Keeping the coffee politik clean 

Go organic for the birds

In dollar value, coffee is second only to petroleum as the most important legal export commodity in the world.

We love our coffee. In fact, Canadians drink more than 30 million cups of the stuff every day. But as we sip away, most of us are totally unaware that there’s a good chance our caffeine addiction is contributing to the demise of wildlife, including birds right in our own backyard.

Here’s the caffeine-stained link. Most of the world’s coffee is grown 20 degrees north or south of the equator – between the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer – in what’s known as the Coffee Belt. Up until the early 1970s, most coffee growers around the world grew Arabica coffee, which, in its wild form is native to high elevations in Ethiopia. To mimic the conditions Arabica coffee plants prefer, they used a protective shade canopy of trees.

But in the past two decades, all that changed. Once somebody figured out just how great a fortune could be made from coffee – one coffee equipment sales rep told me that the mark-up on a single cup sold can be 40 or more times the cost – the push was on to push coffee bushes to the max.

New hybrids that thrived in full sun produced much higher yields. But they also needed to be more highly managed. And like anything else, when you push the limits there’s payback. The so-called technification of coffee plantations has meant, amongst other things, the depletion of the soil and the application of millions of tons of chemical fertilizers plus insecticides, herbicides and fungicides. The plants are also subject to premature death in areas with a marked dry season, so they need to be replaced much more frequently than the shade varieties.

To pull all this off, enter agro-business with mind-bogglingly huge land holdings. Exit the smaller, traditional family-run type of shade-grown coffee plantations and estates, plus all the trees that formed the protective canopies on these holdings.

As you can imagine, once the beautiful canopy of taller tropical trees goes, so do a lot of other beautiful things – insects, lizards, tiny tree frogs, and plants like bromeliads and orchids that thrive in the rainforest. As go the trees, so go the birds, not only resident species (tinamous, parrots, trogons, becards, toucans, and woodcreepers to name a few), but also species from B.C. backyards which migrate to these areas each winter, including vireos, the doleful-looking Swainson’s thrush and the spectacularly coloured western tanagers and northern orioles.

One study found a decrease from 10 to four common species of migratory birds on sun-grown coffee sites. As for the overall birdlife, studies in Colombia and Mexico found 94-97 per cent fewer bird species in sun-grown coffee than in shade-grown coffee. No surprise – over two-thirds of birds are found in the tree canopy of shade plantations and less than 10 per cent are found foraging around coffee plants.

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