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Sierra Magazine
Food for Thought: Habitat-Saving Habit

Coffee plantations can be the new rainforests‹or 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 nematodes‹soil-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, Mexico.

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 canopy.

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 spring.

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.

(C) 2000 Sierra Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted without permission. Contact for more information.

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