Integrated Open Canopy: a land sharing strategy for coffee

by JulieCraves on November 29, 2020

Some time ago, I wrote a detailed post about “land sharing” versus “land sparing“, two agriculture strategies. In a nutshell, land sharing is the use of cover crops, interplantings, and other measures that seek to approximate natural habitat, inviting birds and other biodiversity within the crop. Land sparing utilizes a patchwork of more intensive agriculture co-mingled with natural habitat.

Most discussions debating land sharing vs. land sparing revolve around food crops and the best way to feed a growing population without further devastation to biodiversity. A good review on the pros and cons is at the open-access paper Reframing the land-sparing/land sharing debate, as well as my previous post. This debate is somewhat different concerning coffee, because issues deal with sustainable farmer livelihoods rather than more general food security and availablility. That being said, shade coffee is an example of land sharing, while sun coffee plots in a matrix of forest would be an example of land sparing.

Over the summer, I attended (if that’s the word for a virtual meeting) the North American Ornithological Conference and listened to research on “Integrated Open Canopy” (IOC)*, a land sparing method in which intensively grown coffee plots (little or no shade) are grown at a 1:1 ratio with forested plots (primary or second growth). It reminded me it’s time to revisit this topic.

Why IOC/land sparing methods are becoming more important

The perceived advantage to farmers with IOC is that they can increase yields on the coffee plots while still preserving biodiversity on the forest plots. I add the qualifier for a few reasons. First, it’s not always true that shade coffee results in lower yields. Even when it does, shade coffee tends to be higher quality, and may be sold for higher prices (see the summary by the Specialty Coffee Association: Why Does Shade Matter?). Shaded systems provide additional benefits including increased pollination and pest control (proximity to natural habitats can also support these services). Sun or intensive coffee farming requires more inputs of fertilizer or for pest control and coffee plants need to be replaced more often, and may therefore be more costly. The decision on how to manage shade in coffee farms is therefore not simple, and it’s gotten more complicated.

A warming climate is pushing arabica coffee cultivation to higher, cooler elevations, driving deforestation. Climate change is also disrupting the distinct seasonality of tropical growing regions, expediting the spread of pests and disease. Coffee rust has become particularly devastating. The relationship between shade cover and rust is very complex; dense shade can facilitate rust, but open conditions promote spore dispersal and lack of natural vegetation disrupts ecosystem processes that bolster biological control of the fungus [1]. Small coffee farmers are giving up coffee farming for easier or more profitable crops. The importance of allowing flexibility to coffee farmers in their production methods to sustain their livelihoods while offering a way for them to preserve biodiversity at the same time is becoming more urgent.

A Slaty-backed Nightingale Thrush, Catharus fuscater, a forest-dependent species found only in primary forest and IOC farms in this study. Photo by Cephas, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Does IOC/land sparing help birds?

Only a few studies have carefully looked specifically at coffee and birds in an IOC system. The most frequently cited is a paper out of Costa Rica [3], looking at small farms (<3 ha in coffee) in the Montes de Oro cooperative. Birds were surveyed in primary forest, secondary forest, IOC farms, and shade farms using mist-netting./bird banding. The authors noted most “shade” coffee in Costa Rica is commercial polyculture and thus they couldn’t compare IOC farms to shade coffee farms that might qualify for Bird Friendly certification. However, they did choose shade farms with more than 40% shade cover and 10 species of native trees.

The most important result in this study showed that IOC coffee farms had more forest-dependent bird species than shade coffee farms. In fact, forest-dependent species were least abundant on shade coffee farms. Forest-dependent species are typically found in large and/or primary forest and may be of higher conservation value due to their relative rarity in general as well as their more specialized roles — as seed dispersers, for example. Simple measures of presence/absence of species or even abundance (if those species are generalists, common, or non-native species) do not tell us much about the biodiversity value of forest.

Some further things to consider when contemplating these results:

The use of mist-netting is biased towards birds that spend most of their time in the lowest levels of the forest — from ground level to about 3 m, the height of the nets used to capture birds. Mean canopy height in their primary forest sites was 25 m, in IOC forest 18 m and in shade coffee 7 m. The mesh size they used was also small and suitable for birds only up to the size of a large jay, precluding capture of many larger species of birds. Mist netting misses many bird species, especially in plots with high canopy. If I had to guess, I would say their methods may have under-sampled forest-dependent birds, because canopy-dwelling species are often more specialized and sensitive to disturbance, and would not be sampled with standard mist nets.

On the other hand, proximity to large, intact forest greatly influences which species might occur in nearby plots, and the IOC farms were closer to the Monteverde Reserve Complex than the shade coffee farms, which may have biased the results towards more forest-dependent species. Additional survey methods are needed for clearer understanding and comparisons.

Of the 148 species they captured across all sites, only 24% were forest-dependent. Further, a third of those 148 species were only captured once or twice; not much can be concluded from such infrequent captures. These species may just be transients, and little can be surmised about their use of any of the habitats. Considering just the 36 species captured 20 or more times, only 8 were forest dependent. The capture rates for 5 of these was highest in primary forest, 2 in IOC, and 1 in shade coffee. All species were found in primary forest and on IOC farms, and all but one in secondary forest. Only half were found in shade coffee farms.

An additional limitation to this study was that it took place over several years in the months of November-March. This is the dry season, and resident birds (comprising 34 of the 36 forest-dependent species) nest later, in the rainy season. An important metric of the conservation value of land is whether it can support reproductive success, which was not possible in this study.

Nonetheless, there are encouraging trends in this study; similar results were presented for Honduras at the meeting I described, although this research has not yet been published. The results indicate that in regions where there are still intact forested plots combined with a tradition or need for more intensive forms of coffee farming, land sparing may be a good way to preserve birds and biodiversity. In addition to better bird sampling methods, examining the ecological and functional roles played by various birds (and ultimately other taxa), their reproductive success, and evaluating their usage of IOC forest plots, will need to be incorporated into further studies.

That being said, the benefits of land sparing to birds and wildlife are highly dependent on geography, climate, and plot configuration at farm, local, and landscape levels. In addition to scale, many other variables will factor into the value of land sparing for birds or other taxa, some of which I mention below.

How can certification play a role?

There really isn’t a mechanism for certifying IOC-type farms right now. Bird Friendly (which is currently the only true biodiversity-friendly/shade coffee certification) requires organic certification and canopy cover of at least 40 percent, as well as other vegetation parameters. It represents the classic land sharing concept. Building a framework for certification of land sparing IOC-type farms will require ecologically sound, scientifically-based criteria.

Some things to consider:

  • There should be some minimum size to the forest plots themselves, as well as requirements on their shape. This is because very small plots or plots with a lot of edge rather than core area are less valuable to forest-dependent species of birds (as well as other taxa).
  • The configuration of coffee plots and forest plots could play critical roles in habitat connectivity throughout the landscape (important to wildlife) or acting as buffers or windbreaks (important to coffee). These factors should be examined and taken into account.
  • While regenerating or second-growth forests should by all means be permitted under any certification scheme, forest age should also be taken into consideration, with older usually being more valuable. Fortunately, tropical forests mature quickly, and farmers should also be able to take advantage of tree biomass and receive credit for carbon sequestration. While this should be obvious, there should also be some way to define and evaluate whether a forest patch is actually a forest patch, and prohibit inappropriate plots such as gardens, etc. that are permitted in some certification schemes.
  • Clearing of new intensive farming plots, even if adequate offsetting natural forest is present, should not be allowed.
  • Forest composition (diversity of plant species, emphasizing natives) and structure (density and layers of vegetation, presence of vines and epiphytes) are important components. Many of these details are already incorporated into the Bird Friendly standard, but could probably use some tweaking depending on the region which may have birds or other taxa with specialized habitat needs, or where growing conditions are varied or unique.
  • The issue of chemical use in plots embedded or directly adjacent to forest plots also requires some thought. While organic practices are ideal, they will be more challenging for farmers in these situations because intensive coffee cultivation often requires supplemental fertilization, if not pest control.

When I visited coffee farms in Panama years ago, the patchwork of coffee and other land uses clearly demonstrated to me the difficulties in assessing these farms for certification. Several farms I went to in both Panama and Nicaragua would not qualify for Bird Friendly certification but had hectares of high-quality forest preserved on their farms. They were deserving of a certification that would recognize their efforts and afford them access to market incentives and increased income.

There are a number of slippery slopes on this road, but it is one that should be traveled. Coffee growing is becoming more difficult, and biodiversity loss in the tropical areas where coffee is grown is accelerating.


*Integrated Open Canopy is a term trademarked by the Mesoamerican Development Institute, an NGO working primarily in Honduras. They couple IOC farming with solar or biofuel drying methods for post-harvest processing — important to reduce deforestation for firewood typically used to fuel drying; read more here, as well as their goals and commitments at the Sustainable Coffee Challenge website.

[1] Vandermeer, J., D. Jackson, I.Perfecto. 2014. Qualitative dynamics of the coffee rust epidemic: Educating intuition with theoretical ecology. BioScience 64: 210—218.

[2] Arce, V.J.C., Raudales, R., Trubey, R., King, D.I., Chandler, R.B., Chandler, D.C., 2009. Measuring and managing the environmental cost of coffee production in Latin America. Conservation and Society 7: 141-144.

[3] Chandler, R.B., King, D.I., Raudales, R., Trubey, R., Arce, V.J., 2013. A small-scale land-sparing approach to conserving biological diversity in tropical agricultural landscapes. Conservation Biology 27: 785-795.

Revised on March 8, 2021

Posted in Birds and other biodiversity,Certifications,Coffee and the environment

Julia Chisley December 6, 2020 at 9:31 pm

Sunday 12/5 202


Where can I buy integrated
open canopy coffee?

Thank you

JulieCraves December 7, 2020 at 7:22 am

Julia, the Mesoamerican Development Institute (the NGO that owns the IOC trademark and developers of IOC) markets this coffee under the brand Cafe Solar:, highlighting the other eco-friendly aspect of this initiative, solar coffee drying. The coffee is from farms in Honduras in the area where IOC is practiced, but it doesn’t appear the coffee is necessarily from farms that actually use IOC. It might be that there isn’t enough volume for that yet. There’s a link on their page for purchase; proceeds do support the project.

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