Foreign buyers urge Kerala govt to renew coffee plantation lease

Foreign buyers urge Kerala govt to renew coffee plantation lease
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First Published: Tue, Dec 18 2007. 01 07 AM IST

Bitter fruit: A coffee plant, Poabs had invested Rs60 crore over 10 years at the organic coffee estate in Kerala.
Bitter fruit: A coffee plant, Poabs had invested Rs60 crore over 10 years at the organic coffee estate in Kerala.
Updated: Tue, Dec 18 2007. 01 07 AM IST
Kochi: The Kerala government has decided against extending the lease on the 351.36 acre organic coffee estate of the Kerala-based Poabs group in the Nelliampathy hills in Palakkad district.
Bitter fruit: A coffee plant, Poabs had invested Rs60 crore over 10 years at the organic coffee estate in Kerala.
However, nearly six months after the takeover, the state is yet to decide on its next course of action, even as ripe coffee beans have started falling and organic pepper on the plantations is getting ready for plucking. The 99-year lease ended on 30 June and the state forest department has since taken custody of the property.
Meanwhile, pressure is mounting on the state from Poabs’ coffee buyers in foreign countries who have approached Indian diplomatic missions seeking help for extension of the lease.
Poabs Organic and Biodynamic Estates, part of the Poabs group, has been producing rare and precious robusta coffee beans since 1995.
In a letter written to the agriculture ministry, with copies marked to the Prime Minister’s Office and the commerce ministry, Germany-based Demeter-International, has expressed concern as “apparently arbitrary decisions threaten livelihoods” of farmers, processors and traders.
Demeter-International is an ecological association that has built a network of individual certification organizations worldwide for biodynamic agriculture. Demeter issued the certification to the estate. However, Binoy Viswam, forest minister of Kerala, said the government would not go back on its decision. He said the government may hand over the plot to the state-owned Plantation Corp. of Kerala Ltd for managing the estate.
The letter by Demeter-International, sent last week, said: “There are a number of very good reasons suggesting this decision (not extending the lease period) is not correct. Returning the land to forest is not consistent with Indian government’s policy giving support to organic agriculture… And the decision to take land out of organic production may affect India’s international credibility in this area.”
The letter says organic coffee producing firms not only earn foreign exchange for the country but also provide employment to hundreds of locals. Buyers of the Poabs coffee such as Volcafe Ltd in Japan, Ulrich Walter Gmbh in Germany and the US-based Royal Coffee Inc. too have sent letters to embassies asking the Indian government to intervene and make Kerala revise its stand.
S. Kakutani, director of Japanese firm Volcafe, which imports specialized raw coffee beans, recently wrote a letter to the Indian ambassador in Tokyo: “We have been buying the very rare and precious robusta coffee beans certified under the Japanese agricultural standard since 2004 from the producer/exporter Poabs Organic. However, the manager of this company has informed that their estate has had to discontinue its production after the expiry of the lease period.”
He wants the ambassador to influence the Kerala government to reconsider its decision saying, “..this is the only high quality certified organic robusta coffee in the world. This would also go against the effort which the esteemed Coffee Board of India has been doing to promote the Indian specialty coffee …”
Ulrich Walter, chief executive officer of the German firm Ulrich Walter Gmbh, has, in his letter to the Indian ambassador to Germany, sought the Indian government’s intervention since Poabs has been one of the most important suppliers of organic and biodynamic spices and coffee to his firm and “it will not be easy to find an alternative reliable supplier within the next few months”.
John Cossette, vice-president of US-based Royal Coffee, has requested the US Ambassador in New Delhi to “do whatever is in your power to sway the government in Kerala to consider the request” for extending the lease period, since “to allow this organic certification to lapse and to lose supply of this rare coffee would be a tragedy”.
Thomas Jacob, chief executive of the Poabs group, said it has made many representations to the government before the lease period expired.
The group took over the property in 1995 and over the last 10 years invested Rs60 crore to develop organic products on the estate. The only other big biodynamic organic estate in the world is in Mexico, which produces the Arabica variety of coffee.
The Poabs group started selling the produce to foreign buyers in 2002. “They (the overseas buyers) have successfully promoted our products under various brand names at their own cost in their markets. But these would now disappear from the shelves of the foreign supermarkets,” said Jacob. He added that the Plantation Corp. of Kerala does not have the expertise to manage the estate. But Viswam is undeterred. “The government has decided to support the forest department to take over the property and not extend the lease period,” he said.
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First Published: Tue, Dec 18 2007. 01 07 AM IST