Shade-Grown Coffee and Cacao

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Shade-grown coffee and cacao

Coffee (Coffea arabica ) and cacao (Theobroma cacao ) are important agricultural crops in the developing world that have been traditionally grown under a light canopy of rainforest trees created by thinning the original rainforest. In the 1970s, growers in South America began changing their planting practices, setting out sun-tolerant varieties of these plants in uniform rows. Coffee and cacao grown in full sun require more pesticides and fertilizer in order to thrive. In addition, when rainforest is cleared in order to grow these crops in sun, animals and native plants lose their habitat , and biodiversity (the number of different plant an animal species in a habitat) decreases.

Coffee and cacao are grown in places that would normally support tropical rainforests with enormous biodiversity. The original technique of thinning the forest and growing these crops in shade under a light canopy of trees reduced biodiversity. Completely clearing the forest and growing a single crop in full sun severely reduces biodiversity. When coffee and cacao are grown in shade, far less of the original habitat is destroyed.

Destruction of tropical rainforests due to logging , subsistence cultivation (slash and burn agriculture ), and cash-crop cultivation, including the growing of coffee and cacao, has become of increasing concern to ecologists worldwide because of its far-reaching effects. In the late 1990s, ecologists in the United States recognized that deforestation in the tropics was destroying the winter habitat of many migrating songbirds as well as native birds. One solution, among many, was to advocate for the return of traditional agricultural methods for South American coffee and cacao. Combined efforts of conservation groups, farmers, and coffee buyers working across international borders led to a growing market in shade-grown coffee in the early 2000s. Advocating for shade-grown cacao has met with a more limited success.

The coffee plant is a low shrub or tree originating in Africa in the high forests of Ethiopia and the Sudan. Colonists introduced the plant to Central and South America in the 1700s. Coffee developed into an increasingly important cash crop in the nineteenth century. It grew well in the higher elevations of Central and South America, where moist conditions and the cloud and tree cover of the rainforests allowed it to flourish. Coffee production grew two- to threefold in parts of Central America between 1870 and 1910, as coffee became a valued commodity worldwide. By 2000, over 40% of cropland in Central America was planted with coffee, and coffee was second only to oil as Central America's most valuable export.

Until the 1970s, coffee was produced mostly by small farmers who grew the crop under the forest canopy. Farmers began planting coffee in rows in full sun in the 1970s. United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and local government groups encouraged farmers to apply mono-culture plantation farming to their coffee farms, setting the plants out in deforested fields and treating them with chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Almost 70% of Columbia's coffee plantations were transformed to full-sun plantations between the 1970s and early 1990s. In Mexico, Costa Rica, and other parts of Central America, some 3040% of coffee production shifted to full-sun fields.

In many cases, sun-grown plants produced larger crops than shade-grown plant. Yet this method had hidden costs, because the plants soon depleted nutrients from the soil and required chemical fertilizer to continue to produce high yields. Coffee plants grown in full sun also do not live as long as plants grown in shade. While a shade-grown coffee shrub can survive for 80100 years, plants grown in full sun live only about 15 years.

Clearing land for full-sun coffee production (and to plant other agricultural crops and for logging) had devastating effects on all parts of the ecosystem . For example, full-sun coffee plantations were found to support fewer than ten percent of the species of birds found in the rainforest.

Conservationists in the United States began recording a decline in the population of migratory songbirds such as the northern oriole (Icterus galbula ) in the 1980s. By the 1990s some scientists suspected the falling songbird population in the United States was due in part to loss of habitat in the birds' winter homes in Central and South America. This loss of habitat was wide-ranging, with full-sun plantations making up only one small part of the problem.

Conservation groups began promoting shade-grown coffee in the late 1990s as a way to conserve rainforest habitat. One of the biggest coffee buyers in the United States, Starbucks, began purchasing shade-grown coffee from Mexico in 2000 to support the rainforest conservation effort. A growing market for gourmet coffee in the United States, made it economically feasible for some farmers to return to traditional shade-grown crops.

Cacao production has followed a similar path. Cacao is native to South America, and grows in similar conditions to coffee. The conversion to full-sun cacao plantations began in the 1970s. In Ecuador, a prime producer of cacao, collapse of the market led farmers to replant with quick-growing, sun-tolerant hybrids. Like coffee, cacao grown on plantations without forest shade depletes the soil, requiring the addition of chemical fertilizers. Furthermore, monoculture fields diminish biodiversity and increase susceptibility to disease and pests. Some growers' cooperatives, in league with North American conservation groups, began returning to shade-grown cacao in the late 1990s. To date, shade-grown cacao has lacked the substantial market shade-grown coffee has found, yet by 2000, hundreds of small cacao growers in Ecuador had converted to traditional shade cultivation.

[Angela Woodward ]



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