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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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 of
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
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.