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Unique Indian Coffee Plantation Falls to Conservation Concerns

Espresso drinkers are losing what critics praise as one of the world's best "certified organic" robusta coffees. The government of Kerala state has refused to extend the lease on the land where the rare beans are grown. VOA correspondent Steve Herman reports from New Delhi.

A clash between conservation and agricultural development in India has led to the loss of what is reputed to be the world's only certified "bio-dynamic", organic robusta coffee estate.

A true bio-dynamic farm is entirely self-sufficient, producing its own compost and seeds in a closed eco-system.

That was the way of growing coffee beans at India's only internationally certified organic plantation, the shade-covered Thuthampara estate in the southern state of Kerala.

The land's 99-year lease ended this year and the state's forest department recently took custody of the property, despite appeals by the growers for a court injunction.

Chief executive Thomas Jacob of Poabs Plantations, which owned the farm, says the unique property will be very difficult to replicate elsewhere.

"To do organic practices under these standards then you need to have locations which have been completely isolated from conventional farms," he said. "We are trying to promote organic agriculture as much as possible so that it becomes a movement in this part of the world and more and more growers get into this."

The company began growing the esoteric robusta beans on the property more than a decade ago and says it invested $15 million to achieve the coveted organic certifications. The coffee went on the international market five years ago, commanding much higher prices than that from non-organic beans.

Importers of the plantation's coffee in the United States, Japan and Germany had appealed to Indian ambassadors and India's prime minister's office to preserve the estate, but to no avail.

The lease had originally been authorized by the Raja of Cochin in 1909, but some environmentalists objected to its operation because a wildlife sanctuary is now adjacent to the property. The decision to shut down the plantation has resulted in hundreds of workers losing their jobs and espresso drinkers overseas losing a unique and healthy coffee bean.