A daily habit that connects us with millions of farmers in exotic, far-flung places. It comes from a shrub, Coffea arabica, native to the forest understory of east Africa, and related to Gardenia bushes that many of know from home gardening.
Coffee ranks as one of the world's most heavily traded commodities, and, whether guzzled straight, with milk and/or sugar, as expresso, capuccino or latte, we do love our coffee.
This slide show will introduce you to the key concepts of 'Bird Friendly' Coffee production and Neotropical bird conservation in Latin America and the Caribbean.
About 28 of the world's tropical countries contribute significantly to the 11 million hectares devoted to coffee plantations, spilling 6.2 million metric tons of green coffee beans (processed, dried and ready for roasting) into the world's trade system in 1998.
In its raw form, as seen here in these cherries, coffee creates a sight to behold. This physical beauty, however, belies both a burdensome social system that has channelled it from tree to cup for generations and, more recently, some changes in the way it is produced that could be affecting local and global ecological dynamics.
Two Ways to Grow Coffee
Contrasting drastically with coffee covered by little or no shade, we find many examples of shade coffee. Such systems are essentially artificial forests devoted to coffee production. They are what are known as agroforestry systems.
The hillside in this image is quite steep. The forest cover provided by the shade coffee system upslope from the road greatly aids in soil protection. The sun coffee farm downslope from the road exposes the fragile mountain soil to wind and rain erosion.
Coffee Grown without Shade
Fields with coffee bushes grown under direct sunlight are referred to as technified farms. In order to understand the issue of shade coffee, we must first grasp the notion of a shade gradient.
There is, for instance, an array of shade levels within coffee farms all over the northern portion of Latin America (the geographic focus of our work). Some farms have no shade at all, such as this technified farm.
Coffee with Minimal Shade
Other farms, like this one in the image on the screen, have some trees.
For all intents and purposes, however, such shade does little in the way of providing habitat for migratory forest songbirds or resident birds associated with the local area.
Disease Spurs Sun Coffee Rise
Much of the impetus for technification in Central America, the Caribbean and even in Colombia came from the arrival of one of coffee's most dreaded diseases: coffee leaf rust.
This leaf with yellow spots is typical of how infected vegetation appears. A fungal disease caused by the fungus (Hemileia vastratrix), this disease devastated the coffee area of Sri Lanka in the 1870s and 1880s. Some reports maintain that this then-British colony (Ceylon) switched to growing tea—as did the British in general—because of this pathogen.
The coffee plant (Coffea arabica) and coffee leaf rust form what plant pathologists (people who study plant diseases) call a coevolved host-pathogen complex.
The relationship is so specialized that the rust has yet to be found on any other plant species. Moreover, coffee is the 'obligate' host of the rust—that is, it must find coffee in order to go through part of its reproductive process.
Why is this important to know? Because it clues us in to the fear that gripped all producers and producing countries' governments when, in the early 1970s, coffee leaf rust finally crossed the Atlantic ocean from its homeland in Africa (no one knows to this day exactly how it managed to make it across).
It landed in Brazil and set off alarms throughout the Americas. No wonder so many people involved in coffee production were willing to change the way they produced it.
This technification represents a high-tech or farms as factories approach to coffee production. In a general sense, the new production systems mark an exodus from traditional techniques and an embracing of a production mentality that rests upon the assumption that higher yields—at any cost—are better.
New production techniques include the removal or thinning of shade trees, the planting of high-yielding coffee varieties, and the introduction of (and often dependence upon) an arsenal of agrochemicals.
Synthetic fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and nematocides are constant companions of farmers who have chosen to technify their holdings.
Shade Coffee Mimics Forest
Research findings from work done at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center tell us that the types of trees are certainly important in providing habitat.
Species native to the area (or at least native to the region), such as Inga spp. (see the next image) attract many more species of birds than non-native shade tree species (such as Grevillea robusta).
Perhaps more important than the types of native trees, however, is the height of the shade cover. Shade trees managed so as to provide a short, thin layer of foliage above the coffee (less than 12 meters in height), do little in the way of providing habitat for birds.
The genus Inga provides a lot of shade trees throughout coffee plantations in the Americas.
Ingas are legumes that fix atmospheric nitrogen in the soil. There are eight species that have found widespread use as shade trees in coffee. Birds love them for their nectar and insects attracted to the nectar.
Ingas in many coffee areas are covered with epiphytes—plants that live on other plants, in this case the limbs and branches of Inga trees.
For birds that make their living poking around masses of vegetation, Ingas harboring epiphytic plants such as bromeliads (pineapple relatives), orchids, and ferns provide a smorgasboard of niches in which to find food.
Many growers, even relatively small ones (that is, growers with relatively little coffee area), maintain a nursery of their own.
Such activity and investment comes in very handy for any cases in which individual coffee plants are lost (disease or tree falls, for instance).
Also, when new areas are opened up for production, having your own nursery means that you do not have to buy coffee seedlings from elsewhere.
Source of Firewood
Shade trees used in coffee farms provide a host of non-coffee products. One of the most useful and important of these products is firewood.
The man in this image is a Guatemalan coffee farmer who has just recently finished the annual pruning of both coffee plants and shade trees.
The stack behind him contains wood from both sources. In rural zones where electric and/or gas cooking stoves are either scarce or unaffordable, a fuel source (such as a shade coffee farm) provides an important alternative to harvesting wood out of natural forests.
Composting on coffee plantations helps to solve major problems confronting coffee growers:
- One is the cost of commercial fertilizers that can be prohibitively high to growers during years when international coffee prices are low
- Another is the polluted, acidic streams caused by dumping of organic waste into the watershed
Composting and using this waste for fertilizer to restore nutrients to the soil can help to maintain viable local economies and clean water supplies.
Some of the world's best coffee grows in regions with well-defined wet and dry seasons.
About ten days to two weeks after the first heavy rainfall of the wet season, coffee flower buds burst open, giving the shrubs and fields a frosty look. Fruit also ripens over a relatively short time, which, in turn, leads to a high demand for labor during the coffee harvest.
Ripe Coffee Beans
These beans in this image have just been picked.
Because of coffee's tendency in many areas to ripen over three to five months in much of northern Latin America, and often with the bulk of the crop needing attention in a concentrated period of a few weeks, coffee regions demand huge labor forces.
Everyone picks coffee on these farms: men, women, children, and grandparents.
Here is one such farm in Guatemala, just outside the city of Antigua. As this image shows, entire families participate in the harvest.
Picking the Beans
This woman in Nicaragua is picking coffee beans that will be collected and processed at this large farm's own beneficio (processing plant).
At peak harvest, workers like her can make relatively good money. But easy pickings are short-lived, lasting only as long as the peak ripening. Otherwise, it's hard work for little pay, often in areas far from home.
Many regions depend each year on the seasonal contracting and migration of thousands of coffee pickers who travel from their highland communities to large estate farms where they spend several weeks each year bringing in the harvest.
Sorting the Ripe Beans
Once picked, beans must be sorted. The ripest beans must be separated from those that are not so ripe.
Here is a woman going through the beans harvested in the morning with her family. Two or three hours of sorting is needed in this case before the beans can be delivered to the farm manager overseeing the harvest.
Measuring the Harvest
Once a family's daily labor is complete, their coffee is delivered to the farm manager in order to tally and register what they have picked. Depending upon the country or farm involved, coffee can be measured by weight or volume.
In this image from Nicaragua (note the complete absence of shade trees in the background), tallymen are filling 'cajas' (boxes), which are the local volumetric measure. Workers are paid at the end of each week for the number of cajas picked.
Transporting Harvested Coffee
Some farms do not maintain their own beneficios (processing plants), which means that the beans must be bagged and transported to such facilities.
Delivery stations (centros de acopio) like this one are common features across the coffee landscape, providing employment for people not directly involved in the picking of the beans.
Drying Coffee Beans
Beans recently washed are taken to large patios to dry in the sun at this immense beneficio near Antigua, Guatemala. Large shovels and small earth-moving equipment are used to move mountains of beans around.
Turning the Dried Beans
As the dry season progresses, the harvest continues throughout much of northern Latin America. Drying patios become filled with beans, which must be turned periodically to allow the sun to do its work.
Sorting by Size
Once the coffee beans are free of parchment covering, they are sorted according to size.
Shaking tables are used to separate beans by size and/or density, a process that also channels damaged beans, small rocks, and other debris away from the quality beans that fetch premium prices on the international market.
Bagging the Beans
Select beans fill bags for international markets. Burlap bags topping out at 60 kilograms (132 lbs) form the international standard for export/import.
These, in turn, are placed in metal shipping containers, creating a tradable unit of 37,000 lbs.
Coffee Farms and Songbirds
Shaded-coffee farms are often the last refuge for forest-dependent birds and other animals in many coffee-growing regions of Latin America.
Many of our songbirds that nest in the United States and Canada migrate to spend the winter on these farms and forests.
With the rapid destruction of pristine forests throughout much of their wintering grounds, these birds are becoming increasingly dependent on alternative habitats, including shaded-coffee farms.
Results of Breeding Bird Surveys have shown that the migratory Baltimore Oriole has had a steady and significant decline during the past 20 years.
This songbird nests in the eastern United States and Canada then migrates to spend the winter in southern Mexico and Central America.
One of its favorite habitats is shaded coffee plantations where it feeds on the plentiful nectar and insects of the flowering shade trees. Perhaps this oriole's decline is directly related to the massive conversion of shaded to sun coffee plantations.
The Scarlet Tanager is one of the eastern deciduous forests' most beautiful songbirds. They migrate as far south as the Andean foothills of Bolivia.
They often visit shade coffee plantations in the Andes during the winter as well as in Mexico and Central America during migration.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology started Project Tanager in order to document the disappearance and decline of this bird from their nesting areas in eastern North America.
The Wood Thrush is another migratory songbird that appears to be declining throughout its breeding range in the eastern United States and southeastern Canada.
It is one of the few species of Nearctic or Neotropical migrants that greatly prefers large forests and rarely inhabits second-growth or other human-impacted habitats. Because of this preference, Wood Thrushes are especially susceptible to deforestation.