Sat. Jan 25th, 2020

A birding blog by Gunnar Engblom

Birding in Peru and South America with Kolibri Expeditions

Organic coffee is not necessarily birdfriendly

4 min read

Is shade grown coffee really bird friendly?

Cerulean Warbler is a threatened tropical migrant that spends the winter at altitudes of mainly 900-1800m along the east slope of the Andes, south to Peru. We conducted a survey for Cerulean Warbler in Central Peru during Jan-March, 2006. We failed to find it, partly due to extreme poor field conditions with a lot of rain making access a big problem. But part of the problem, may be that the habitat is not as good as it used to be.

During the 1998-1999 study from Villa Rica, Smithsonian Institute (Sterling et al) found the Cerulean Warbler only in “rustic” coffee plantations. In such plantations coffee is grown under indigenous shade trees remaining from the native forest before the understory was cleared for coffee. These very old trees have many epiphytes and dead leaves curled up, that serves as hiding places for a lot of bugs. Cerulean Warbler is an expert on gleaning the curled up leaves.

We hardly found any “rustic coffee” habitat during our study in spite that we returned to the same area where Smithsonian Institute had done its survey in the late nineties. Most of what was there 6-8 years ago, has been replaced with fast growing Inga and Albizia as shade trees species that carry no epiphytes and much less leaf cover. Could it be, that the coffee boom that markets shade-grown coffee, does not actually promote the more bird friendly rustic plantations, but rather promotes more mono-cultures with Inga and Albizia, since such areas can still be regarded as shade-grown? The amount of light available for the coffee plant, as well as the humidity, are easier to control. It appears that both yield and quality is higher in such conditions and that the market (ultimately the consumers) does not know how to separate between the terms organic, fair trade, shade-grown and bird-friendly coffee. We interviewed people at the farms and it is clear that many of those areas that previously were considered rustic, have been converted to mono-cultures today.

At some of the plantations importers such as Starbucks have rather strict rules for the coffee producers. Reforestation of indigenous tree species is being made. (They should not have been cut in the first place). But in these certified plantations the planted, often slow-growing, trees are mostly saplings and very small and pays no role, what so ever, to provide food and shelter to the birds.

So what about organic. Should be safe for the eco conscious, right?

Well, not necessarily! Organic plantations are also often not rustic enough to attract the multitude of birds of the rustic coffee plantation. On organic plantations industrial fertilizers are not allowed, and as the definition implies, pest control can not be chemical, but rather biological control. However, if the ecological conditions have changed so much that Cerulean Warbler does no consider the habitat optimum , one cannot really define organic as bird-friendly.

Furthermore, the guano that is used as alternative fertilizer, is either from very “inhumane” chicken farms with thousands of chicken packed together and pumped with antibiotics or from the guano islands home of large colonies of seabirds off the Peruvian coast.
The harvest of this guano is far from bird-friendly. Many of the guano producing bird species have populations that are being decimated every year, due to the depletion of the fish stock by the immense Peruvian anchoveta fishing fleet and during the guano harvest the birds are repetitively disturbed.

Productivity ought to be much lower in these plantations so if more and more coffee drinkers start choosing organic instead of conventional coffee, the total outcome will be that more native primary hill forest will be transformed to these Albiza/Inga monocultures with occasional saplings of native trees to keep up the production.
The bottom line is that maybe some good habitat could have been saved, if the production instead had been maximised with conventional fertilizers.
After all, one of the main reasons, why conventional industrial fertilizer are not liked in Europe and in North America, is that nutrients leak into the environment and resulting in algae blooming and super eutrophic lakes that soon are completely covered in reeds. This is not the case in the rain-forest where there is constant LACK of nutrients. Some leaking nutrients would not be a problem, as they would be immediately absorbed in the ecosystem.
I would like to find a coffee farm that maximises production with fertilizers and compost and that way can set off a large extent of its land as a reserve for birds. It may still be shade grown since 95 % of the coffee is shade grown anyway, but guano from birds would not be used. This would be truly bird friendly coffee. Maybe a side product we can sell to birders. Verified and certified bird friendly Kolibri coffee!

Update Jan 15, 2009:
How do you make the perfect coffee? Just got a tip from Jake Fontenot.
Is it with a Melitta electric coffee machine? No!
Is it with an refined electric expresso machine? No?
Is it with one of those silvery time-glass shaped on the stove machines one see in Spain? No!
Got to be the French Press then? Good, but not!
It is the Aeropress. Perfect coffee and no mess! What more could you ask for?
Thanks for the tip, Jake.

Birding Peru with Kolibri Expeditions
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