Made in the Shade
Every day Americans drink 300 million cups of coffee. Few of them realize their morning ritual could be contributing to the demise of the birds in their own backyards. By making a point of buying only coffee grown under a canopy of trees, they would be helping to save crucial habitat for these migratory species in their winter homes.
By Paul Tolme/Photography by Brown W. Cannon III
The peaks of Mexico's Sierra Madre range rise into the blue haze of a humid Chiapas morning. Beneath them, Bernardo Peters steers his four-wheel-drive vehicle up a rutted mountain road. He stops at a white metal sign, which is neatly hand-lettered area natural protegida"Protected Natural Area"and turns off the engine, putting hand to ear. "Listen," he says, Tto all the birds." As we sit, the distant warbles grow steadily louder, surrounding us like conversations in a crowded restaurant. The birdsong is a fitting welcome to Finca Irlanda, the thriving habitat that is his family's shade-grown-coffee farm.
Walter Peters, Bernardo's 72-year-old father, waits with his trusty German shepherd, Wolf, outside the rambling colonial home that his own father built. Walter is a coffee farmer by trade but a birder at heart, and he wastes no time beginning a tour of the finca, or farm. The 720-acre property, where six-foot-high coffee plants and lofty shade trees intermingle, stretches over three sides of a 3,500-foot mountain ridge enclosed in thick rainforest canopy. This is the Soconusco region of the state of Chiapas, which lies in southernmost Mexico. Chiapas not only contains the country's most productive coffee farmsincluding this one, the main source of Audubon's new organic, shade-grown blendit is home to eight Important Bird Areas, or land formally identified as critical bird habitat. Sometimes it's difficult to distinguish between the two.
Walter scurries down a terraced slope and raises his binoculars.
"Aha," he says, motioning at a flash of yellow feathers. "A
western tanager." Seconds later he pivots and points out a wood
wren sitting comfortably in an acacia tree. Birding with Walter, whose
trim physique and surefootedness testify to a lifetime of climbing these
mountains, is an aerobic activity. He stops just long enough to identify
nearby birds, then hikes off again, reciting the names of plants and
insects along the way.
The reason is simple. Here, among the branches of a shade-grown-coffee
farm and scattered in the leaf litter that covers its soil, is a smorgasbord
of insects, nectar, and fruit. This is not undisturbed forest. This
is human-managed habitatan agricultural endeavorbut it's
valuable to wildlife all the same. As deforestation continues apace
elsewhere in Latin America, this ecosystem exists because a farmer cared
to create it, and because people throughout the United States choose
to drink his coffee.
Just as a building with many floors and types of apartments houses more people, a forest with trees of varying heights and species provides habitat for more animals. The complexity of the best shade-coffee farms extends right down to more than 100 species of plants, from camedor palms and wild orchids to flowering philodendrons that cling to the trunks of trees. At Finca Irlanda, a recent study of the insects and spiders taking advantage of this diversity revealed 793 species. Animals such as the ocelot and the endangered Tamandua mexicanaa tree-climbing anteaterhave been found on shade-coffee farms, too.
An important choice is brewing: Continue to drink coffee without considering how it is grown, or deliberately seek out brands that are grown in ways that protect migratory birds.
But as I trek across the ridge with Walter, the alarm calls and indignant flutters of the finca's avian inhabitants grab my attention most. Shade-coffee farms shelter more birds than any other agricultural landscape; only untamed tropical forests have greater diversity. As these forests are cleared for grazing, agriculture, timber, and development, shade-coffee farms demonstrate how a farmer can work the land while also protecting biodiversity.
Walter has counted more than 200 species of birds during his lifetime
here. Most are residents such as yellow-naped parrots, orange-chinned
parakeets, and long-tailed manakins, but there are also 60 species of
neotropical migrants. It is these birds that connect Finca Irlanda to
backyards across the United States. Some migratory species, like the
ovenbird and the wood thrush, are feeling the pressure of habitat fragmentation
on both their breeding and wintering grounds. For these birds, shade-grown-coffee
farms can serve as a crucial refuge.
These plantations accomplished what the coffee growers had set out to doproduce bigger and bigger yields. Today, with a double latte for sale on almost every corner, coffee is one of the world's most valuable legally traded commodities. But this development came at a cost. The soil on these coffee plantations is less productive and more easily eroded; the coffee plants are less resilient during the dry season and must be replaced more often. And according to studies in Colombia and Mexico, these plantations support 94 percent to 97 percent fewer bird species than shade-coffee farms. "It's a sonic desert," says ornithologist Thomas Dietsch, a postdoctoral fellow with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center who did avian surveys on both sun and shade-grown farms. "Every once in a while a bird will pop up from the coffee understory, but seeing birds within your 25-meter radius is not very common."
Coffee farms have replaced mountain forests across much of the Coffee Belt, between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, where growing conditions are ideal and frosts are rare. More than 25 million people rely on coffee farming for their income, and about 30 million acres worldwide are devoted to the crop.
"Making coffee farmers allies in conserving wildlife habitat is without question one of the most important challenges in tropical conservation," says Chris Wille, chief of sustainable agriculture for the Rainforest Alliance, "and one that has outstanding potential for landscape-wide benefits."
"We don't just sell coffee. We sell the opportunity for the consumer to buy a concept: a fair, organic, bird-friendly, and sustainable product. That is what we sell in every cup."
The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center launched its Bird Friendly program in the mid-1990s, and the Rainforest Alliance soon followed suit with a certification program of its own. Both groups send auditors to farms to ensure they maintain a multitiered forest canopy, which is where two-thirds of the birds on any shade-coffee farm live. Consumers need to look for the Bird Friendly or Rainforest Alliance seals on the package to be certain the coffee inside measures up. "You can go into any supermarket and find coffee labeled as shade-grown," Dietsch says. But without a certification stamp, "the words mean nothing."
There is a difference behind the seals. The Smithsonian standards also require farms to be organic (although other certified-organic coffees aren't necessarily shade-grown). This primarily means that growers cannot apply chemical pesticides or fertilizers, which kill insects beneficial to birds and may run off to contaminate watersheds. While the Rainforest Alliance does not require its farms to meet strict organic standards, it sets guidelines for conserving soil and wildlife, and insists that farm managers use the safest agrochemicals according to strictly monitored guidelines. In addition, the Rainforest Alliance program covers social and labor issuessuch as ensuring fair wages and safe working conditions, and providing workers with health care and better housing. Finca Irlanda is certified by both groups.
For now, shade-grown coffee is still a niche market. Roughly 19 million
pounds of Rainforest Alliancecertified coffee, and an additional
3.75 million pounds that is certified Bird Friendly, were shipped this
past year. Those are collectively but a drip in the carafe of global
productionroughly 13 billion pounds a year. One explanation is
that conservation-minded coffee drinkers "haven't yet flexed their
muscles," says Wille. "If they do, their potential to change
the coffee business is tremendous." To be sure, the 71 million
Americans who consider themselves birdwatchers represent a huge, untapped
Consumers used to buying $3 tins of supermarket coffee, however, should be prepared to pay more for coffee that's shade-grown and organic; these beans are more expensive because they cost twice as much to grow. Finca Irlanda, for instance, requires about 300 days of labor per acre compared with about 150 on neighboring conventional farms. Instead of applying herbicides, workers cut weeds from between coffee plants with machetes. It costs Finca Irlanda about $1.39 to produce a pound of coffee, compared with 60 cents or less on mechanized sun farms.
Finca Irlanda stays in business because it receives $1.90 per pound from its American roaster, the Rogers Family Coffee Companies of San Francisco. The Rogers Charitable Fund, the family's foundation, spends an additional 20 cents per pound enhancing life in Finca Irlanda's coffee-farm community. This year the money will cover the costs of a preschool nursery with a kitchen that will provide breakfast and lunch for the nursery and the entire elementary school.
Many farms don't have the advantage of such altruistic middlemen. A worldwide glut of cheaply produced beans has depressed prices to record lows, prompting industry watchers to declare a coffee crisis. The World Bank estimates that 600,000 Central American workers have lost jobs as small coffee farms have gone bankrupt or switched to cattle, corn, or even coca. Displaced workers often flee to the United States.
Guaranteeing farmers a minimum price, and a livable income, is at the heart of a movement known as "fair trade"another label that can be found on coffees, alone or along with shade-grown or organic certifications. TransFair, the leading fair trade certifier, requires that buyers pay a just amount for a given product, helping small-scale, traditional growers survive in a world of increasing scale and mechanization. For coffee, this amounts to at least $1.26 per pound, which is divided between individual farmers and the cooperatives they belong to.
Fair trade is one arena in which coffeehouses have begun to exercise their sizeable influence. Dunkin' Donuts, the number one retailer of coffee-by-the-cup in America, buys only TransFaircertified beans for the espresso-based drinks it is rolling out in 4,000 stores across the country. The chain anticipates selling 30 million fair trade lattes and cappuccinos this year alone. Starbucks, the world's leading retailer of specialty coffee, doubled the amount of fair trade-certified coffee it buys, from roughly 1 million pounds in 2002 to 2.1 million pounds in 2003. Last year it also purchased more than 1.8 million pounds of beans grown by small-scale farmers in the buffer zone of El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve in Chiapasa flagship project of Conservation International's Conservation Coffee program, which promotes coffee grown under the protection of shade.
This is a heartening trend for farmers like Bernardo Peters. "If
I get good prices and good contracts," he explains, "I can
improve the environment, protect the birds, improve the lives of my
workers. If I don't get good contracts, I can do none of this, and all
the young men leave for the North."
Walter's father, German immigrant Rodolfo Peters, could scarcely have predicted how intense the world's coffee addiction would become when he first bought the finca from an Irishman (thus Irlanda) in 1929. Walter took over the family farm in the 1960s and, aside from five years in Mexico City for schooling and then two years in Germany to learn his family's native tongue, he has spent his entire life studying birds among the coffee.
Thirty families live and work on the farm year-round, but the workforce swells to 500 during the fall harvest. Workers pick the fleshy red fruits, called cherries, and place them in large fermenting tanks, where the pulpy layer around the beans softens. The cherries are then raked onto a concrete patio and left in the sun. A rotating drum removes the parchmentlike layer from the dried beans, which are sorted by hand for quality. The beans are then poured into burlap bags for export to Europe, the United States, or Japan.
Finca Irlanda shipped the world's first batch of certified-organic coffee beans, in 1967, when other farms were beginning to descend the slippery agricultural slope of dousing their fields with chemicals. Walter runs his hands through the rich black compost that makes organic farming possible on his finca. Since the bean makes up just one-third of the cherry's weight, gargantuan piles of pulp are left over. These are mixed with weeds and with the manure from the 40 head of cattle that supply meat for the farm. The resulting natural fertilizer is used to grow seedlings of both native trees and coffee.
For all his efforts, Walter is frustrated that so many bird species are not as pervasive as they once were. There are fewer black-throated green warblers and Tennessee warblers every year, and Walter saw only one American kestrel last winter. As a young man he used to see scarlet macaws all the time; now he's lucky to see any at all. He mimics the descent of a diving bird with his hand. "The trend," he says, "is always down."
Surely blame lies with deforestation and development. But, he'll remind you, full-sun plantations on the birds' wintering grounds have taken a toll as well. Back at the house, father and son discuss the challenge of educating consumers. On a small scale, ecotourism may offer one answer. The family is readying several rooms for tourists curious about the workings, and wildlife, of an organic, shade-grown-coffee farm. Other fincas in the region also hope that "agricultural tourism" will help pay for costly certification.
After all, connoisseurs do value the label. Specialty coffeesshade-grown, organic, and fair tradetaste better, they swear. Under the cover of trees, coffee cherries are allowed to ripen slowly; only the most mature ones are picked. And like wine and honey, these small-batch coffees have a distinctive taste associated with the microclimates in which they are grown. But good beans are only part of the equation. "We don't just sell coffee," Bernardo says, hoisting a cup. "We sell the opportunity for the consumer to buy a concept: a fair, organic, bird-friendly, and sustainable product. That is what we sell in every cup." He takes a sip and smiles. "And it's delicious."
Leaving Finca Irlanda, I vow to never again buy cheap, sun-grown coffee. Without consumer support, small farms that protect biodiversity can't compete with technified plantations whose main objective is profit. By choosing beans grown in a manner that steps lightly on the land, Americans can help ensure that the backyard birds they watch while sipping their morning brew will still be there for future generations. Certified shade-grown coffee is more than delicious. It is strong.
© 2004 National Audubon Society