Birds and Coffee

Made in the Shade

We chose our name to highlight the link between the cultivation of coffee and its impact on ecosystems around the world. The songbird migration that we, as North Americans, witness each year is one of the true natural wonders of the world. It is endangered, along with the species of songbirds and a way of life for small family farms in South and Central America.

Songbird populations are dropping due to loss of habitat in their summer breeding grounds, on their migration routes and perhaps most of all in their wintering grounds in South and Central America. Tropical rainforests are being clear-cut and replaced by industrial farming enterprises with no regard for the impact on the environment. In many regions the last refuge for our migratory birds and other wildlife are shade coffee farms, yet even these are fast disappearing.

Coffee is naturally a small shade loving tree. It was traditionally grown under the canopy of the rainforest with other shade loving agricultural crops. Grown in this way coffee is easily cultivated without agrochemical inputs (fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides) so is well suited to be grown organically and in harmony with the natural environment.

In the last couple of decades the coffee industry developed coffee trees that can tolerate the sun and produce higher yields. The clear-cutting was on and so was the shift from one of the lowest impact crops on the environment to one of the highest. Farms shifted from shade covered polyculture with no or little use of agrochemicals to a monoculture of coffee requiring huge quantities of fertilizer, insecticide and herbicide.

This industrial style cultivation eradicates the winter homes of our migratory birds by destroying the forest like habitat and through chemical poisoning. Their alarming decline is the wake up call of a collapsing eco-system.

Fortunately many small growers continue to grow coffee in the traditional way on farms with shade canopies. Others, seeing the destruction of their land are returning to the practices of their youth. We have much to learn from these people who preserve habitat and farm within a more natural environment rather than the destructive "technified" monoculture of North America.

We can help stop the madness by purchasing certified Bird Friendly® coffee. Scientists have shown that the ecosystem on these farms functions similarly to virgin rainforest supporting nearly as many bird species as does virgin rainforest. By contrast the ecosystem on sun coffee and partial shade farms has collapsed. These farms have been shown to support very few bird species, and not the same ones as the ecosystems on certified Bird Friendly® farms.

The Rainforest Alliance also certifies coffee that is grown in a manner to preserve habitat. Their comprehensive program balances the environmental, social, labor and agronomic management practices of farms and addresses many crops. Within the broader mandate of the Rainforest Alliance coffee is but one crop of interest. They use different standards (note item 2.8 on page 20) that require crops to be grown in harmony with the locally native ecosystem, be that forest, savanna or wetland. While these criteria for coffee are less stringently enforced than the Bird Friendly®, they do prevent degradation of excellent habitat and provide a path back to excellent habitat from degraded habitat. It also means that while all Rainforest Alliance certified coffee is grown sustainably, depending on the growing region, the Rainforest Alliance certified coffee may or may not be preserving rainforest-like habitat.

Transparent, third party certification is crucial to ensure the quality of the shade is actually providing habitat for birds, butterflies and other wildlife. Birds and Beans has committed to purchasing 100% certified shade coffee by 2013. After more than 10 years of working hard to source rustic shade coffee we have seen shade label claims on coffee with poor quality shade and even sun coffee. If we are to help preserve biodiversity in coffee growing regions, we cannot accept unverified shade claims. We challenge all other roasters and coffee marketers to refrain from unscientific and unverified shade label claims and instead offer certified Bird Friendly® or Rainforest Alliance certified shade coffee.

By seeking out coffee that is certified to preserve habitat, and compensating farmers fairly not just for the wonderful coffee grown using time honoured techniques, but also for their global contribution to biodiversity, we can save the agro-forest ecosystems and ultimately encourage reforestation efforts. It will improve lives for farmers and will help make sure that the songbird migration continues for future generations.

Oh... and did we mention that it tastes better?

Further Reading:

Bird Friendly® Coffee

Kenn Kaufman goes birding on a Bird Friendly® coffee farm

Kenn Kaufman's Blog

Silence of the Songbirds

Bird Friendly® Criteria

Shade Coffee Species List