Made in the shade: java that saves forests

If this summer you spot a Townsend warbler or some other migratory song bird in your garden, you might want to thank Chiapas coffee grower Marino Bravo Gutirrez.

Mr. Bravo, whose coffee bushes now sit beneath a canopy of bird-hosting native trees, is one of several hundred small-scale coffee growers in southern Mexico chucking "modern" coffee-growing wisdom. Instead of clearing the land of trees and applying chemical fertilizers and pesticides, they're going shady and organic.

The immediate incentive for Bravo and the other farmers in his cooperative within the jungles of Mexico's Sierra Madre is financial. International coffee prices are in a slump. But growers using environmentally sound methods are finding consumers will pay higher prices for coffee grown with environmentally sound methods.

But the benefits of taking better care of their land go beyond extra pesos. These coffee growers work on the fringes of El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve, a rainforest of immense biodiversity. It is a crucial link in the Pacific flyway of North American migratory birds.

Allowing the native forest to shade their crops means more habitat for migrating birds and local animals like ocelots and jaguars. It also means better conservation of water resources.

"Before we cut down the trees, but now we go into the woods to collect seeds to bring the forest back over our lands," says Bravo, whose 300-member cooperative is named Ecological Campesinos (small farmers) of the Sierra Madre of Chiapas, or CESMACH.

The green wave among Latin American coffee growers has the potential for significant change. Approximately 44 percent of Latin America's permanent cropland is planted with coffee and tended by some 700,000 small-scale producers.

Coffee exports second only to oil

Coffee is second only to oil in the developing world's export commodities. And because coffee grows best in high altitudes where water is plentiful, coffee growing takes place in the region's rain forests.

It is this juxtaposition of coffee growing and biodiversity that got Conservation International (CI) interested in working with coffee producers. The Washington-based environmental organization realized that changing growing methods would be critical to worldwide species preservation.

"We saw that 13 of the world's 25 biodiversity hot spots are coffee-growing areas, and that the biggest coffee producers - Colombia, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico - are also countries with the greatest biodiversity," says Matt Quinlan, director of CI's coffee program. "And when we added in that in just the last 10 years something like 40 percent of shade-grown coffee areas in Latin America were converted to sun coffee, we ... had to get involved."

CI is working to develop cooperatives of small-scale growers who will produce what it calls "conservation coffee" in Colombia, Peru, and Mexico - including the CESMACH cooperative in Chiapas. Guatemala may join the list next.

Farmers from the Montecristo community inside the Triunfo reserve sought out CI this year. They offered, in exchange for joining CI's program, to set aside a chunk of their community land, a crucial biological corridor between two of the reserve's core zones.

The organization's advisors help the farmers return to environmentally sound cultivation methods that waned during four decades of government intervention in coffee growing. In many countries, incentives were given for use of new sun-tolerant plants and chemicals. When internationally fixed coffee prices ended in 1989, government intervention ebbed.

The CI project and other eco-coffee programs in Mexico also attract farmers by helping them make direct contact with international coffee buyers (and thus cutting out expensive middlemen).

"Before the coyotes took 10 to 15 percent of our profits," says coffee grower Bravo, using the pejorative term for the middlemen who bought their harvest to sell to larger roasting houses. "Now we keep more profits."

One of CESMACH's customers is Starbucks, which decided to team up with CI as a way to both encourage environmentally sound coffee growing and begin responding to consumers' growing demand for organic and "green" coffees.

How coffee is grown and who benefits from its production "have gained a lot of interest over the last couple of years," says Ben Packard, environmental affairs director for Starbucks Coffee Co. "We were looking for a long-term relationship that would provide us quality shade-grown coffee over the long term," Mr. Packard says.

As a result Starbucks formed a partnership with CI, joining environmentalists on trips to Chiapas to talk to campesinos (farmers) about needing guarantees that the coffee would be grown under natural shade, without chemicals.

Not all shade is created equal

While "shade" is now the key word for identifying "green" coffee, not all shade is equal. Over recent decades large numbers of coffee growers took out native forests to plant exotic trees for what is called "specialized" shade, and wood production.

"From an agricultural point of view that's shade," says CI's Mr. Quinlan. "But from a biodiversity point of view, it's a parking lot."

Still, the proliferation of "green" coffees grown under a canopy of native flora shows that growers take the shade issue seriously.

Rubn Castillo Fragoso, executive president of the Mexican Coffee Council, says that in the past decade worldwide production of "organic" coffee has "gone from zero to about 5 million sacks."

The US and Canada consume 21 million bags of coffee annually, Mr. Castillo says, but purchase only 3 million of those from Mexico. So, the Mexican council is focusing on making Mexican coffee more "green." It will hold a seminar with biologists and promote preservation awareness among growers. Monetary awards will be given to farmers who show significant environmental awareness - and ultimately a seal certifying green production practices.

Says Castillo, "We think everybody can win with this emphasis on the environment."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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