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Audubon At Home > Sustainable Eating > Shade Grown Coffee

Shade-Grown Coffee

Blackburnian Warbler in shade-grown coffee plantation © J.R. Smith/SalvaNATURA

Better for Birds and Birders
Birders and travelers in the tropics quickly see the connection between wildlife and coffee. In many tropical countries, coffee farming occupies much of the land, especially in the highland hills and valleys that were once cloaked in wildly diverse forests. Unfortunately, many of these coffee farms are monotonous rows and rows of intensely managed shrubs - monocultures - that are devastating to wildlife. But others are a mix of coffee bushes and trees - agro forestry - so wonderfully jungly that they are barely recognizable as farms at all. Birders often mistake them at first sight for wildlife refuges. These are shade-grown coffee farms.

The coffee plant evolved in Africa under the rainforest canopy and grows best in the shade. A traditional coffee farm can provide habitat to exuberantly varied birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians, insects, trees and flowering plants. The amazing thing about coffee farming is that it can be done in harmony with tropical forest conservation - and for many centuries, it was. Unfortunately, many coffee farms were converted to tree-free and bird-barren monocultures in recent years in a misguided attempt to increase production.

This transition, which has affected more than half the coffee farms in some countries and hundreds of thousands of acres, caught the attention of Audubon and other conservationists, leading to calls for a return to traditional shade-grown coffee production. Birders have been especially interested, since these farms are the winter homes to hundreds of species of long distance migrants. Many of our familiar warblers, tanagers, orioles and thrushes benefit from habitat provided by shade-grown coffee plantations, as do rainforest icons including parrots, toucans, motmots, and hummingbirds. These farms also provide habitat for a multitude of organisms, from mammals and amphibians to plants, fungi, and invertebrates.

Vital Habitat for Migrants
Shade-grown coffee plantation in El Salvador © O.Komar/SalvaNATURA

About 200 different species of birds are known as neotropical migrants, breeding in the habitat and backyards of North America and migrating south to Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean islands for the winter. There, the multi-layered vegetation of shade-grown coffee plantations provides abundant food and cover. In many areas, coffee farms offer the only good habitat amid deforested pastures and stark monocultures.

The migrants pack into the farms every fall, feasting on insects and fruits and often changing their feeding and flocking behavior considerably from that familiar to birders in the north. Some of them stop and stay put, often on the same farm as the year before; others linger and then move on, farther south. Both songbirds and birds of prey make the twice-yearly migration; some arrive after journeys of thousands of miles and open-ocean flights. A list of familiar North American birds that are known to over winter or migrate through Latin American shade-grown coffee plantations is available in the "To Learn More" section below.

Ripe coffee beans
© O. Komar/SalvaNATURA
Consumers and Coffee
How can we coffee lovers know if the beans we drink come from farms that are environmentally friendly and socially responsible? How can we reward farmers that are trying to grow a great tasting coffee while protecting wildlife and the environment? The only way to know for sure is to seek out credible labels such as Rainforest Alliance Certified, which guarantees that farms are on the path toward true sustainability, and qualified organic labels, which guarantee that farms are not using harmful pesticides and fertilizers.

An estimated 25 million people grow coffee, most of them on small plots of land. Many, perhaps most, smallholders are organic farmers by tradition, in part because they could never afford to purchase agrochemicals. With the downturn of prices paid to farmers in recent years, pesticides and fertilizers are out of their reach. With organic farming techniques - some learned from their grandparents and some from modern agronomy - coffee producers can maintain production and conserve healthy soils, which are their primary inheritance and asset. A sustainable farm management system is based on a holistic view of agriculture that includes conservation of natural resources, rights and benefits for farm workers, equitable trading, and the farm's relationship with nearby natural and human communities. Shade-grown and certified sustainable coffee is rapidly gaining popularity, because it is a product that anyone and everyone can support, and because of its excellent quality and taste.

Savoring a cup of certified sustainable coffee can improve livelihoods for farm families and conserve wildlife and tropical ecosystems - a rare "win-win" opportunity. So the next time you see a Baltimore Oriole, Sharp-shinned Hawk or other Neotropic migrant, raise a mug of shade-grown joe and celebrate the at-home contribution you've made to their survival.

To Learn More
A list of North American birds known to over-winter or migrate through Latin American shade-grown coffee plantations

Click here for information about purchasing Audubon Shade-Grown Organic Coffee

Sustainable Coffee Farming: about Rainforest Alliance Certification

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