Reprinted by Permission of Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine
Good grounds for conservation:
Time for a lesson about the birds and beans.
By Craig Thompson
and John Sheffy
It begins at breakfast -- the opportunity to make a difference. That
cup of coffee brims with possibilities: A connoisseur knows it's the
matters; a socially concerned conservationist knows it's not only the
also how it is grown and by whom.
Deep in the cradle of Mexico lies a mountain blanketed with a riotous
of vegetation. Tree ferns grow to mammoth proportions and a profusion
song resonates through the forest. "El Triunfo", as it is known to
of the Mexican state of Chiapas, is still a wild place. Cloaking the
slopes of the Sierra de Chiapas, El Triunfo is the largest cloud forest
in southern Mexico. Little changed since the Pleistocene, it is a
trove of biological diversity.
El Triunfo provides vital habitat for myriad species, including migrant
from Wisconsin. To help ensure its protection, in 1990 the Mexican
declared El Triunfo a biosphere reserve -- a system of land use
strict preservation and multi-use conservation zones.
An experiment in compatible land use is underway on the slopes
Triunfo. Coffee farms of various sizes ring the reserve, acting as a
for the natural forest and preventing the land from being converted to
agriculture or ranches, which quickly degrade and erode the thin
forest soil. The coffee farms provide habitat for the reserve's wild
while diversifying the source of income for coffee pickers and farm
In the shade of a coffee forest
Coffee in the El Triunfo buffer zone is grown the old-fashioned way --
shade. That makes all the difference in the world to a travel-weary
More than half of the approximately 650 species of birds that breed in
America winter in the tropics. For those dependent on forested
finding suitable tropical forests in many Latin American nations is a
proposition. Two-thirds of Latin America's forests have fallen to
peasant and plantation agriculture; the remaining habitat is
fragmented, its edges
degraded. To a northern oriole or rose-breasted grosbeak from
coffee farm provides a welcome respite.
Originally found in the forests of Ethiopia, coffee was introduced to
World in the 1700s. Cultivation spread rapidly throughout Latin America
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
second layer of fruit trees - banana, citrus, or avocado - for
income. The coffee plants themselves occupy the third layer, and the
the soil is used for raising an understory of various low-growing
herbs and tubers.
The structure of a coffee forest resembles the surrounding tropical
complete with continuous groundcover, diverse communities of flowering
vines and other epiphytes. Coffee forests are very inviting to many
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
creative forest farming endeavors increasingly serve as surrogate
migrant birds and resident wildlife.
In the 1970s, the robust and expanding coffee industry hit a speed
fungal blight, coffee leaf rust, was found growing in damp, shady
Brazil. The spreading blight threatened the entire industry. Green
researchers and aid agencies encouraged growers to switch to
varieties of coffee that grow well in full sun, eliminating the threat
Since that time, 40 percent of formerly shade-grown coffee acreage
in Latin America has been converted to "sun plantations". Many new
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
use of more fertilizers and pesticides to thrive. Without a lush tree
for protection, a sun plantation's thin tropical soil is exposed to
and harsh sunlight. Erosion is common, and the intense heat literally
the microorganisms vital for soil health, leaving a less fertile soil
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",
Greenburg, Director of the Smithsonian Institution's Migratory Bird
has an inordinate fondness for shade-grown coffee. Work done by
his colleagues in Chiapas has shown that forest farms are brimming with
biodiversity, providing habitat for more than 150 species of birds -- a
exceeded only by primary tropical forest. By comparison, plantations
basking in full
sun yield far fewer species, typically between 20-50. The same holds
insects, amphibians and mammals, displaying the cascading results of
decisions on all forest trophic levels.
New markets take wing
When compared to all of Latin America, the forests of Central America
the highest number of wintering North American migrant birds.
coffee forest farms are critical for their survival -- and to the
thousands of farmers suffering from the lowest coffee prices in decades
world market. Shade-grown coffees certified as "bird friendly"
command a higher
price than uncertified coffees, giving forest farmers a direct
incentive to conserve bird habitat. Many java aficionados say coffee
rapidly on sunny acres lack the richness and density of slower growing
coffee; these connoisseurs are willing to pay more to savor the
With habitat loss the primary threat to wildlife in Central America,
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
The layered coffee forest farm produces multiple benefits for farm
fuel, construction materials, fruit, nuts, animal fodder, food, honey
beekeeping, medicinal plants, and cash from the sale of surplus farm
the coffee beans. Agroforestry systems like coffee forests decrease a
dependence on volatile cash crop markets, and provide sustenance in
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
cappuccinos, and even green beans sold online for home roasting. As
for coffee as a beverage evolve, so too should our expectations for how
grown. The Specialty Coffee Association of America (www.scaa.org), a
in coffee quality enhancement, recently expanded its concept of "total
quality" to include environmental and social characteristics. It is
define a new niche for coffee, a niche that mainstreams the notion of
refer to as "coffee with a conscience."
Habitat loss due to forest conversion is a symptom of land scarcity,
trade practices, skewed political incentives, and most of all,
local farmers. Certification programs -- which designate coffee raised
appropriate conditions as "organic", "fair trade", and
-- are ways to empower small and large farmers by rewarding their
Organically certified coffees are produced without the use of chemical
fertilizers, pesticides, or processing techniques. Fair trade coffees
by small-scale grower associations organized to promote social equity
sustainability. Under fair trade arrangements, farmers sell directly to
at an agreed-upon fixed price; the farmers' profits are higher and
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
and structure. Companies that sell "Bird Friendly" coffees
cents per pound towards Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center research and
Conservation International (www.conservation.org), one of the world's
conservation organizations, and the United States Agency for
Development (USAID) among others, are working with companies like
Green Mountain Coffee Roasters to develop robust markets for organic,
shade-grown bird friendly coffees from Latin America. USAID funds
that supply coffee grower cooperatives with tools and technical
increase the quality, and thus the value of their beans through
certification. Such support for small-scale farmers and local economies
contributes to the conservation of forested areas in the world's
Leafy experiments like those near El Triunfo are germinating in other
of the tropics. Ultimately, they will test the compatibility of
and consumerism. Their success is vital, for national parks and
will not address the habitat needs of migratory birds, other wildlife
The shade-grown coffee forest farms adjacent to the El Triunfo Reserve
making a difference. As a consumer, so can you. It boils down to
voting with your dollar, to making a conscious effort to purchase
organic, fair trade and shade-grown coffees. The next time you order a
sure to ask for "shade-grown" and look for the certification seals.
forget to educate your friends, preferably over an environmentally
socially just cup of joe.
Craig Thompson leads the DNR's West Central Regional Land Team in Eau
John Sheffy is a Peace Corps volunteer stationed in Kpalime, Togo,
West Africa. His projects include developing sustainable agriculture programs.
Declining bird populations
"Bird populations around the world are plummeting faster than
ever before", and
human factors "from population growth to habitat destruction and
change" are at the center of this demise, reports a new study from the
Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based research organization.
are threatening 99 percent of the most imperiled bird species and
to what has become the greatest wave of extinctions since dinosaurs
disappeared 65 million years ago, according to Howard Youth in Winged
Decline of Birds.
Declining bird populations mark not only the loss of unique
Youth, "but also the unraveling of delicate natural balances. Birds are
valuable environmental indicators because they warn us of impending
their waning or flourishing populations.
With twelve percent of the world's bird population - almost 1,200
species - facing extinction in the next century, Winged Messengers
outlines an array of
phenomena that is accelerating this demise. These include:
And while restoration efforts are important in some areas, the best way
preserve biodiversity, says Youth, is to not let species and their
habitats become endangered in the first place. "While we need
legislation in some areas, often just the full implementation and
enforcement of already
established international laws and agreements would go a long way
saving the world's remaining bird diversity."
Youth says that new alliances are proving fruitful in documenting
species and preventing further species losses.
Conservation biology "a new approach to natural habitat protection
biology, conservation science, economics, and the mutual engagement of
conservationists, communities, and business" has changed the focus of
protection. This new approach factors in not only protected areas for
conservation, but also adjacent lands, water resources, and the people
who inhabit and
Biodiversity protection can be combined with money-making ventures,
enterprise and environmentalism together. Shade-grown coffee is one
initiative. Growing coffee in the traditional way beneath a tropical
protects natural habitats, providing shelter to resident and migratory
and using fewer chemicals than those grown on pesticide-heavy (sun
farms. Organic farms and those using integrated pest management also
diverse food sources and safer habitats for birds.
Scientists are also tapping into one of the world's fastest growing
hobbies, bird-watching, as a means for heightening conservation
Growing ranks of birders are providing a powerful infusion of eyes and
assist scientists in monitoring bird populations and mapping out the
important remaining bird habitats.
"The actions needed to ensure a secure future for birds are the very
ones needed to achieve a sustainable human future", says Youth.
conservation must be worked into and be compatible with rural,
suburban, and urban
planning efforts that improve the prospects of the world's poor while
our cities and industries safer for all living beings."
- Habitat loss: Deforestation rates from 50,000 to 170,000 square
kilometers a year pose the single greatest overall threat, jeopardizing
85 percent of
the world's most threatened bird species. While forest re-growth
offset the net losses, for many native animals and plants, simplified
monocultures are no substitute for more complex natural forests.
Roads and power lines frequently cut through forests, fragmenting them,
increasing the chance of fatal collisions, and providing pathways for
competitors, and exotic plants. Intensive hunting often follows when
- Alien attacks: A rise in global trade and travel over the past
has led to an acceleration in the introduction of exotic (non-native)
Exotic species ”including snakes, rats, cats, plants, and
insects” now menace a
quarter of globally threatened bird species.
- Chemical threats: Large oil spills threaten many seabird
small, less-publicized daily tankers also kill birds. Terrestrial
also face threats from oil and natural gas exploration, and transport
pipelines. Worldwide, pesticides kill millions of birds on water and on
- Hunting, Capture, and Fishing: Illegal hunting and poorly regulated
lead to the killing of millions of birds around the world. Birds can be
to death too: Almost a third of the world"s parrot species are
extinction because of the pet trade, and long-term habitat loss.
fishing also claims hundreds of thousands of seabirds (23 species now
extinction) when they are inadvertently hooked on baited lines and
- Climate change: Recent evidence of earlier bird migration and
some species seems to indicate early effects of global warming.
fear that in coming years climate change will alter vital bird
tundra to subtropical coastlines, even pushing some localized species
extinction. Efforts by governments and private organizations to
bird species paint a bright future for some jeopardized species, but
wildlife management can go awry, says Youth. Habitat restoration can be
complicated when tree or shrub species have vanished, soil is
compacted, water tables
have dropped, or chemicals have poisoned an area. Costly projects may
marginal results, not fully compensating wildlife for habitats lost.
"Birds provide us with food, inspiration, a link to nature, and an
system for detecting environmental ills, but today, this feathered
resource is in
great need of human attention."
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