Cof­fee in Colom­bia

Why drinking shade-grown cof­fee could give a help­ing hand to mi­gra­tory birds

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Contents - By James Lowen

Juan Pablo Echev­erri hands me an espresso. “The cof­fee was cul­ti­vated and brewed right here,” he says. We’re at Ha­cienda Vene­cia, Juan Pablo’s family-run farm in Colom­bia’s An­dean high­lands. In­hal­ing the roast’s heady scent, I glance to­wards some tall, na­tive trees. Binoc­u­lars raised, my vision sud­denly fizzes with feather – a rain­bow of birds nib­bling fruit or glean­ing in­sects. A sun-yel­low flash an­nounces a Canada war­bler – an adult male judging by its os­ten­ta­tious neck­lace and stu­dious spec­ta­cles. The flock swirls on­wards.

As I pri­ori­tise café solo over op­tics, I won­der whether grow­ing cof­fee plants un­der the shade of rain­for­est trees might just stave off this mi­gra­tory bird’s slump to­wards ex­tinc­tion. The weight of an AAA bat­tery, la reinita

de Canada (Canada’s little queen) flies about 6,000km to spend seven months amid South Amer­i­can moun­tains be­fore re­turn­ing to North Amer­ica to breed. Calami­tous de­for­esta­tion on its An­dean win­ter­ing quar­ters is thought re­spon­si­ble for a 75 per cent pop­u­la­tion de­cline across four decades. Concern for the Canada war­bler’s plight has gal­vanised “a multi­na­tional col­lab­o­ra­tion to co-or­di­nate re­cov­ery efforts,”

says Diana Eusse of Colom­bian wildlife char­ity Aso­ciación Calidris. Join­ing forces with ProColom­bia (the na­tional tourist board), Bird Stud­ies Canada and BirdLife In­ter­na­tional’s Pre­vent­ing Ex­tinc­tions Pro­gramme, Calidris is fight­ing to save mi­gra­tory and resident species alike in the con­text of a 90 per cent re­duc­tion in An­dean for­est. Get­ting tree cover back is key. “We have estab­lished 83 com­mu­nity nurs­eries for lo­cal veg­e­ta­tion and planted 80 hectares with na­tive trees,” Diana says. She also hails the “po­ten­tial im­por­tance” of cof­fee grown in plan­ta­tions shaded by indige­nous trees. “Shade-grown cof­fee can gen­er­ate fi­nan­cial in­cen­tives” for landown­ers to re­tain or en­hance for­est. Ever the caf­feine fiend, this in­trigues me. Might savvy pur­chas­ing de­ci­sions help my ad­dic­tion save trop­i­cal wildlife?

Among the world’s most im­por­tant com­modi­ties, cof­fee is big busi­ness in Colom­bia. Arábica ex­ports are worth £2 bil­lion and rose 20 per cent be­tween 2013 and 2018 – only Brazil and Viet­nam

At least 42 species of North Amer­i­can song­birds win­ter on Cen­tral or South Amer­i­can cof­fee farms.

ship more. The Zona Cafetera of Cal­das, Ris­ar­alda and Quindío em­ploys 800,000 peo­ple. But cof­fee grows on hills from 900–2,000m, the same el­e­va­tional band favoured by the Canada war­bler and other mi­gra­tory birds – and orig­i­nally swathed in na­tive for­est. On An­dean slopes, bean is battling bird.

Past, present and fu­ture

Cof­fee plan­ta­tions were estab­lished here dur­ing the 19th cen­tury. The rain­for­est un­der­storey was erad­i­cated to make way for cof­fee bushes, but the canopy was re­tained to pro­vide shade un­der which wild Cof­fea ara­bica nat­u­rally thrives. This ap­proach per­sisted un­til late last cen­tury, when the race for higher yields led to in­ex­orable clear-felling, so the crop could ripen in the sun. In Colom­bia, where Canada war­blers mostly win­ter, the area of shade-grown cof­fee more than halved be­tween 1997 and 2013. Worse, 69 per cent of Colom­bian cof­fee plan­ta­tions now lack shad­ing trees. Such ‘sun-grown cof­fee’ pro­vides min­i­mal ser­vice to wildlife.

Con­cerned by this trans­for­ma­tion, the USbased Smithsonia­n Mi­gra­tory Bird Cen­tre (SMBC) paved the way for re­searchers to in­ves­ti­gate whether shade-grown cof­fee could help bio­di­ver­sity. The en­su­ing body of evidence pro­vides con­sid­er­able hope.

The Cor­nell Lab of Or­nithol­ogy cal­cu­lates that at least 42 species of North Amer­i­can breed­ing song­bird – war­blers, tan­agers, orioles and more – win­ter on

Cen­tral or South Amer­i­can cof­fee farms. Cor­nell’s Amanda Rode­wald found such migrants in the north­ern An­des to be more nu­mer­ous in shade-cof­fee than nat­u­ral forests – and, re­mark­ably, those in shade­cof­fee im­proved their phys­i­cal con­di­tion for their north­bound mi­gra­tion. “With their nec­tar, in­sect and fruit re­sources, shade­grown cof­fee plan­ta­tions can pro­vide good for­ag­ing habi­tat for birds,” she says. Some birds like what they find so much that they re­turn year after year. “One par­tic­u­lar cerulean war­bler even re­turned to the same farm for five con­sec­u­tive win­ters.”

Pay­ing div­i­dends

Cof­fee isn’t solely for the birds. Shade­grown cof­fee sup­ports high lev­els of bio­di­ver­sity, from in­sects to mam­mals, ex­plains Ana González of Colom­bian re­search in­sti­tute SELVA. Re­searchers in Mex­ico learnt that am­phib­ians such as pygmy free-fin­gered frog and Mex­i­can rob­ber frog rel­ished the higher hu­mid­ity and denser leaf lit­ter found in shaded plan­ta­tions. The equiv­a­lent land­scape in Costa Rica was found to be home to 17 mam­mal species (in­clud­ing north­ern raccoon, grey foureyed opos­sum and nine-banded ar­madillo). An In­done­sian study counted 90 per cent more bees on shade-grown cof­fee farms than sun-ripened al­ter­na­tives. But it’s not just wildlife that benefits – cof­fee pro­duc­ers can, too. No­body de­nies that sunny cof­fee plan­ta­tions yield more beans than shady ones. But the lat­ter’s slower mat­u­ra­tion im­parts a deeper flavour that can garner higher prices. Leaf lit­ter feeds plants, low­er­ing fer­tiliser costs. Shade-grown cof­fee plants grow for twice as long – so need less fre­quent re­place­ment. Birds nat­u­rally con­trol pests such as cof­fee borer bee­tle. Over­hang­ing trees re­duce soil ero­sion, se­quester car­bon and of­fer the po­ten­tial for har­vest­ing other for­est prod­ucts – which SMBC’s Robert Rice found “can po­ten­tially boost the value of cof­fee farm­ers’ hold­ings by about 10 per cent”.

Then throw in the mar­ket pre­mium that pro­duc­ers re­ceive if their crop is in­de­pen­dently cer­ti­fied as ‘shade-grown’. This uplift is fea­si­ble be­cause cof­fee drinkers will­ingly pay ex­tra to sup­port good causes. In the UK, we are fa­mil­iar with or­ganic, Fair­trade and Rain­for­est Al­liance cof­fee. Each cer­ti­fi­ca­tion scheme presses a dif­fer­ent but­ton to garner our cus­tom. Or­ganic la­bels con­firm that

crop and land have not been sluiced with chem­i­cals. Fair­trade guar­an­tees pro­duc­ers an eq­ui­table min­i­mum price. Rain­for­est Al­liance cof­fee pro­motes sustainabl­e agri­cul­ture over bio­di­ver­sity.

In 1996, SMBC launched the first – and, by all ac­counts, still best – cer­ti­fi­ca­tion scheme for shade-grown cof­fee. The pri­mary goal of Bird Friendly cof­fee is avian con­ser­va­tion. Stan­dards are os­ten­si­bly ex­act­ing: cer­ti­fiers grant use of the la­bel only if the canopy is 12m high or more, pro­vides at least 40 per cent shade over the or­ganic crop, con­tains na­tive species and is both floris­ti­cally and struc­turally com­plex. Though well estab­lished in North Amer­ica and Ja­pan, Bird Friendly cof­fee may be new to UK read­ers. Though not yet in su­per­mar­kets, Bird & Wild and Cafe­ol­ogy sell roasts through Ocado, Ama­zon and the Royal So­ci­ety for the Pro­tec­tion of Birds. This sounds promis­ing – but is it? Or is shade-grown merely hype?

Cof­fee crit­ics

The con­cept is not with­out crit­ics. From his work in Hon­duras, Sa­muel Jones (Univer­sity of Lon­don) is con­cerned that “mono­cul­tures dam­age un­der­storey habi­tat for scarce am­phib­ians and birds.” Chris Sharpe of Venezue­lan char­ity Provita has been unim­pressed by shade-cof­fee farms in Costa Rica and Belize. “Only in Venezuela,” he says, “have I ex­pe­ri­enced plan­ta­tions that pro­vide what birds need – com­plex ar­chi­tec­ture with canopy lay­ers com­pris­ing solely na­tive species.” Ana is

Consumers need more trans­par­ent in­for­ma­tion to guar­an­tee they are mak­ing the right choices.

in­creas­ingly con­cerned that not all cer­ti­fied cof­fee is pro­duced un­der as high stan­dards as the Bird-Friendly la­bel. “Some farms ob­tain cer­ti­fi­ca­tion with­out nec­es­sar­ily meet­ing shade-grown pa­ram­e­ters,” she warns. “Consumers need more trans­par­ent in­for­ma­tion to guar­an­tee they are mak­ing the right choices to pro­tect wildlife habi­tat.”

More­over, you need a lot of cer­ti­fied land to make a land­scape-sized dif­fer­ence. As Colom­bia’s 300,000 pro­duc­ers typ­i­cally run farms cov­er­ing just 20,000–50,000m², the chal­lenge is mighty. En­cour­ag­ingly, both pro­duc­tion and area cer­ti­fied have nearly tripled since 2008. Yet the US mar­ket share of Bird Friendly cof­fee re­mains tiny (less than 0.5 per cent) and the to­tal land in­volved is little more than the size of Liver­pool (128km²).

Nev­er­the­less, advocates and scep­tics have found common ground on a few points. From a wildlife per­spec­tive, shade­grown cof­fee can never fully re­place na­tive for­est. But it is bet­ter than no trees at all. In a sea of de­for­esta­tion, any sem­blance of wood­land helps buf­fer nat­u­ral for­est patches and en­ables an­i­mals to move be­tween them. In the Colom­bian An­des, for Aso­ciación Calidris and oth­ers, shade­cof­fee has be­come part of a prag­matic con­ser­va­tion mix whose main­stay is for­est pro­tec­tion and restora­tion.

The world is not go­ing to stop drinking cof­fee but we can se­lect a less en­vi­ron­men­tally harm­ful roast. Back home, I brew a ‘con­ser­va­tion cof­fee’ from Colom­bia’s an­swer to Star­bucks, Juan Valdez. A Canada war­bler adorns the packet. To­gether, im­age and aroma trans­port me back to the An­des – and their hills of hope.

Left: work­ers har­vest young cof­fee plants be­fore re­lo­cat­ing them. Below: a bean dam­aged by cof­fee borer bee­tle. Bot­tom right: the Bal­ti­more ori­ole favours cof­fee and ca­cao plan­ta­tions where crops are grown un­der a shady canopy. Bot­tom: cof­fee plan­ta­tions blan­ket hill­sides in Colom­bia.

Top left: after plant­ing, it can take up to four years for cof­fee trees to bear fruit. Top right: cof­fee cher­ries turn bright red when ready for har­vest­ing – the beans are then sep­a­rated from the fruit. Above: the cher­ries are usu­ally picked by hand. Bot­tom left: the wood thrush’s win­ter­ing habi­tat is be­ing lost to cof­fee plan­ta­tions.


hum­ming­birds, as well as migrants. Bot­tom left: the black-and-white war­bler is one of the most common migrants to visit shade-cof­fee ar­eas.

Below: dried cof­fee beans. Right: more re­search is needed to de­ter­mine if shade-grown cof­fee helps resident birds, such as sparkling vi­o­letear

The nine-banded ar­madillo ( right) and north­ern raccoon ( far right) are among the mam­mals found in ar­eas of shade-cof­fee in Costa Rica.

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