hillside a half-mile away looked like any mid-elevation tropical
rainforest, so I asked my friend Homero where the coffee farm
was. “That’s it,” he said, pointing to the
very hillside I was looking at. I was really surprised. This
had to be the most natural form of agriculture I had ever
I could see that there were at least a dozen species of trees
of different canopy architectures on this coffee farm in the
mountains of western Oaxaca, owned by Homero’s father.
The trees were in various stages of flowering and fruiting.
As we approached the hillside we were treated to a cacophony
of birdsong. The shade was cool and comforting, and the visual
environment richly textured with dozens of shades of green
at different levels up to 60 feet. The smell of moist soil
invested with freshly fallen leaves feeding thousands of species
of microbes and microfauna filled my nostrils, along with
the occasional fragrance of a flowering tree or shrub. This
is the environment we lived in and on the edges of for eons
of our evolution, and somewhere deep within our brains we
feel it when we enter this tropical gallery forest world.
Of the major world crops, coffee is one of the few that is
adapted to shade and therefore can be grown, albeit with sub-maximal
yields, in nearly intact forests. It is also one of the few
major crops that is not conducive to large scale mechanization,
at least for obtaining a quality product, and thus supports
in some way some 100 million people throughout the tropics,
25 million of whom are farmers.
On top of the huge human involvement in coffee production
is the fact that coffee growing regions in Mexico and Central
America (and perhaps in Asia and Africa too) lie on critical
parts of migratory bird routes, in which birds from North
America, known as neo-tropical migrants, fly to South America
for the northern winter. The forest-like environments of many
coffee farms in these areas provide critical habitat and food
resources for hundreds of species of birds.
The upshot of this is that buyers of coffee, by exercising
choices offered in today’s market, probably have more
opportunity to influence positive change in socially and ecologically
stressed areas than just about any other food buying activity.
In this article I focus on bird friendly coffee. For small
farmer grown coffee, there are lots of resources about Fair
Trade coffee at www.transfairusa.org,
as well as in two previous articles in which I discuss the
devastating crash of coffee prices (Out
of the ashes of the coffee crash, Costa Rican organic is born
price, processing and production challenges of growing coffee
profitably and sustainably in Guatemala).
The decline in populations of many neo-tropical migrant birds
in the last 30 years has been well documented. Especially
hard hit have been species like the Wood Thrush (Hylocichla
mustelina), the Olive-sided Flycatcher (Contopus
cooperi), the Willow Flycatcher (Empidonax traillii),
and the Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus).
Loss of over-wintering habitat and the habitat along the migratory
routes is a major factor in these declines.
The coffee growing areas of Mexico and Central America are
typically in the mid-elevation slopes of 500-2000 meters,
areas where native forests have been particularly hard hit
by settlement, farming, and other types of deforestation.
Neo-tropical migrants from western North America have been
shown to depend especially heavily on the forests and rustic
coffee plantations of Western Mexico, such as Oaxaca.
What KIND of shade
The coffee agro-ecosystem in Latin America runs the gamut
from natural forest whose understory is planted to coffee,
all the way to coffee monoculture. Intact or semi-intact natural
forest with an understory of coffee is known as “rustic”
coffee. Rustic coffee, as with the natural forest it was developed
from, is made up of dozens of species of trees in a multi-story
architecture, and makes up only a small percentage of “shade”
coffee. Most coffee farms consist of just one or a few species
of trees planted amongst dense coffee. This makes a difference
to birds and other fauna.
The complex vertical structure of the rustic coffee environment,
characterized by multiple layers of vegetation, has been correlated
with high avian diversity. The minimally disturbed leaf-litter
environment of rustic coffee is associated with a high diversity
of arthropods, many of which provide prey for birds.
As many as 150 species of birds have been counted in rustic
coffee, a species richness that can equal the number found
in nearby undisturbed forest. Birds that spend part of the
year in North America–redstarts, black-throated green
warblers, yellow-throated and solitary vireos—as well
as residents such as tinamous, parrots, trogons, becards,
toucans, and woodcreepers, are commonly found in rustic coffee
farms ... which are often the last resort for forest-adapted
organisms to find habitat and food resources.
Arthropod diversity is high in rustic coffee. (Arthropods
are insect-like organisms that include non-insects like spiders
and mites.) Army ants are an important food source for birds.
One study showed that 23 species of migrant birds fed on army
ants in a rustic coffee plantation. In another rustic coffee
farm study, the canopy of an Erythrina tree had 126
species of beetles, 103 hymenoptera species, and 30 ant species.
A second tree, less than 200 meters away, yielded similar
species richness, yet the species were 85% different amongst
ants and beetles. This kind of species richness is on the
same order of magnitude of undisturbed forests.
Epiphytic plants such as bromeliads, mistletoes, and orchids,
which use trees for structural support, are also important
elements of rustic coffee biodiversity.
The size of the rustic coffee plantations, surprisingly,
does not seem to affect bird and arthropod diversity –
a finding that goes against some of the classic ecology research
on habitat fragmentation and biodiversity. A traditional rustic
coffee plantation is kept for up to 30 years, while the life
span of café tecnificado is less than half
The push to “technify”
endangers birds and people
In the 1970s there was a big push all over Latin America
to “technify” coffee production (café
tecnificado), in which farms converted to “sun”
coffee or much lower levels of tree shade. Technification
was pushed particularly hard after the coffee rust fungus
(Hemileia vastatrix) found its way to Latin America
after devastating coffee plantations in Asia. It was believed
that the moist, shady environment of the forest was conducive
to disease development, which turns out not to be the case
much of the time because of other factors in the forest environment,
such as high microbial diversity on foliar surfaces and inhibitory
substances in the leach water from overstory trees. Part of
this agricultural “modernization,” led by US-trained
agronomists, was to introduce pesticides and chemical fertilizers
as part of coffee production.
With the extra sun, plus the concentrated nutrients from
fertilizers, café tecnificado is characterized
by much heavier weed growth than shaded coffee, since shade
is one of the best controllers of weeds, so herbicides are
used. Pesticides are used to control pest outbreaks, which
are more common because of lower plant and arthropod diversity.
Café tecnificado farmers use on the average
20-25% of expenditures on chemical inputs vs. 2% in traditional
Concurrent with the technification of coffee during the ‘70s
and ‘80s was the increased rate of loss of forest habitat
in the coffee regions of Mexico and Central America, making
ever more important for biodiversity the remaining rustic
Sometime along in the campaign for coffee technification,
probably in the early seventies, it was realized that some
shade gives higher quality coffee, protection from erosion,
reduced weed problems, and equivalent yields compared to sun
coffee. These planted shade coffee farms are characterized
by anywhere from one to a few species of trees. Nearly all
have Inga spp., a leguminous tree that has became
the backbone of shade coffee farms. Firewood and timber producing
trees such as Erythrina, Cedrela, Cordia,
and Sweitenia are often planted.
The common configuration of planted shade trees in coffee,
while adding critical bio- and architectural diversity to
an otherwise monocultural crop system, doesn’t come
close to supporting the biodiversity of forest-grown coffee.
Mexico is behind the curve on technification
Fortunately the pace of coffee “technification”
was uneven. In Colombia as many as 60% of coffee farms were
converted, as that country is well-known for its well organized
and highly developed coffee support structure (at least up
until the recent crash of coffee prices, which is said to
have all but gutted the widely respected Colombian coffee
research infrastructure). Surprisingly, Mexico is at the other
end of the spectrum, having converted only about 15% of coffee
to technified status. Surprising because Mexico, with its’
relatively stronger economy, has been considerably more able
to carry out “modernization” campaigns than most
of the other coffee growing countries.
Mexico has large pockets of mostly indigenous peoples who
have, for better and, unfortunately, mostly for worse, been
passed up by development efforts. The down side of this is
that large numbers of rural people, about a third of rural
Mexicans, live below the poverty line and are considered malnourished
(in previous articles I discuss how “market liberalization”
and globalization are now piling insult onto the injuries
of decades of government neglect of these small, mostly indigenous
farmers). One of the few upsides of this government neglect
is that only about 15% of the coffee farms in the hills of
Chiapas and Oaxaca have been technified. Large acreages of
coffee remain in the traditional forest-like rustic state.
Domingo “Mingo” Silva owns 12 hectares of rustic
coffee in the Pacific-facing mountains of the Mexican state
of Oaxaca, near the town of Pluma Hidalgo. Held in his family
for four generations now, Mingo manages the farm in the traditional
manner, harvesting fruit from the different types of trees
growing in the rustic coffee – banana, guava, zapote,
as well as cardomom.
Twenty years of technification efforts by the Mexican coffee
institute (Instituto Mexicano del Café) fortunately
didn’t manage to reach the Silva land, and in 1988 the
institute folded, leaving the coffee in this region in the
Mingo’s farm was certified organic by the Mexican branch
of the Organic Crops Improvement Association (OCIA). The son
of a neighboring farmer who works with organic certification
was instrumental in obtaining the certification. Our visit
to his land involved fine tuning inspection protocols for
OCIA bird-friendly certification. Sixteen species of trees
were counted on Mingo’s land, with sufficient architectural
diversity to easily satisfy the bird friendly certification
Rainstorms and subsequent runoff are a critical test for
assessing the sustainability of any agroecosystem. While it
did not rain during my visit to the farm, Homero, whose father
owns the neighboring farm, assured me that the water runs
clear and for some time after each rain on these farms. Extended
time of creek flow indicates that water is penetrating the
soil and moving, slowly, within the soil, to the creek channels.
The making of a great
Yields are relatively low in this forest coffee, averaging
only about six “quintals” per hectare, or 600
pounds per hectare of “café oro” –
otherwise known in the industry as “green” coffee
– ready to be roasted. This is only about a quarter
of the yield of café tecnificado. Coffee farmers
in this area wet process their beans, which when done with
scrupulous care, gives the superior coffees, fermenting the
harvested “cherries” to relieve them of their
gelatinous covering. They then sun-dry the coffee in open
patches of land on the farm.
Forest grown coffees from the prime coffee regions such as
the mountains of Oaxaca, if wet processed under exacting conditions,
have the potential to be the coffee equivalent of the finest
$100 a bottle Cabernet wines of Bordeaux and Napa, with all
of the subtle variations in flavors influenced by the forest
environment, intensified by the long ripening process in shade.
After picking, there are some dozen critical points in coffee
processing that must be done with impeccable care in order
to obtain the superior coffees demanded by what is known as
the “specialty coffee” market – the high
priced gourmet coffees. (Recent auctions of the best Nicaraguan
coffees went for over a thousand dollars per 100 pound sack,
over ten times the world coffee market price.) If any one
step is done wrong in the processing, such as allowing too
many green berries, or fermenting for too long or too short
a time, or allowing a rain squall to wet the drying coffee,
or allowing the dried, bagged coffee to get damp, the professional
buyers will taste it and reject it in the process known as
“cupping”. And when the production of dozens of
small growers, each with his own processing routine, is sold
as one lot, it only takes one producer to mess up and get
the whole lot rejected.
The exacting requirements of the specialty coffee market,
along with the geographical isolation of the growers, makes
it really challenging to connect the multitude of small-scale
growers of rustic coffee to gourmet coffee consumers. Certification
programs are one of the several necessary mechanisms for connecting
the socially and ecologically conscious consumer to the coffee
producers who fulfill the social and environmental requirements.
Certification, however, is only one of the several necessary
steps in connecting small-scale rustic coffee growers to consumers
of gourmet coffees. Organizing producers to improve production,
processing, and marketing is a big area of need.
The Smithsonian seal
The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC) coffee program
has developed a certification program for bird-friendly coffee,
incorporating much of what has been learned about critical
elements of forest biodiversity and architecture and integrating
them, to the extent possible, with critical elements of coffee
production, so as to allow a certain level of solar radiation
and available rooting space in the soil. Inspections are done
by independent inspectors who are accredited by the SMBC.
Many of these inspectors also inspect for organic certification
organizations. Farms that are certified under SMBC bird friendly
criteria can put the SMBC bird friendly coffee seal on their
To certify under the SMBC program, coffee farms must first
be certified organic. Pesticides used in conventional coffee
production would be incompatible with birds and would kill
the arthropods they depend on for food.
A level of tree shade of at least 40% is recommended, with
the shade needing to come from at least 10 different species
of trees over and above the ubiquitous Inga spp.
The exact species of trees will depend on the region and altitude.
However, it is necessary that they be of heterogeneous architecture
and have good variation in fruiting periods in order to spread
out food resources over the winter season. It is recommended
that the shade cover be measured using an optical densiometer,
a concave mirror device. Lower, mid-, and higher level foliage
should each represent at least 20% of the shade, with the
higher level foliage averaging at least 12 meters in height.
In Guatemala only three coffee farms are certified under
the SMBC program. I asked Cesar Augosto, a Guatemalan inspector
accredited by the SMBC as well as by organic certification
bodies, why there are so few. “It’s not the cost.
The cost of SMBC certification is not high. SMBC does not
take a quota (a percentage of production value) like organic
certifiers,” says Augosto. “It is mainly that
the number of certified organic farms is low, plus farmers’
fear of paperwork.” He estimates that currently 5% of
the coffee farms in Guatemala could qualify as bird friendly,
if they first certified organic.
Coffee farms that were technified can convert to the forest-like
bird friendly environments by strategic tree planting. According
to Cesar Augosto, this is being done in a number of cases
in Guatemala. One doesn’t have to start with an intact
forest. However, it takes a number of years for trees to reach
the 12 meter minimum needed.
Migratory Bird Center Bird Friendly Coffee Program website
has information on where certified Bird Friendly coffee can
be bought, both at the retail and wholesale levels.