Can “Robusta” Coffee Be Bird Friendly?

November 23, 2011 by Robert Rice


A recent workshop in Coorg region of the Western Ghats of India provided a window onto the world of “robusta” coffee (Coffea canephora) that we’d not seen before in our travels and research. To date, all the coffee that is Bird Friendly certified comes from areas planted to “arabica” coffee (Coffea arabica), mainly from mid-elevation areas of Latin America. Robusta coffee usually dominates in coffee regions at lower elevations. It has a higher caffeine content in general and is a more hearty plant in this region that gets socked by monsoons on yearly basis.

In the Kodagu district of the state of Karnataka, where we conducted the workshop at the College of Forestry in the town of Ponnampet, the highly diverse forest-like canopy managed by farmers undoubtedly adds to the ecological benefits of this region designated as a “biodiversity hotspot”. With some 30 people attending the workshop, including participants from organic certification agencies, Indian NGO’s, and both students and faculty from the locally based College of Forestry, SMBC staff hopes to bring the Bird Friendly seal to the Indian subcontinent.

At 12 degrees north of the equator, the Kodagu district is the same latitude as Managua, Nicaragua, and the Ghats rarely exceed 1200 meters in elevation. The history of the coffee sector in Kodagu saw British colonials inserting coffee within the native forest, resulting in what Latin America would be a “rustic shade”. A seven-country project headed up by the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD) and termed the “Coffee Agroforestry Network” (CAFNET) sought to enhance and sustain the ecological services and market value of the coffee agroforest. A central feature of the study involved the inventory of tree species used as shade.

Well-shaded coffee plantations cover 33% of Kodagu district’s landscape, and its producers account for 35% of India’s total coffee output. A single farm typically can have more than 20 species of trees, most of which are native. Within the district as a whole, the CAFNET study revealed that coffee farms harbor 230 species of shade trees, a number that reinforces the notion of a rustic coffee management system. And aside from providing shade for the coffee, many of these trees’ trunks support pepper vines (Piper nigrum), yielding another important crop for most farmers.

coffee shrubs under forest

Coffee shrubs growing under a tree canopy in India. Pepper vine visible in upper right.

While this incredible tree diversity is impressive, there are at least two practices by farmers that can work counter to the habitat value of these holdings. One is the degree of pruning that occurs, normally on a two-year rotation, which can be quite severe in terms of the foliage removed. A small fraction of producers go even further and conduct what local researchers call a “rocket pruning”—removal of many or most of the side branches, leaving very tall trees with a small crown, resulting in rocket-like appearance. The trees stand sentinel-like, towering over the coffee below, letting sunlight in and not offering much in the way of refuge for birds—at least until more foliage reappears.

The other practice has to do with traditional law related to land and natural resource rights. While growers own the land, Indian law gives the timber rights of these native forest species to the government. Any tree taken down and sold for timber ends up putting the majority of the money obtained into the government coffers. And for certain species like sandalwood and rosewood, the government gets all the cash. But the key word here is “native”. If an exotic tree is involved, the farmer gets all the money brought in from the timber sale.

Because of this timber regulation, farmers now tend to replace any native tree with an exotic. The species of choice is an Australian native known as the “Silver Oak” (Grevellia robusta), the same species used in coffee around Antigua, Guatemala and a few other areas in Central America. As an exotic, it has not co-evolved with the local fauna; it’s ecological value, therefore, must be questioned. As long as it does not become the principal shade species, it’s presence may not affect the overall biodiversity of the region’s coffee farms. But, considering that it is now the preferred species for what local call the “pepper standard” (support for the pepper vine), Silver Oak’s prevalence and spread seems to be on the upswing.

The challenge for local researchers who are concerned about the biodiversity of the region is how to stem the spread of Silver Oak. We feel, as do they, that certifications like Bird Friendly that identify and reward the indigenous species used as shade could help to slow or even reverse the trend. SMBC staff is looking forward to more work in India’s coffee areas, helping to identify farms with a diverse shade tree component and linking farmers with good land stewardship to consumers around the world via Bird Friendly coffee.

Video clips from this coffee growing region: