We know that a diverse shade tree cover over a coffee farm can provide quality habitat for birds and other taxa. We know also that the agroforestry system that characterizes Bird Friendly® coffee farms delivers ecological services such as adding organic matter to the soil in the form of leaf litter, protecting soil from heavy rainfall, and, as preliminary data suggest, the sequestration of carbon that can help mitigate global climate change.
Reports from southern Mexico and western Guatemala a few years ago related that landslides that destroyed entire hillsides of coffee when hurricane Stan passed through were not a problem in farms with Bird Friendly® certification.
But what about protection from volcanic eruptions? A recent conversation with Roberto Orantes, owner of Finca San Juan La Laguna, reveals Bird Friendly® may provide just that. His 78 hectare Bird Friendly® farm is located about 35 kilometers south of Guatemala City, nestled in the "boca costa" or piedmont zone that borders the southern edge of the mountainous interior of the country.
Beginning around 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 27, 2010, Mr. Orantes says he stepped outside to see what he thought was hail coming down. What he found instead were tiny rocks falling from the sky. Most were small, pea-size pieces of the pyroclastic material thrown out by volcanic explosions, but he later learned that other areas saw pieces that were 2 or even 3 inches in diameter.
He watched from the second story of his house as Volcan Pacaya created a biblical scene across the sky and landscape for nearly 4 hours. Solid material rocketed one and a half kilometers skyward and was taken by upper level winds as much as 100 kilometers from the volcano. The areas close to the volcano were showered with large chunks of hot rocks. San Juan La Laguna, only about 20 kilometers away, was peppered with smaller rocks, whereas areas more distant suffered less damaging sand and ash.
Like hailstorms that keep tobacco farmers awake at night because of the damage they do to tobacco leaves, these "rocks from the sky" shredded a number of neighboring farms' coffee plants, as well other crops, and the heat from the material damaged a lot of vegetation. The National Coffee Association, ANACAFE, estimates that more than 4 million pounds of coffee will be lost to the volcano's eruption.
But the shade cover maintained by Orantes on his farm—more than 50 species of trees mixed in to form the shaded canopy for his Bird Friendly coffee—acted as an umbrella and protected his plants from damage. Luckily, the flowering of coffee in the area has already occurred, and the small beans were already formed.
Early Friday morning (May 28), his patios where he dries the coffee in processing the beans were covered in more over an inch of small stones. He said he removed some 20 truckloads of this materials, each comprising 5 cubic meters of "piedrín", in order to clear it off the various surfaces he needs to run the processing facility.
A 95-year man who lives on the farm told Orantes that he'd never seen anything like it.