Research: Farmers, prices, and shade coffee

by JulieCraves on July 21, 2010

ResearchBlogging.orgWhy shade coffee does not guarantee biodiversity conservation. 2010. Tejada-Cruz, C., E. Silva-Rivera, J. R. Barton, and W. J. Sutherland. Ecology and Society 15: [online]

The title of this paper should probably be “Does promoting shade coffee encourage forest conversion?” This question is perfectly legitimate, and has been debated in the literature before [1,2]. I’m not sure, due to methodological and other weaknesses, this paper adds a lot to this debate. It addresses, hypothetically, what coffee farmers might do if coffee prices increased, theoretically due to increased demand created by promotion of shade coffee to consumers.

The authors interviewed 57 coffee farmers inside and outside the buffer zone of El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve in Chiapas, Mexico. Farmers were chosen by the “snowball technique” in which one farmer refers the authors to the next person to be interviewed and so on, so a linkage is assumed between respondents. The authors did not address how this may have biased responses, e.g., shared attitudes regarding forest conservation, risk perception, or coffee production; mutual membership in cooperatives with an organizational slant towards particular farming methods; or similar economic pressures.

The salient question in the interviews for this paper was whether the farmers would convert forested areas on their property to “shade coffee” (not defined) if coffee prices increased. The authors did not specify in their interviews how much of an price increase or how long it would need to continue to influence farmer behavior.

About half of the respondents within the buffer zone said they would be likely to convert forest remnants into shade coffee if prices increased, while this figure was around a third for those outside the buffer zone (where less forest remained to be converted).

This might be instructive, but is missing critical elements. For example: even if the farmers wanted to convert forest, could they? The introduction states that this paper sheds light on “how small-scale coffee growers make decisions on land use when confronted with the choice to switch from conventional to eco-friendly’ labeled coffee.” The authors did not make this explicit in the Methods or survey questions, but given the context of the paper, “eco-friendly labeled coffee” presumably means certified by some agency with environmental standards.

All “eco-friendly” certifying agencies have restrictions on clearing of forest or cultivation in forested areas in their standards, a fact noted in the introduction of the paper. This includes one of the major coffee purchasers in the area, Starbucks. Their C.A.F.E. Practices is not a certification, but a sourcing guideline. One of their mandatory requirements is that there is no conversion of natural forest to agricultural production. Non-compliance would make it difficult if not impossible to become a Starbucks supplier. If farmers were unable to gain “eco-friendly” certification or status, they would be unable to access the increased prices being offered, and the question becomes, in practice, a moot point.

The authors acknowledge conversion is generally not allowed, but that they observed conversion occurring anyway. The circumstances and details were not explained, and it’s unclear from this paper what was going on — whether these farmers were doing so outside a certification system, if they were just not being audited, etc. Without more facts, it’s difficult to ascertain the extent of the problem and what would remedy it.

Within the buffer zone of the reserve, only certain activities are permitted [3]. This includes organic coffee production (which typically requires at least some shade) but not “traditional coffee production” except under certain conditions. It’s worth noting that if coffee prices fell or remained stagnant, farmers might turn to other permitted activities which might not be so eco-friendly, including palm cultivation, organic corn, or cattle management. Some discussion of this would have been helpful in the paper.

The authors report that, according to the farmers interviewed, there has been an increase in the cultivation area, “allegedly at the expense of forest,” although there is no external corroboration.  An accompanying figure graphs the increase in acreage in coffee and decrease in forest patches based on the farmers’ answers; the decade covered was 1991-2001. There is no correlation with coffee prices to provide a link to the theme of the paper. That decade, in fact, was the run-up and commencement of the world coffee crisis, one of (if not the) most volatile periods in modern coffee history. Prices went from a high of nearly $3.00/lb in the mid-1990s to a low of less than $0.50/lb in 2001.

The paper states that there was a “steady increase in cultivation area” for this period, which seems unlikely — when prices began to fall after the peak, many farmers didn’t continue to expand their plots, they abandoned them. Perhaps the 2001 end-point was too soon to reflect this. If these interviews were really done around 2001 (the date is not given), when prices were at 30-year lows and farmers were literally starving, it’s hard to imagine farmers not saying they’d convert forest for higher prices. Is this really indicative of what farmer would do in a more stable market? One of the major lessons learned from the coffee crisis is that prices drop when there is an oversupply and this type of overplanting is generally now discouraged.

Without some discussion of what actually happened in this area during this period to these farmers, using this graph as support for the argument that they will convert forest to coffee during an increase in prices makes little sense. There was a follow up question on the survey asking farmers to explain why they would or would not convert their forest to shade coffee. That would surely shed some light on their motivations and experiences, but it was not discussed in the paper.

Some of the discussion surrounding the theme in this paper is worthwhile. But the title of this paper makes quite a definitive negative statement. It is no doubt true under various circumstances,  but the facts in the paper don’t quite back up the claim. Shade coffee, grown under diverse shade — especially when organic and certified using strong, verified standards — is still one of the most environmentally-friendly agricultural alternatives for biodiversity conservation available.

[1] Philpott, S. and T. Dietsch. 2003. Coffee and conservation: A global context and the value of farmer involvement. Conservation Biology 117(6):1844-1846.

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

[3] Castro Hernandez, J. C., R. Hernandez Janapa, S. NaÁ±ez Jimenez, S.R. Rodriquez Alcazar, C. Tejeda Cruz, A. Vazquez Vazquez, K. Batchelder, A.Z. Maldonado Fonseca. 2003. Community-based Conservation Participatory Conservation in Buffer Zone Communities in the Natural Protected Areas of Chiapas, Mexico. The Nature Conservancy, Arlington, VA. 65. pp.

C. Tejada-Cruz, E. Silva-Rivera, J. R. Barton, & W. J. Sutherland (2010). Why shade coffee does not guarantee biodiversity conservation Ecology and Society, 15 (1)

Revised on November 28, 2020

Posted in Research on coffee growing

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