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Coffee beans for the universally popular drink are cultivated in more than 80 tropical countries around the world. With over $150 billion in retail sales a year and providing a livelihood for more than 100 million people around the world, coffee is the second most valuable trade commodity after petroleum (Ramirez-Vallejo 2002). Sustainability of the coffee industry is critical due to its’ large environmental footprint and because it provides the main source of exports and foreign exchange earnings for many countries particularly for those in the least developed group.
There are two basic types of coffee plantations namely shade-grown and sun-grown coffee. In shade-grown plantations, coffee plants grow under the shading canopy of larger trees. Most shading trees are native species commonly found in surrounding natural forests, providing important habitat for wildlife, protecting soils and water resources (e.g., Wetmore 1916; Beehler et al. 1987; Greenberg 1994; Wunderle and Latta 1996; Greenberg et al. 1997a,b). In fact, current scientific literature supports this argument and indicates that these plantations are a very important tool for the management of natural reserves and wildlife populations around the world (Brach 1987, Oldfield 1988, Perfecto et al. 1996, Miranda-Castro 2004).
On the other hand, “sun coffee” plantations are a monoculture of coffee trees where, in order to increase production, the natural shading canopy is eliminated exposing the coffee plants to full sun light. These plantations do not support native forest trees and wildlife species as traditional shaded coffee plantations do (Borrero 1986, Wunderle and Latta 1996, Greenberg et al. 1997a). Sun coffee plantations require higher inputs of fertilizers and pesticides (Greenberg 1994, Vannini 1994, Rice and Ward 1996, USDA 2004).
Shade coffee plantations have played a critical role in protecting biodiversity. In Puerto Rico, coffee plantations served as refugia for wild plant and animal species that otherwise would have gone extinct due to the high rate of deforestation (Brash 1987); and are also considered a very important tool for the management of natural reserves and wildlife populations (Oldfield 1988, Miranda-Castro 2004). Now, it is believed that shade coffee has a similar or even more important role for natural resource management and conservation. With the ever-increasing human population and associated development and the fact that coffee is a very important agricultural crop in Puerto Rico and Hawaii these plantations are a vital component of any conservation initiative in these small tropical islands (Miranda-Castro 2004).
In order to protect native and endemic wildlife, government and private agencies have proposed biological corridors between existing protected areas in the central mountains of Puerto Rico. Some of the target species are the PR Parrot (Amazona vitatta), the PR Boa (Epicrates inornatus), and the Elfin-woods warbler (Dendroica angelae).
In future blogs, I will analyze to what extent these corridors could be established by restoring and protecting the native shading canopy of existing sun coffee plantations.
The first image is a typical shade coffee plantation in Puerto Rico. In this image you can see the coffee plants blooming under the shading canopy of native trees. Photo ©Leopoldo Miranda-Castro.
The second image is a recently destroyed shade coffee plantation that was replaced by a "sun coffee" plantation in Yauco Puerto Rico. See the slope of these hills. Where do you think all the sediment will end up?. Photo ©Leopoldo Miranda-Castro.
Some question to spark discussion:
- What do you think about all of this?
- Is it possible to have agricultural production and environmental conservation at the same time?
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Borrero, J. I. 1986. La substitucion de cafetales de sombrio por caturrales y su efecto negativo sobre la fauna de vertebrados. Caldasia 15:725-732.
Brash, A. R. 1987. The history of avian extinction and forest conversion on Puerto Rico. Biological Conservation 39: 97-111.
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Greenberg, R., P. Bichier, A. Cruz Angon, and R. Reitsma. 1997a. Bird populations in shade and sun coffee plantations in Central Guatemala. Conserv. Biol. 11:448-459.
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Perfecto, I., R. A. Rice, R. Greenberg, and M. E. Van Der Voort. 1996. Shade coffee: a disappearing refuge for biodiversity. Bioscience 46: 598-608.
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USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service. 2004. COFFEE: Number of farms, acreage, yield, marketings, price, and value. Biannual report December 2004 Honolulu, HI.
Vannini, J. P. 1994. Nearctic avian migrants in coffee plantations and forest fragments of south-western Guatemala. Bird Conserv. Int. 4:209-232.
Wetmore, A. 1916. Birds of Porto Rico. U.S. Dept. of Agric. Bull. No. 326.
Wunderle, J. M., JR., and S.C. Latta. 1996. Avian abundance in sun and shade coffee plantations and remnant pine forest in the Cordillera Central, Dominican Republic. Ornitol. Neotrop. 7:19-34.