Coffee plantations can be the new rainforestsor sterile plantations. It's up to you.
by Mindy Pennybacker
We are a caffeinated people. Forty-seven percent of Americans are coffee drinkers; they
consume, on the average, 3.4 cups per day, or 20 percent of total world coffee production.
That adds up to strong consumer clout. If we choose to use it, we can get a lot more out
of our daily dose: protecting tropical habitat, and improving the lives of those who grow
our beloved beans.
Traditionally, coffee is produced on small farms beneath a forest canopy. In Mexico,
the world's leading supplier of certified organic coffee, 90 percent of all coffee farms
still occupy 10 acres or less, and the majority are owned by indigenous people. (Mexico is
the fourth-largest coffee-producer, after Brazil, Colombia, and Indonesia.) In El
Salvador, coffee plantations account for about 60 percent of surviving forested areas.
Traditional coffee farms also cultivate other crops, including cacao, fruit, avocados, and
trees for firewood. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides aren't much needed on these farms,
because the shading trees fix nitrogen into the soil, and their leaf litter is home to
beneficial insects that devour nematodessoil-borne organisms that attack roots.
The canopy also provides habitat for a rich diversity of species, especially migratory
birds. As rainforests disappear at the rate of 40 million acres a year, shaded coffee
farms play an increasingly critical role in preserving tropical habitat. "The number
of species in shade-grown coffee plantations is exceeded only by the diversity in
undisturbed rainforest," says Russell Greenberg, director of the Smithsonian
Migratory Bird Center. Many birds that depend on coffee farms are the same migratory
species that appear in U.S. backyards. Baltimore orioles, Tennessee warblers, and gray
catbirds, for instance, are common sights in the traditional coffee farms of Chiapas,
These refuges are now disappearing all over the tropics, as small holdings are replaced
by or absorbed into large, mono-cropped, chemical-dependent farms. These ecological
disasters were made possible by the development in the 1970s of a high-yield coffee tree
that flourishes in full sunlight but requires chemical protection from disease. In these
"technified" coffee farms, forests are cleared in order to grow coffee in open
sun, and high levels of pesticides and fertilizers are applied, killing beneficial insects
and micro-organisms and polluting the water.
There is little room for songbirds on such farms. In 1994 in Chiapas, Greenberg found
over 140 species of birds in the forests shading traditional farms, compared with as few
as five or six species living in full-sun fields. In the two decades of coffee
industrialization (along with other forest clearing), the number of birds detected by
National Weather Service radar crossing the Gulf of Mexico each year has decreased by
half. On average, forest-dwelling migratory bird populations are diminishing at a rate of
one to three percent every year.
Chemical-intensive coffee production threatens human health as well, especially that of
the workers in countries where pesticide regulations are either not enforced or
nonexistent. In 1993 and 1994 in Colombia, the insecticide endosulfan resulted in more
than 100 poisonings each year, and four deaths. Following the death of a worker on a
Colombian coffee plantation, Ciba-Geigy finally recalled the insecticide Miral 500 CS, an
organophosphate nematocide sprayed on banana and coffee plantations in 16 countries.
Luckily for conscientious coffee drinkers, a plethora of independent labeling schemes
has arisen to help consumers avoid injury to the environment and their fellow humans. Some
labels indicate that the coffee is organic (which in practice means that it is almost
certainly shade-grown). Look for the seal of reputable certifiers such as the Organic Crop
Improvement Association, Farm Verified Organic, Naturland, or the Demeter Association.
Another approach is "fair trade" or "social justice" coffee, which
focuses on community health and education, fair prices, fair wages, and avoidance of
chemicals. Many fair-trade organizations also require commitment to sustainable
development, respect of local ecosystems, and conservation of natural resources. In
return, grower members are essentially guaranteed a premium price. The Transfair
social-justice label can be found, along with organic and other specialty coffees, in
natural- or gourmet-food stores.
(In 1995, responding to pressure from the U.S./Guatemala Labor Education Project
regarding brutal working conditions and low pay on Guatemalan farms, Starbucks Coffee
adopted a labor code urging growers to improve quality of life for coffee workers.
Starbucks, however, continues to buy from growers who fail to comply with its code.)
Newly on the market are labels bearing the stamp of the "Eco-O.K." program of
the Rainforest Alliance, soon to be joined by Conservation International's seal. These
will certify sustainability based on diversification of shade cover, protection of
wildlife, and prevention of water pollution. While these groups will grant their approval
to producers who use agrochemicals that are legal in the U.S. and Europe, their goal is to
phase out chemicals, and protective gear for workers is required. Finally, Ft. Bragg,
Californiabased Thanksgiving Coffee Company has started a "Love the Earth"
seal that rates the coffee it buys by criteria such as cultivation under rainforest
Coffee drinkers are responding. Worldwide sales of fair-trade coffee are now more than
$400 million a year, and while organic beans currently represent only half a percent of
the 6,300 million pounds of coffee imported into the U.S. annually, their market is
growing. Food giant Procter & Gamble has even started a certified organic line of its
own called Millstone.
Eco-labeling is far from popular with the industry at large, however. The Grocery
Manufacturers Association, which represents large coffee producers like Hills Brothers, is
launching a concerted attack on environmental seals-of-approval on coffee and other
products, calling them "fundamentally flawed." They know that, given the choice,
consumers will vote with their wallets not only for a tasty cup of java, but for forest
health, decent working conditions, and the return of warblers to their backyards in the
Mindy Pennybacker edits The Green Guide, the newsletter of Mothers and Others for a
Livable Planet, 40 W. 20th St., New York, NY 10011; phone (888) ECO-INFO.