Study: Labour scarcity has negative biodiversity impacts in the Western Ghats

Sep 28, 2020

  • Indian School of Business (ISB) researcher part of the scientific team evaluating relationship between farm management and biodiversity in commodity agroforests.
  • Scientists examined farm-scale conditions that support biodiversity by studying 344 coffee plantations across three districts of Karnataka’s Western Ghats (Chikmagalur, Hassan, Kodagu).
  • Coffee agroforests in the area are known for providing excellent habitat for several elements of endemic biodiversity, such as birds, small mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.
  • The research revealed that larger farm size, recent increase in canopy density, and the cultivation of Coffea arabica variety, all encourage tree species diversity on coffee plantations necessary for sustaining suitable habitats for wildlife and biodiversity.
  • Results indicate that these wildlife-friendly conditions are more labour intensive, and disruption in labour supply encourage management practices that adversely impact biodiversity.


In an insightful study titled – ‘Coffee, Trees, and Labor: Political Economy of Biodiversity in Commodity Agroforests’, published in the prestigious Annals of the American Association of Geographers, a team of scientists from the Indian School of Business (ISB), Centre for Wildlife Studies (India), and Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison (USA) surveyed coffee plantations in India’s Western Ghats to examine farm-scale conditions that support biodiversity. The team of scientists surveyed coffee farm owners across the Western Ghats to understand household-level demographic and socio-economic factors as well as access to local institutions.

Results reveal that larger farm size, increase in canopy density, and the cultivation of Coffea arabica varieties, are factors associated with high tree species diversity necessary for sustaining wildlife habitat. The research also highlights the fragility of these agro-ecosystems as these structural conditions are more labour-intensive. In coffee plantations, tree maintenance demands a large amount of seasonal labour force. This is compounded further because labour costs make up 65% of input costs. With declining supply and increasing costs of labour, preferred management options tend towards reducing tree canopy and tree diversity, especially among small landholders.

Prof. Ashwini Chhatre, co-author of the study and Associate Professor of Public Policy at the Indian School of Business (ISB), underlined that  “Biodiversity is the latest casualty of the pandemic induced lockdowns that triggered mass reverse migration. The current situation makes it harder for coffee planters to hire labour, and for labour to get to coffee plantations without significant hurdles. In addition to the blow to livelihoods and costs to the larger economy, our analysis shows that the cascade of effects will eventually impinge upon the birds and the bees. In global conservation hotspots like the Western Ghats, our results also point to ways in which economic policy can be used to mitigate the impact on biodiversity through better support for smallholder coffee producers”.

The long term stability of wildlife-friendly coffee agroforests is therefore of growing economic and conservation concern. Under conditions of increasing labour scarcity, rapidly rising labour costs, and ongoing urbanization in Karnataka and coffee-producing regions globally, the ability to sustain high-biodiversity commodity production systems is seriously challenged. Prof. Paul Robbins of the University of Wisconsin and the lead author of this study highlighted that -"Start with farmers! The future of biodiversity conservation has a great deal to do with what commercial producers choose to do on their land, after all, especially small farmers. Our finding, that biodiversity has been underwritten for decades by the availability of cheap labor on big farms, should therefore worry us all. As farm labor becomes scarcer and more expensive in India, we will need to work creatively with farmers to find ways for them to make wildlife-friendly decisions in turbulent markets. The fate of rare birds and countless other wild taxa will hinge on things like automation, subsidies, and labor migration as much as it does on protected areas, control of poaching, and other conventional conservation concerns”.

There are several important implications from this study. Due to insufficient labour and rise in market volatility, small landholders in the Western Ghats are choosing production and management practices that lead to maintaining fewer tree varieties. It also results in higher usage of pesticides and substitution of Arabica with Robusta coffee plantations. Many are converting farms from Arabica to Robusta as the price difference between the two varieties is almost reaching parity. Notably, in the Western Ghats, roughly 75% of coffee plantations are smaller than 10 ha.

Dr. Krithi K. Karanth of Centre for Wildlife Studies and co-author of the study said, “Our study highlights the key local linkages between the economic well-being of people and their livelihoods with long term impacts for biodiversity especially birds, amphibians, reptiles and small mammals as found by our previous research in the Western Ghats. Making it imperative that we enact economic policies that benefit livelihoods”.


About ISB

The Indian School of Business (ISB) is a global business school offering world class management education to professionals at its two LEED rated green building campuses – Hyderabad and Mohali. A rich & vibrant pool of research-oriented resident faculty, robust academic partnerships, thriving alumni network, backing of an influential board and guidance of industry’s thought leadership has enabled ISB to fast emerge and consolidate itself as a premier global business school in the emerging markets. The school is also one of the largest providers of executive education in Asia and the most research-productive Indian management institution.

The school, over the last nineteen years has grown at a rapid pace and has earned several prestigious accolades. ISB is the youngest business school to consistently rank among the top global MBA programmes.  ISB had the honour of receiving  accreditations from the Association of MBAs (AMBA), EFMD Quality Improvement System (EQUIS) and the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB). ISB gains the unique distinction of becoming the 100th business school in the world to achieve the coveted ‘Triple Crown’ accreditations- AMBA, EQUIS and AACSB. ISB envisions  to become an internationally top-ranked, research-driven and independent management institute that grooms future leaders for India and the world. To know more about ISB, please visit: