David I. King, US Forest Service Northern Research Station, Amherst, MA 01002
Like many North Americans, I spend a lot of time in mid-spring scanning the still bare maples for the first migrant songbirds to return. These days this otherwise casual pursuit is tinged with a little anxiety because I am aware of the challenges these determined little creatures face on their wintering grounds. I think of the survey points we established in the Yoro department of Honduras a decade ago that were forest then and are now populated by fly-blown cattle grazing among rotting stumps. Honduras is experiencing the highest rate of forest loss in Central America, and coffee expansion is a key cause of deforestation. Every year I notice newly-cleared hillsides, in many cases entire mountainsides, now covered with orderly rows of coffee plants.
Although many species of wintering migrants use shade coffee because the shade trees provide birds with insects, fruit and nectar, the new coffee plantations that are being established are almost entirely sun coffee, or have so little shade as to be nearly unusable for migrants. Furthermore, in a recently published study we found that the survival and site-persistence of radio-tagged wood thrushes was negatively associated with their use of heavily-shaded coffee. These findings illustrate the hazards in assuming the presence of a species in a given habitat actually reflects habitat quality, as well as the importance of conserving forest for species that are unable to persist in anthropogenic habitats like shade coffee.
Conserving forest for migrants in regions where small-holder farmers require land for their livelihoods and funding for conservation activities is not available is a challenge that has been bringing me back to Honduras for over a decade. Working with a Honduras coffee producer organization -Birding Coffee, the Mesoamerican Development Institute (MDI), and researchers from Honduras and the United States, we have developed a system that does just this. It consists of solar-biomass hybrid coffee driers developed by MDI that eliminates the consumption of fuelwood used by conventional dryers (which consumes the equivalent of 6,509 ha of forest habitat annually) and Integrated Open Canopy (IOC) coffee cultivation that conserves an area of forest on the farmer’s land equal to or greater than the area planted in coffee. IOC farms have been shown to support forest-dependent species not present in anthropogenic habitats such as shade coffee. Farmers are compensated by reduced energy costs from driers and carbon sales from conserved forest, making this a market-based solution that isn’t dependent on government institutions or coffee consumers.
It certainly takes the edge off the spring bird watching knowing there is a solution for the deforestation crisis gripping the coffee lands of Central America. Knowing that I can be a part of the solution by consuming coffee that considers the sustainability of each link of the production chain is empowering too. After the wood thrush that breeds behind my house has fledged and fattened, maybe it will end up safe and secure in the conserved forest on Agustin Acosta’s IOC coffee farm!