On the path to bird-friendly coffee

Forest-grown coffee in Mexico and other parts of Latin America can be a lifesaver for migratory birds … and for coffee lovers there’s always the potential for growing that “Cabernet” of coffees you dream about. Don Lotter visits with farmers and certifiers in Oaxaca, Mexico to discuss the issues and opportunities.

By Don Lotter
December 9, 2004, Chapingo, Mexico

The 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 seen.

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 and The 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 grown?

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 that.

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 rustic coffee.

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 coffee plantations.

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.

Good news! 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 rustic state.

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 requirements.

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 coffee bean

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 of approval

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 coffee.

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.

The Smithsonian 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.