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Last updated January 1, 2014

Sun Coffee A Threat To Migrating And Local Wildlife

Wendy Griffin, Honduras This Week, August 9, 1999


What most Americans know about good coffee, they learned from Juan Valdez. In the Folger's coffee commercial, Juan Valdez was supposedly a coffee-growing peasant in the mountains of Colombia who explained, as he walked down through shaded hillsides with his donkey, that the best coffee is "mountain grown."

If you take the bus from Tegucigalpa to San Pedro Sula, you will see coffee trees with no shade broiling under the sun in the Comayagua and Sula valleys. You may think, "What gives? Have I been lied to all these years by Juan Valdez?" No, but you are seeing the newest trend in coffee growing, called sun coffee. However, some environmentalists claim it is an ecological disaster.

Traditionally, Honduran coffee has been grown under shade trees--the third layer in a four-layer forest. Large trees like the stinking toe (guapinol), silkwood or kapok (ceiba) and mahogany (caoba ) form the highest level of the forest, as much as 100-130 feet about the forest floor. Middle-range trees including plantain plants, provide the second level. Low coffee bushes or trees form the third layer in the deep shade. Under them, low growing medical plants that require heavy shade are able to grow.

During the winter, these shaded coffee forests provide resting-places for migrating songbirds such as warblers, orioles, wood thrushes, tanagers, and fly catchers. They eat from the canopy rather than the under brush. Cutting down the large shade trees and exposing the coffee to sun have left the birds with no where to rest on their southern migration. There are between 94 and 97 fewer birds species in sun coffee fields than there are in shaded coffee plantations.

Not only birds, but also insects, orchids, amphibians, and reptiles take refuge in the shaded plantations. They cannot live in the sun coffee fields, which have a biodiversity level similar to open cattle pastures. Of all the agricultural uses for land, shaded coffee and cocoa plantations have the highest levels of biodiversity with 150 species of birds, which compares favorably with uncut forest, reports a study by the Smithsonian Bird Center.

A good place to observe birds in the canopy above coffee trees is behind the small guesthouse or hospedaje in the Pech village of El Carbon, Olancho. Birds seen there by Canadian birdwatcher Derek Parent include the gray headed chachalaca, wood quail, brown-hooded parrots, wedge-tailed sabre wing hummingbirds, violet-headed hummingbirds, green-throated mountain gem hummingbirds, black-throated trogon, acorn woodpeckers, and shrikes, flycatchers, various wrens, a keel-billed toucan and the green toucanette.

In general, coffee is the second largest world commodity after petroleum. All over the world, the ecosystems in the neo-tropics between 1,500 and 4,500 feet above sea level are threatened by coffee plantations. In Honduras, sun coffee is grown at even lower levels.

Shade trees help maintain soil quality. It reduces the need for weeding (or the chemical alternative herbicides) and pest control. The taller trees provide natural mulch and reduce erosion. Some medicinal plants grow as parasites on the larger trees. Hondurans plant nitrogen-fixing plants near coffee, which contribute to improved soil quality. Shade coffee is usually grown by smaller landowners like the Pech, because sun coffee requires access to credit to buy the extra agro-chemicals required.

According to a spokesperson of Folger's Coffee, the switch to sun coffee is possible because of "a higher yielding variety of coffee tree which is planted much closer and requires less shade than conventional coffee varieties." When large coffee buyers like Folger's buy coffee, they buy beans from exporters who mix together beans from different parts of the country, said the spokesperson. Thus there is no control over whether the coffee is sun grown or mountain grown under shade.

Although the new variety can withstand the hot sun, some experts still believe the plant is weakened, so that it takes more agro-chemicals to grow the coffee. This may also be a factor because the trees are grown very close together so that anything that affects one tree can easily spread to all the other trees. Being so close together, it is hard to weed manually with a machete, so herbicides are used. Pech farmers claim herbicides can burn the soil and poison the person applying them. There is also toxic runoff into the water. The loss of trees and the use of these chemicals boost the acidity of the soil. This is bad for most Honduran crops and medicinal plants, which do poorly in acidic soils.

When there are problems with the coffee harvest, small farmers utilize the shade trees, such as eating their fruits or cutting them down for wood. Thus there is more financial insecurity with sun coffee.

The trend toward sun coffee is more advanced in other parts of Central America than in Honduras. Elsewhere it is estimated that half the coffee in the region is sun coffee. However, given Honduras' problems with erosion, landslides, worsening soil quality, and lack of foreign exchange to buy agro-chemicals, farmers should be encouraged to continue growing shaded coffee.

Many have claimed deforestation worsened the impact of Hurricane Mitch. In Santa Barbara, coffee growing areas were hard hit with 1,193 dead, 3,233 missing and 28,500 houses damaged. The expansion of coffee growing areas also affects many of Honduras' national parks including Sierra de Agalta, the nuclear zone of the Rio Platano and every park in Santa Barbara. Because birds and other animals often leave the parks for agricultural areas in the buffer zones, it seems these should be as eco-friendly as possible.

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