Is promoting shade-grown coffee really a good conservation strategy?

by JulieCraves on February 7, 2006

In 2003, a number of important researchers debated the conservation value of promoting shade-grown coffee in the pages of the journal Conservation Biology.

First Rappole et al. [1] wrote that if the result of promoting shade coffee resulted in the conversion of sun coffee to shade coffee, they would have no qualms about the whole shade coffee campaign.  However, they felt that the more likely outcome of the added incentives and profit of an increased demand for shade coffee would be

  • that farmers considering converting from shade to sun coffee would decide not to do so (a good thing),
  • and/or more primary forest would be converted to coffee (a bad thing), albeit shade coffee (still not as good as natural forest).

This conversion of primary forest to coffee would most likely occur, the authors wrote, on slopes that are too steep to grow sun coffee, representing new exploitation of the land. They were especially concerned with higher elevation pine-oak forests, important endangered tropical habitats.  Coffee is one of the only crops that can be grown in these forests, and providing financial incentives through shade coffee promotion might convince farmers to begin cultivation in these areas.  Removal of the oak layer, which presumably would occur even in shade coffee management, would have profound impacts on the endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler, a migrant that depends on the oaks in the winter.

In general, the authors felt that endorsing shade coffee plantations as refuges of biodiversity was a “lowering of the bar” in terms of conservation goals.  They argued that diversity only measures numbers of species, which does not tell us anything about how ecologically equivalent two communities may be.  A shade coffee plantation may have 50 open-country species whereas the primary forest may also have 50 species, but they would be forest specialists which would be lost when the area was converted to coffee.  Finally, the authors were concerned that the consumer might not realize there are many variations in the way shade coffee is grown, and not all are good for biodiversity.

Philpott and Dietsch [2] replied, making the point loss of species richness in highly shaded coffee farms is minimal compared to the huge losses from other forms of agriculture. They argue that financial incentives that prevent farmers from converting their farms to sun coffee, cattle pasture, or illegal crops is beneficial.

Primarily, the authors argue for rigorous shade-certification programs to prevent premiums from going to farms that do not truly preserve biodiversity, and strong linkages between organic, shade-grown, and Fair Trade certification.  Further, to discourage conversion of primary forest to coffee, certification could be withheld for new farms, for a specified period, so that farmers are not rewarded for clearing forest.

The original authors [3] came back to say that there were a lot of “ifs” in Philpott and Deitsch’s vision of how shade coffee can advance conservation goals.  They felt certification programs had a long way to go, were uncoordinated, and that the promotion of shade coffee was outstripping certification efforts.  They end by saying that they feel the conservation value of coffee is hypothetical, dependent upon assumptions, especially considering certification, that have yet to be realized.

All the points in the papers are valid.  The lesson to consumers is that we have to be diligent in our choices by purchasing certified Fair Trade, organic, truly shade grown coffee.  Certainly, if we are going to purchase and drink coffee, we won’t be doing the environment any good by buying cheap coffee from a corporate giant that pays little to farmers and buys most of its coffee from sun plantations.

The primary goal of this blog is to continue to keep up with current research on biodiversity in coffee plantations, and current issues and debates on the conservation value of coffee to help consumers make informed choices.

[1] Rappole, J. H., D. I. King, and J. H. Vega Rivera.  2003.  Coffee and conservation.  Conservation Biology 17:334-336.

[2] Philpott, S. M. and T. Dietsch.  2003.  Coffee and conservation: a global context and the value of farmer involvement.  Conservation Biology 17:1844-1846.

[3] Rappole, J. H., D. I. King, and J. H. Vega Rivera.  2003.  Coffee and conservation III: reply to Philpott and Dietsch. Conservation Biology 17: 1847-1849.

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Revised on February 8, 2013

Posted in Certifications,Coffee and the environment

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