AND COFFEE CULTIVATION
Speech by Paul Katzeff
If we compress all the coffee farms into one contiguous forest, it would cover 26,000 square miles of the earth's surface — a very large forest equal to a one-mile band around the equator. This forest would be in sub-tropical and tropical climates, in both lowland savannas and upland forests, from sea level to 5000 feet above sea level, on flatlands and on steep slopes, in full sun and in the shade of the forest canopy. It would include Cafe Arabica, an evergreen shade-loving tree used as a cash crop by 60 nations, mostly underdeveloped, poor countries with rich cultural heritages and linked closely to flora and fauna for survival.
The forest would be inhabited by people who produce coffee for their richer brothers and sisters in the developed countries to the north, countries dominated by corporate and military priorities that are often lacking in environmental concern because these wealthy nations are dependent on the Southern Hemisphere's low-cost wood, minerals, land, and labor. Resource plunder is part and parcel of our economic strategy, both abroad, where protective laws are lax or non-existent, and here at home, where timber interests and government lawmakers share cozy relationships.
Before the early 70's, coffee was always grown in the shade of the rainforest canopy. The timber companies looked south as U.S. hardwoods were depleted from our native forests. Chemical companies looked south to sell their herbicides and pesticides as the Agent Orange/Vietnam War raged, and Rachel Carson's Silent Spring was hot on the country's consciousness (remember, it's the early 70's.)
At the same time, the oil companies are always looking for new commercial markets for oil-based fertilizers The political forces are always looking for new ways to exploit and hold laborers in place. The financial institutions are always looking for safe investments with high returns from new untapped (virgin) markets.
That was the economic and political environment of the early 70's (there are parallels in today's marketplace as we struggle to make sense of BHT and antibiotic laced dairy production and biologically manipulated organisms masquerading as real food.) These are powerful forces, not conspiratorial, just the accepted market forces of the developed world. In the early 70's Those forces found an unprotected segment of the international market — coffee farming — and exploited it.
Out of this commonality of interest (timber, chemicals, oils, financial, and political institutions) to make big money, there emerged a new method of coffee cultivation: "sun grown coffee." New varieties that would grow in the sun with twice the yields were offered to coffee producers. With the forest canopy no longer valuable as essential shade for coffee trees, the forest became more valuable as timber. The international lumber companies found their hardwoods by providing the valuable service of removing the shade trees so coffee could be sun grown where once, complete forests stood.
Without their habitat, the migratory songbirds went elsewhere (most songbirds are insectivores, not seed eaters.) The insects multiplied, and pesticides were required. With full sun, the weeds came, and herbicides were required. With the trees on the steroid effect of the full sun, they consumed nutrients from the soil more rapidly, depleting the soil, and chemical fertilizers were now required.
How did coffee farmers fall for this new system, one might ask. They were told that their crop size would double. They were not told that their problems would multiply also. As a result of this new cultivation practice: the increase in crop size is now needed to pay for the cost of new chemical inputs required to grow the crop, the banks are very happy to pre-finance the crops with land as collateral, and agrarian reform suffers setbacks as the rich military right uses this system to take the land from the poor.
The farmer, generally a very small landowner who once used coffee as part of the forest ecosystem, now works harder, owes money to the bank, and has no natural environment to buffer the harsh realities of living in a tropical climate zone.
The wildlife pictogram has changed where coffee now grows in full sun: Biodiversity is reduced by 90%. The land is effectively taken out of the "habitat" inventory.
This reality shift in the forests where coffee is grown parallels, in magnitude, our country's shift to suburbia between 1950-1975. Between 1970-1995 the shift to sun coffee has contributed as much to habitat loss as fast food hamburgers have been a force to clear the land for cattle. Now, twenty-five years later, sun coffee is responsible for the loss of 85% of Costa Rica's forests. The situation is similar in Guatemala, Colombia, El Salvador and Mexico (to varying degrees). As bird and animal populations decrease, other secondary impacts requiring new adaptations spring up; and as a canary is to a coal mine tunnel, the diminished flavor quality of coffee is signaling to us that disaster lies ahead.
In more recent times, after 25 years of conversion to "sun coffee," the effects have become noticeable, and in 1996 the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center studied the impact of sun grown coffee on migratory songbird populations. The Center concluded that the remaining shade coffee farms were among the last great refuges for migratory songbirds because shade coffee farms had only 10% less avian biodiversity than undisturbed forest, while sun coffee plantations had 90% less biodiversity than undisturbed rainforests. Armed with this information, a sustainable coffee conference was convened to discuss these and other emerging environmental and social issues surrounding this vast internationally traded product.
Out of that conference the shade coffee factor linked itself to the birding community as the coffee and birding professionals had never dreamed possible. A shade coffee product was created and a new brand of coffee was jointly introduced to America's birders. It was called Song Bird Coffee. It is sold to bird lovers and raises funds for the American Birding Association. In only 3 years (1000 days) birders across America (63 million adults) now know something about the relationship between the coffee they drink and the return each year of migratory songbirds to their backyard feeders. "Shade Coffee" is the current media darling of conservation journalism.
Birders spend 2 billion dollars each year on birdseed! Among coffee roasters and retailers in the U.S. who consider themselves citizens of the planet first and coffee entrepreneurs second, this "bird" connection has provided an exceptional opportunity to communicate environmental values through coffee. The value of coffee as habitat conservation is easy to communicate to coffee lovers who want to be environmentally sensitive. Shade coffee has captured the passion of bird lovers and links them to environmental action. They want to save their beloved wild birds, and by purchasing shade grown coffee they are taking political action with their pocketbook. Every industry has its radical fringe, but the specialty coffee industry is really loaded with reformers.
It could have been "Spider Coffee" instead of Song Bird Coffee, but there just aren't enough arachnid lovers to create an environmental movement. Spider populations decrease just as bird populations do, when forest canopy is removed. Species on the forest floor are often reduced by 95% when monocultures and their associated chemical inputs replace traditional agriculture.
In agriculture, supply fills demand. The importance of institutions voting with their pocketbook is well established. Who benefits from each dollar spent on coffee is the major issue being debated within the coffee industry today.
In fact, the theme of the year National Convention of the Specialty Coffee Association of America is Quality, Sustainability and Social Responsibility. Coffee is emerging as a medium for habitat protection (a 500 pound per month coffee usage could support 12 hectares of shade grown coffee overstory per year.)
It is one thing to understand the relationships; it is another to act on that knowledge. The coffee industry has created infrastructure to identify shade coffee sources. The roasters are utilizing those verified sources to reach their customers with a truly valuable point of difference, a product that sustains rather than depletes. It is a difference birders quickly understand, but one which the mass market must embrace if we are to use coffee for habitat preservation on a meaningful scale.
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