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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Shade-grown coffee provides many useful products including firewood from prunings. The wood is an important heat source and cooking fuel source. © Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center
Shade-grown coffee provides many useful products including firewood from prunings. The wood is an important heat source and cooking fuel source. © Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center

February 2004

Good grounds for conservation

Time for a lesson about the birds and beans.

Craig Thompson
and John Sheffy

In the shade of a coffee forest | New markets take wing
Coffee with a conscience
Migratory birds observed in shade-grown coffee plantations

Comparison of Shade-Grown and Sun-Grown Coffee

It begins at breakfast – the opportunity to make a difference. That first cup of coffee brims with possibilities: A connoisseur knows it's the bean that matters; a socially concerned conservationist knows it's not only the bean, but also how it is grown and by whom.

Deep in the cradle of Mexico lies a mountain blanketed with a riotous tangle of vegetation. Tree ferns grow to mammoth proportions and a profusion of bird song resonates through the forest. "El Triunfo," as it is known to residents of the Mexican state of Chiapas, is still a wild place. Cloaking the upper slopes of the Sierra de Chiapas, El Triunfo is the largest cloudforest remaining in southern Mexico. Little changed since the Pleistocene, it is a treasure trove of biological diversity.

El Triunfo provides vital habitat for myriad species, including migrant birds from Wisconsin. To help ensure its protection, in 1990 the Mexican government declared El Triunfo a biosphere reserve – a system of land use including strict preservation and multi-use conservation zones.

An experiment in compatible land use is underway on the slopes surrounding El Triunfo. Coffee farms of various sizes ring the reserve, acting as a buffer for the natural forest and preventing the land from being converted to row-crop agriculture or ranches, which quickly degrade and erode the thin tropical forest soil. The coffee farms provide habitat for the reserve's wild residents while diversifying the source of income for coffee pickers and farm managers.

In the shade of a coffee forest

Coffee in the El Triunfo buffer zone is grown the old-fashioned way – in the shade. That makes all the difference in the world to a travel-weary warbler from Wisconsin.

More than half of the approximately 650 species of birds that breed in North America winter in the tropics. For those dependent on forested habitats, finding suitable tropical forests in many Latin American nations is a tenuous proposition. Two-thirds of Latin America's forests have fallen to small-scale peasant and plantation agriculture; the remaining habitat is fragmented, its edges degraded. To a northern oriole or rose-breasted grosbeak from Wisconsin, a coffee farm provides a welcome respite.

Originally found in the forests of Ethiopia, coffee was introduced to the New World in the 1700s. Cultivation spread rapidly throughout Latin America and now covers more than 7 million acres there. The shade-loving shrub traditionally was raised in "coffee forests." In a coffee forest farm, coffee plants are set out under a mixed canopy of forest shade trees. The farmer may include a second layer of fruit trees – banana, citrus, or avocado – for additional cash income. The coffee plants themselves occupy the third layer, and the surface of the soil is used for raising an understory of various low-growing vegetables, herbs and tubers.

A shade-grown coffee plantation above the road and a sun plantation below the road. © Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center
A shade-grown coffee plantation above the road and a sun plantation below the road.

© Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center

The structure of a coffee forest resembles the surrounding tropical forest, complete with continuous groundcover, diverse communities of flowering trees, vines and other epiphytes. Coffee forests are very inviting to many species that require forested habitats, including more than 100 species of forest-dependent birds that migrate from North America to Latin America every year. As more native tropical forests are degraded, traditional coffee farms and other creative forest farming endeavors increasingly serve as surrogate habitat for migrant birds and resident wildlife.

In the 1970s, the robust and expanding coffee industry hit a speed bump. A fungal blight, coffee leaf rust, was found growing in damp, shady plantations in Brazil. The spreading blight threatened the entire industry. Green revolution researchers and aid agencies encouraged growers to switch to high-yielding varieties of coffee that grow well in full sun, eliminating the threat of fungal blight.

Since that time, 40 percent of formerly shade-grown coffee acreage cultivated in Latin America has been converted to "sun plantations." Many new coffee farms raise full-sun coffee as well. Sun-loving varieties of coffee produce up to 30 percent more beans than their shade-loving kin, but they also require the use of more fertilizers and pesticides to thrive. Without a lush tree canopy for protection, a sun plantation's thin tropical soil is exposed to heavy rains and harsh sunlight. Erosion is common, and the intense heat literally bakes the microorganisms vital for soil health, leaving a less fertile soil requiring greater amounts of fertilizer to produce a crop.

Biologically, these chemically dependent plantations are wastelands, supporting only a minute segment of the species found in forest farms, says Russell Greenburg, Director of the Smithsonian Institution's Migratory Bird Center. He has an inordinate fondness for shade-grown coffee. Work done by Greenburg and his colleagues in Chiapas has shown that forest farms are brimming with biodiversity, providing habitat for more than 150 species of birds – a number exceeded only by primary tropical forest. By comparison, plantations basking in full sun yield far fewer species, typically between 20-50. The same holds true for insects, amphibians and mammals, displaying the cascading results of land use decisions on all forest trophic levels.

New markets take wing

When compared to all of Latin America, the forests of Central America harbor the highest number of wintering North American migrant birds. Shade-grown coffee forest farms are critical for their survival – and to the survival of thousands of farmers suffering from the lowest coffee prices in decades on the world market. Shade-grown coffees certified as "bird friendly" command a higher price than uncertified coffees, giving forest farmers a direct financial incentive to conserve bird habitat. Many java aficionados say coffee beans raised rapidly on sunny acres lack the richness and density of slower growing shade coffee; these connoisseurs are willing to pay more to savor the shade-grown varieties.

With habitat loss the primary threat to wildlife in Central America, coffee prices at all-time lows, and increasingly sophisticated consumer palates, it is no wonder that shade-grown coffee is receiving the attention of conservationists, development agencies and peasant farmers. When local Audubon societies in Latin American countries want to see birds, they go to coffee forest farms. The layered coffee forest farm produces multiple benefits for farm families – fuel, construction materials, fruit, nuts, animal fodder, food, honey from beekeeping, medicinal plants, and cash from the sale of surplus farm produce and the coffee beans. Agroforestry systems like coffee forests decrease a farmer's dependence on volatile cash crop markets, and provide sustenance in years when the subsistence crop harvest is poor.

Coffee with a conscience

Today, specialty coffees are all the rage. There has been an amazing profusion of local retail outlets offering an endless variety of mochas, lattes, cappuccinos, and even green beans sold online for home roasting. As expectations for coffee as a beverage evolve, so too should our expectations for how it is grown. The Specialty Coffee Association of America, a forerunner in coffee quality enhancement, recently expanded its concept of "total coffee quality" to include environmental and social characteristics. It is time to define a new niche for coffee, a niche that mainstreams the notion of what some refer to as "coffee with a conscience."

Habitat loss due to forest conversion is a symptom of land scarcity, perverse trade practices, skewed political incentives, and most of all, powerless local farmers. Certification programs – which designate coffee raised under appropriate conditions as "organic," "fair trade," and "shade-grown bird-friendly" – are ways to empower small and large farmers by rewarding their stewardship efforts.

Many small coffee growers start their own nurseries to raise shade-grown coffee stock much less expensively than such plants can be purchased from the coffee conglomerates. © Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center
Many small coffee growers start their own nurseries to raise shade-grown coffee stock much less expensively than such plants can be purchased from the coffee conglomerates.

© Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center

Organically certified coffees are produced without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or processing techniques. Fair trade coffees are produced by small-scale grower associations organized to promote social equity and sustainability. Under fair trade arrangements, farmers sell directly to retailers at an agreed-upon fixed price; the farmers' profits are higher and their markets more stable. Fair trade programs may also provide credit to allow farmers to improve their growing techniques.

Shade-grown, bird-friendly coffees guarantee the coffee is organically produced and that coffee farms comply with habitat requirements for forest diversity and structure. Companies that sell "Bird Friendly®" coffees contribute 25 cents per pound towards Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center research and conservation programs.

Conservation International, one of the world's leading conservation organizations, and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) among others, are working with companies like Starbucks and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters to develop robust markets for organic, shade-grown bird friendly coffees from Latin America. USAID funds empowerment projects that supply coffee grower cooperatives with tools and technical training to increase the quality, and thus the value of their beans through processing and certification. Such support for small-scale farmers and local economies contributes to the conservation of forested areas in the world's tropical regions.

Leafy experiments like those near El Triunfo are germinating in other parts of the tropics. Ultimately, they will test the compatibility of conservation and consumerism. Their success is vital, for national parks and reserves alone will not address the habitat needs of migratory birds, other wildlife and people.

The shade-grown coffee forest farms adjacent to the El Triunfo Reserve are making a difference. As a consumer, so can you. It boils down to choice, to voting with your dollar, to making a conscious effort to purchase products like organic, fair trade and shade-grown coffees. The next time you order a cup, make sure to ask for "shade-grown" and look for the certification seals. And don't forget to educate your friends, preferably over an environmentally friendly, socially just cup of joe.

Craig Thompson leads the DNR's West Central Regional Land Team in Eau Claire. John Sheffy is a Peace Corps volunteer stationed in Kpalimé, Togo, West Africa. His projects include developing sustainable agriculture programs.

Migratory birds observed
in shade-grown coffee plantations
The following birds breed in North America and spend the winter in the tropics:

  • swallow-tailed kite
  • sharp-shinned hawk
  • broad-winged hawk
  • yellow-billed cuckoo
  • black-billed cuckoo
  • Vaux's swift
  • ruby-throated hummingbird
  • rufous hummingbird
  • yellow-bellied sapsucker
  • olive-sided flycatcher
  • western wood pewee
  • eastern wood pewee
  • alder flycatcher
  • Hammond's flycatcher
  • yellow-bellied flycatcher
  • blue-headed vireo
  • plumbeous vireo
  • Cassin's vireo
  • red-eyed vireo
  • white-eyed vireo
  • Philadelphia vireo
  • yellow-throated vireo
  • warbling vireo
  • blue-gray gnatcatcher
  • wood thrush
  • Swainson's thrush
  • blue-winged warbler
  • golden-winged warbler
  • Tennessee warbler
  • Nashville warbler
  • northern parula
  • yellow warbler
  • chestnut-sided warbler
  • yellow-rumped warbler
  • magnolia warbler
  • Cape May warbler
  • black-throated blue warbler
  • Townsend's warbler
  • black-throated green warbler
  • Blackburnian warbler
  • cerulean warbler
  • black-and-white warbler
  • American redstart
  • prothonotary warbler
  • ovenbird
  • Louisiana waterthrush
  • mourning warbler
  • MacGillivray's warbler
  • Wilson's warbler
  • Canada warbler
  • hepatic tanager
  • summer tanager
  • scarlet tanager
  • western tanager
  • rose-breasted grosbeak
  • black-headed grosbeak
  • indigo bunting
  • painted bunting
  • Lincoln's sparrow
  • Western oriole
  • northern oriole
  • turkey vulture
This list is gleaned from published articles on shade-grown coffee, surveys in Panama and Peru (Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center) and from observations.