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Zoo hosts sustainable coffee congress
The Tea & Coffee Trade Journal / November 1996

By Larry Luxner

It's not every day coffee executives in suits head for the zoo to discuss business. Then again, last month's Sustainable Coffee Congress wasn't exactly a typical business meeting.

In fact, you might say this gathering -- which attracted 220 people to the nation's capital -- was strictly for the birds.

Hosted by the Smithsonian's Migratory Bird Center, the Sept. 16-18 congress was designed to call attention to the environmental advantages of shade-grown coffee -- and the economic and environmental dangers of continuing to encourage impoverished Latin American farmers to grow "technified" or sun coffee.

Michael Robinson, director of the National Zoological Park, opened up the proceedings with the observation that "every coffee plantation that has shade trees is a step towards alleviating the silent spring that Rachel Carson wrote about."

The one-day meeting cost about $70,000, said Russ Greenberg, director of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC). According to the SMBC, "migratory birds have found a sanctuary in the forest-like environment of traditional coffee plantations. In eastern Chiapas, Mexico, SMBC biologists found that traditionally managed coffee and cacao plantations support over 150 species of birds, a greater number than is found in other agricultural habitats, and exceeded only in undisturbed tropical forest."

One well-known forest ecologist, Ariel Lugo, found that in Puerto Rico -- an overpopulated Caribbean island that has lost 99% of its primary forest -- only four endemic species of birds have become extinct in the last 500 years. Lugo attributes the resilience of the bird fauna to the secondary forests and coffee plantations on the mountain tops.

In an on-site zoo interview, the SMBC's Greenberg said 61 million Americans call themselves birders, and 24 million people traveled last year to indulge their bird-watching hobby, spending $2.5 billion in the process. That makes for a potentially lucrative consumer bloc.

"If there's an environmental segment that can be marketed more expensively, that'll allow people to compete against the sheer volume of coffee that's produced," said Greenberg. "A lot of people got out of technified coffee when prices were low, because they couldn't keep up. You get more coffee, but the cost of the input is 10 times greater. Just because someone produces more coffee doesn't mean they make more money."

He added: "There's a connection between the environment and social issues. Even at low prices, you can make money. We think there's an abiding interest for small farmers to manage their farms for diversity, because it buffers them from the price swings of coffee. Under the shade, they can produce other crops. We think that has relevance to the environmental side."

The SMBC was established by Congress in November 1990 to address issues pertaining to the conservation of neotropical migratory birds, a diverse group of more than 300 species that breed in the United States and Canada, and overwinter in Latin America and the Caribbean. Its annual budget of $500,000 is 60% funded by the federal government; the conference's biggest single sponsor was the U.S. Agency for International Development, which kicked in $30,000 for the event.

About 35 biologists, coffee industry executives, researchers and other experts in the field gave presentations at the convention. Among the most prominent was Arturo Gómez-Pompa, a botany professor at the University of California, Riverside, and director of the university's Consortium on Mexico and the United States.

"Unfortunately, there has been a widespread belief that good agriculture is equal to modern agriculture, and old agriculture is equal to bad or inefficient agriculture," Gómez said in his keynote speech. "This is a completely wrong misconception. All agriculture is a combination of past and present practices. Some of the old farming systems can be as productive, or more productive, than modern systems."

According to Gómez, most of the coffee farms in Mexico in the 1970s were small farms with shaded coffee. In the 1970s, the average size of a coffee farm was 3.7 hectares. "However, a large number of producers had farms with less than one hectare and noather 42% had less than five hectares. Our fundamental observation was that shade coffee agro-ecosystems played an important role in biodiversity conservation. They have a great diversity of epiphytes and climbing plants, and many farmers left native trees within the system, or planted all kinds of useful trees. We found a high diversity of birds in the coffee agro-ecosystems."

The explanation was that "the tree canopies of the coffee farms offer protection and great diversity of food."

Gómez, whose career as an ecologist has focused on issues of small-scale agricultural production and the impact of different kinds of agriculture on the earth's biodiversity, said one study showed the water content of the soil profile in shaded coffee plantations was higher than sun coffee, especially in the dry season.

"Sun coffee was economically risky because it may require a cash investment for new plants and chemicals not available to most growers, it has the danger of making them acquire a debt in an unpredictable international market," he said. "On the other hand, shade coffee offered some advantages: needs little or no capital investment, lives longer, needs fewer fertilizers and no chemicals, and allows to grow other products. It is very discourag-ing to see the continuous support from all levels for unsustainable production systems such as extensive cattle raising, that not only do not create many jobs but also causes massive deforestation."

Was the conference a success? Greenberg certainly thinks so.

"An important part of our mission is how to get research out into the real world. People could look at their coffee and think about their love of birds," said Greenberg. "All kinds of people are converging on the same thing. They never really had the opportunity to come together. If nothing else comes out of this conference, at least a dialogue has begun."

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