Written by Mark Shimahara
As a volunteer with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, I combined my love for coffee with my interest in environmental work as a Patagonia employee. In March 2011, I visited Finca Nueva Armenia, a bird-friendly coffee plantation in Guatemala, to document the environmental practices of this farm.
I wondered how a bird-friendly farm might differ from the beautiful plantations I visited that had won the Cup of Excellence, a competition that identifies top regional coffees on the basis of quality. These lush hillside plantations were set in distinctive microclimates, making them perfect for producing high-quality coffee from a number of coffee varieties.
A scientist at a bird research institute nearby, unfamiliar with bird-friendly certification, advised me not to set my expectations too high as he visited a number of self-proclaimed shade-grown plantations; the shade-grown designation is not regulated, so many farmers use it loosely in order to sell their crop in markets where shade-grown has become a desirable trait.
Finca Nueva Armenia, located in western Guatemala's department of Huehuetenango, is nestled in the Sierra Madre Valley at 1,500 meters elevation. Javier Recinos, who owns the land with his twin brother Jorge, claims continual, long-term erosion from surrounding mountain slopes made the soil in the valley extremely fertile. The plantation has numerous natural springs used for irrigation and coffee washing (processing).
What makes the farm additionally special is what the Recinos brothers aren't doing to it. They don't use chemical fertilizers (it's certified organic—a pre-requisite for being Bird Friendly®) and don't cut down native trees to make space for more coffee. This allows for the native ecosystem to be maintained and biodiversity to thrive (see the accompanying images I took while there).
What's a "bird-friendly" farm?
- It's organic—so no synthetic, chemical fertilizers, no pesticides and no herbicides.
- Coffee is shade-grown. The plants are shaded, making for a cooler environment beneath the tall shade trees. This yields a slower growing, harder, denser bean, which in turn yields more vibrant flavor.
- The term "shade-grown" coffee (seen so often in the specialty coffee market) is not regulated, so look for SMBC's bird friendly certification to be sure you are getting truly shade-grown coffee.
- To be SMBC certified, canopy height must be a minimum of 12 meters high and requires at least 40% foliage coverage on the plantation.
- Plants on the farm must be native, so resident and migratory birds can have a habitat for which they've evolved. If exotic tree species (those not from the region) are introduced, they may not offer quality habitat.
- The shade on the farm must be diverse, with at least ten different woody tree species.
To most farmers, immediate yield is most important, so as I walked around the farm I heard sounds of saws as neighboring farms cut down forest to make room for more coffee plants. Instead, the twins prefer to invest in the farm's long-term future, so they encourage the growth of native plants around their coffee.
When the brothers are seen planting non-coffee plants around their farm, their neighbors become curious as to why, given that they are coffee farmers. The reason is that doing so promotes a natural and healthy eco system that will improve the sustainability of the farm…which is for the birds.
Following is a small sample of birds observed one morning at Finca Nueva Armenia.