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The following is an excerpt from Kenn Kaufman's Bird Watchers Digest column, "After the Spark". Read the full article in the May/June 2011 issue of Bird Watchers Digest.
I’ve written about shade coffee before, but the basics are worth repeating. Coffee originally grew as a shrub in mountain forest in Ethiopia. Brought to the Americas in the 1700s, it eventually became one of the most important cash crops in Latin America. Millions of acres were converted from forest to coffee farms. But this conversion to agriculture was not a total disaster for birdlife, because most of that coffee continued to be grown in the traditional way, in the shade. Often the farmers left the canopy of native trees in place. Coffee farms often looked almost like native forest with the understory partly replaced by coffee bushes, and with almost as many birds.
Unfortunately, a movement began about 40 years ago to convert shade coffee farms to sun coffee. Forest cover was cut down, and existing coffee plants were replaced with a variety that would grow in full sun – as long as enough fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemicals were used on it. Sun coffee wasn’t as healthy for local farm workers and it didn’t have the same rich flavor, but it could be produced in mass quantities, producing larger profits for big factory farms. In a couple of decades, more than two million acres of shade coffee in northern Latin America were converted to sun coffee.
This loss of habitat was particularly hard on long-distance migrants, birds that nest in Canada and the U.S. and winter in the tropics. But this effect did not go unnoticed. Ornithologists from North America conducted research in several areas of Latin America, documenting the value of shade coffee to bird populations. By the mid-1990s, the word was out that people who cared about birds should be seeking out shade-grown coffee.
And there the matter stood, a decade later: the word was out, but it wasn’t having much effect. Many birders remained mostly unaware of the issue, even as some opportunistic coffee companies started slapping “shade grown” labels on coffee that really wasn’t. Scientists from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center had developed criteria for growing conditions that equaled “Bird Friendly” coffee, but the scientists were having limited success in selling the idea to growers or to the public. And in the meantime, wintering habitat for birds continued to dwindle.
It was against that backdrop that I got involved with Bill Wilson and his coffee company, Birds & Beans. Bill was determined to make a difference. Through Birds & Beans, he would promote and sell only coffee that had been certified as Bird Friendly by the Smithsonian. Bill had enough business experience and marketing savvy to make something happen, and I signed on enthusiastically as an advisor.
Just last year, Bill located two people who shared his combination of idealism and practical experience: Jefferson and Gabriela, owners of the Gaia Estate in Nicaragua. This couple was keenly interested in sustainable agriculture, and they had bought their farm – where coffee had been grown in the shade for almost a century – to put these ideas into action. Their farm had just become the first in the region to gain the Smithsonian’s certification as Bird Friendly.
At Bill Wilson’s request, Kimberly and I had come to survey winter birds of the farm, but first we were learning about the farming effort itself. During our first afternoon, we marveled at the care that goes into growing this coffee. Every one of the 50,000 coffee bushes on the farm is tended by hand. Everything is organic. They make their own fertilizer from the pulp of coffee berries and manure from their own farm animals. They pay as much attention to the shade trees as they do to the coffee bushes, strategically planting new native trees to keep the cycle of shade unbroken.
We were there during harvest, and teams of local people were moving quietly through the deep shade of the farm, picking the ripest coffee berries. Others were engaged in cleaning, extracting, sorting, and drying the coffee beans; the high-quality beans that made it into the final product would have been examined a dozen times by skilled workers. All the employees were from the immediate area, so the farm was helping to support the local community. Everything about Gaia Estate spoke to principles of sustainability.
But as fascinated as I was by the integrity of the effort, in the back of my mind was the question: Okay, but what about the birds?
The Smithsonian certification as Bird Friendly was based on complex standards of tree diversity and other factors, but we had come to get a sense of exactly which birds were using the property. No two places in Latin America have exactly the same birdlife. For bird watchers buying coffee from Birds & Beans, we needed to be able to tell that side of the story. And as the sun set on our first day, we still had not really surveyed much of the farm.
In the dim light, Kimberly and I worked our way down the slope behind the cabin, between rows of coffee bushes, scanning the trees overhead. Gusts of wind shook the branches, and birds were quiet, but then Kimberly pointed to a straggling flock of birds flying in to land: slim and graceful, with streaming tail feathers – scissor-tailed flycatchers! A dozen shorter-tailed birds landed in the same tree: western kingbirds. These were both species that I had known as a kid in Kansas, but here they were present only as wintering birds. As we watched, we realized that the scissor-tails and kingbirds were feeding on small fruits in the treetops. As the morning went on we would see scores of scissor-tails and kingbirds throughout the farm, all feeding on wild fruits.
But at this moment we heard a chattering note, and turned to see several Baltimore orioles in another tree. More birds were flying into the tree, and we thought they were more orioles at first, but then we realized that they were western tanagers. These were all migrants from far to the north. It seemed odd to see orioles that might have come from the woods of Maine, and tanagers that might have come from the mountains of California, foraging side by side in Nicaragua – along with the local blue-gray tanagers that were now joining them.
The rest of our morning went that way, as Kimberly and I trekked through the coffee zones of Gaia Estate, surprised by birds at every turn. We would be watching yellow warblers flitting among the leaves, just as we might have seen them during migration in Ohio, and then be distracted by a raucous flock of gaudy, tropical magpie-jays. We would be watching a rose-breasted grosbeak, a familiar bird from home, and then hear the harsh cries of white-fronted parrots behind us. Everywhere was a song and a celebration, a mix of migratory birds from the north – warblers, vireos, flycatchers, thrushes – and tropical birds such as motmots, parakeets, and toucans. By the time we had to leave, a couple of days later, we could confirm that the term “Bird Friendly” was no exaggeration. And yet this was a working farm, producing a valuable crop, contributing to the economy, providing good income for local people, and doing so in a way that could be sustained for generations.
I’m not under the illusion that one little piece of the system can save the world. But I do believe that genuine shade coffee – not semi-shade or fake shade, but the real thing, certified as Bird Friendly by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center – is a step in the right direction. Consumers drive the market; if every coffee-drinking bird watcher would demand Bird Friendly coffee, many sun coffee plantations would have to be converted back to shade, and bird habitat in Latin America actually would increase. We, the birders, could have a positive impact, if only we had the will to do it. We could support birds and promote sound agriculture, support communities in Latin America and promote responsibility and awareness. This wouldn’t be a move backward toward some primeval Garden of Eden existence, but a move forward, toward a sustainable future.