When one thinks of sanctuaries for plants and animals, agricultural areas do not come to mind. However, within coffee growing areas around the world, traditional farms can provide habitat that is comparable to forests.
In the traditional coffee farm, coffee shrubs grow under a canopy of trees. The trees provide protection from the weather, reduce soil erosion, add nutrition through decaying fallen leaves, and provide a haven for animals, along with many other services.
But this traditional method of growing coffee declined since the 1970s. In its place modern agricultural practices have become more prevalent. In the modern system there is little or no shade. This increases the amount of coffee produced, but also increases the costs to the farmer—agrochemicals must be used. See the table below for a comparison of the two methods for growing coffee.
|Coffee variety||Tipica, bourbon, maragogipe||Caturra, catuai, Colombia, Guarnica catimor|
|Coffee height||3-5 m||2-3 m|
|Shade cover||Moderate to heavy, 60%-90% coverage||None to moderate, up to 50% coverage|
|Shade trees used||Tall (15-25 m), mixed forest trees, legumes, fruit trees, bananas||Short (5-8m), legumes; often monocultures|
|Density of coffee plants||1000-2000/ha||3000-10,000/ha|
|Years to first harvest||4-6||3-4|
|Plantation life span||30+ years||12-15 years|
|Agrochemical use||None to low||High, particularly fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, nematocides|
|Pruning of coffee||Individualized pruning or no pruning||Standardized stumping back after first or second year of full production|
|Labor requirements||Seasonal for harvest or pruning||Year-round maintenance with higher demands at harvest|
|Soil erosion||Low||High (particularly on slopes)|
Many species of birds that nest in North America and travel to the tropics find the traditional shade-grown coffee farm an excellent place to overwinter. The Baltimore oriole, Tennessee warbler, and Cape May warbler are all common birds in shade-grown coffee farms and all have suffered population declines since the 1970s, possibly as a result of the loss of winter habitat.
But it is not just birds that find refuge in the traditional coffee farm. Bats, beetles, ants, reptiles, amphibians, monkeys, and plants have all been documented in higher numbers in shaded coffee farms as compared to sun coffee farms—and in levels comparable to natural forest.
Traditional coffee farms may already have provided crucial habitat to save biodiversity. Puerto Rico had 99% of its forests harvested by the late 1800s but surprisingly few birds or orchids went extinct. It may be that shaded coffee farms, which occupied 9% of the island, provided a refuge. With the forest regrowing, animals and plants are recolonizing from their coffee refugia.
With tropical forests disappearing at an alarming rate, traditional coffee farms may play a key role in conserving biodiversity.
This article summarizes the information in this publication:
Rice, R.A., Perfecto, I., Greenberg, Russell S. and Van der Voort, M.E. 1996. Shade coffee: a disappearing refuge for biodiversity. Bioscience, 46(8): 598-608.
Coffee lands within northern Latin American coffee-producing countries are undergoing fundamental changes. For the landscapes involved in this transformation, these changes translate into a reduced vegetative cover, lowered species diversity of the plant community and its associated fauna, and the application of agrochemicals onto lands that previously received little or no such inputs. Already, 1.1 million ha of coffee within the countries in northern Latin America qualify as modernized. The total potential area that could be modernized is just more than twice that, at 2.7 million ha. What little work has been done on the environmental impact of the landscape modifications suggests that, unless steps are taken, many of these coffee zones, characterized by high rainfall and broken terrain, are likely to suffer environmental degradation in the coming years. This degradation is likely to include a severe loss of biological diversity in areas where coffee plantations currently provide the last refuges. Actions that might reverse this loss include working with small farmers to market ecologically sustainable coffee and reduce the support for technification in favor of policies that reward land sterwardship.
Teachers, Standards of Learning, as they apply to these articles, are available for each state.