Punarpuli/Kokum (Garcinia indica), and Antuwala (Sapindus emarginatus). The farmers were pleased to receive these seedlings/saplings and expressed their intentions of planting more such native species on their farms in the future.

Table 2. Details of consultative meetings held in Kodagu to discuss results of native tree growth studies and discuss options for conservation:

8 July 2010
Approximately 12 farmers, including a Panchayat member and members of a local NGO (Nalnad Progressive Farmers Association)
12 July 2010
Approximately 15 farmers, including members of local farmers’ organizations (Kodagu District Small Growers’ Association, Codagu Planters Association, Maldare Badaga Primary Agricultural Credit Cooperative Society)
30 August 2010
Approximately 25 farmers, including a Panchayat member and members of local farmers’ organizations (Kodagu Growers Federation, Yevakapadi Farmers Association, Nalnad Coffee Growers Association)


The following are key suggestions to improve conservation efforts, which were raised at the meetings:

  1. Farmers should not be treated as if they will not look after the land. Ownership rights over native trees should be given to farmers at the earliest 
  1. Rights to use native trees for bonafide uses should be given 
  1. There should be a mutual benefit, – local farmers should be allowed to profit from the native trees that they help to conserve (for e.g., sandalwood) in order to encourage them to grow more native species. 
  1. Education of farmers (by Government, NGOs, researchers) is important, in order to get them to think about planting native trees. 
  1. There is a need to supplement the currently scarce labour with mechanized farm equipment (along with adequate service support) 
  1. The problem of inadequate availability of cheap native seedlings should be addressed by setting up local nurseries (private or cooperative) with Government subsidies, or distribution of native seedlings by the Forest/Social Forestry Departments or Panchayats. 

Fig. 3. Consultative meetings with farmers and other stakeholders, held at different locations of Kodagu, Western Ghats of southern India. a, b: Meeting at Napoklu, c. Sidapur, d. Kakkabe

Figure 3 - CD Nath


This project makes an important contribution to the Western Ghats by encouraging farmers to consider alternative ways to improve native species conservation in private lands of Kodagu. It is imperative to promote the efforts of local farmers as Government-protected areas alone may be insufficient to conserve all the landscape biodiversity (Bhagwat et al. 2005a, b, 2008). Also, under the impact of climate change, species’ distribution ranges might shift in coming years, resulting in some species surviving better outside the protected area network. Thus, it is important to promote native species’ survival across their entire current range. This implies providing novel schemes and incentives, along with the appropriate policy framework, to enable large numbers of private individuals to contribute towards long-term species conservation (McNeeley & Schroth 2006).

Previous examples are available from other regions where farmers were given incentives to conserve diversity or grow more trees (although the latter rarely emphasized native species). Documented case studies generally include payment of conservation concessions for “setting aside” land parcels or incentives for planting trees. Factors generally linked with success include involvement of farmers in planning and decision-making, identification of appropriate tree species, availability of seedlings, provision of incentives, appropriate policy and institutional support, coordination between different institutions and policies, education of farmers, and existence of legally binding agreements regarding tree ownership rights and stewardship responsibilities.

By identifying at least one fast-growing native species (A. fraxinifolius or Balanji) my study demonstrated that there is potential for native timber production to compare favorably against that of exotics, given that under appropriate ecological conditions (Nath el al in press). However, replacement of all G. robusta trees with A. fraxinifolius trees is not an appropriate solution. Similar studies to screen large numbers of locally growing native species in situ will need to be carried out in order to provide a wide range of alternatives to farmers. This is a critical contribution that the scientific community needs to deliver in the future.

In the past the Karnataka Forest Department (FD) and the Coffee Board of India have played a substantial role in supplying exotic tree seedlings at low cost to local farmers (according to farmers’ information). Based on this study it is recommended that seedlings of several native species, such as A. fraxinifolius, should be supplied at a subsidized rate or free of cost by these or other relevant Government Departments, in order to make these species more accessible to farmers. Alternatively, farmers have suggested the setting up of private nurseries with the help of Government loans and/or instant Loan and/or subsidies to improve the supply of cheap native seedlings.

Ultimately, the coffee farmers require fast-growing shade trees that can be harvested easily and sold as timber during economic crises. In this regard, the lack of legal rights to harvest native trees has been identified by farmers as a key problem constraining environment-friendly practices. Under the current tree tenure system, most farmers of Kodagu do not benefit from the potential returns of native tree species as the majority of farms fall under the “Unredeemed” tenure category, which restricts farmers from legally harvesting native trees on their plantations (Vijaya 2000). However, in certain cases, where the unredeemed lands have been assessed for revenue by the Government and thus classified as “Alienated” lands, the landowners are entitled to extract native trees that grew on their property after the date of revenue assessment. In this context, correctly identifying a tree as farmer’s property (relatively new growth) versus Government property (old growth) is a problem that has concerned the FD for the last two decades, as the only data previously available was that from either natural forests or monoculture tree plantations (FD, unpublished documents). The current study can contribute towards solving this problem by developing robust age-size trajectories for native species.

Appropriate Government policy modifications might ultimately enable farmers to market adequate quantities of native timber from their plantations, without depleting the tree cover. For example, an option would be to allow limited felling, transport and selling permits for a subset of native species (including A. fraxinifolius) that are common, widespread and relatively fast growing.


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Dr Muthu Kumar Arunachalam

Recently, we had completed a study related to “premature mortality of Balangi”, where we have concluded Acrocarpus fraxinifolius could be one of the best native shade tree for coffee plantation, with appropriate management practices.

Well informative Blog Madam…Best Wishes

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