Coffee Farms Role in Conserving Biodiversity

January 1, 1996 by Gregory Gough

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.

Distinguishing characteristics of traditional and modern coffee production technologies

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 scientific paper:

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.

Download scientific paper