Friday, 20 January 2012

Partners and Places: Conserving Bird Habitats with Coffee


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Photo © Timothy Boucher/TNC

Colombia is the third largest coffee-producing country in the world. It also harbors the most bird species of any country on Earth. Whether or not coffee farmers and birds can successfully coexist depends on a lot of things, including how the coffee is grown. Most coffee is grown in open, high-density plantations with little or no shade. This method increases erosion and requires additional pesticides and fertilizer, making the farms inhospitable for birds and biodiversity.

However, coffee grown in shade plantations, which are similar in structure to native forests, maintains habitat for plants and animals, keeps the soil healthy, reduces erosion and moderates climate change by extracting carbon from the atmosphere. Fortunately, coffee farming in Colombia is still very much a familybased enterprise and many of the small-scale farmers there continue to grow coffee in shade plantations.

For the last 10 years, The Nature Conservancy and the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation have partnered to educate coffee growers about the benefits of shade-grown coffee for native species and the land they farm. This partnership has helped to foster an interest in native birds and helped residents  to envision their farms as part of the larger ecosystem—and not just a means of agricultural production.

“These farmers are responsible for caring for the land, and what they do or don’t do directly affects habitat,” says David Mehlman, director of the Conservancy’s Migratory Bird Program. “The goal of this partnership is to bring a better understanding of birds and bird conservation into these communities.”

The federation is well known and respected by farmers and has an existing network that reaches coffee communities all over the country—making it an ideal partner for this kind of outreach work. The Conservancy works with Cenicafé, the federation’s research arm, to give classes on bird identificationand bird-handling techniques. Armed with this information and these skills, coffee farmers, their families and Cenicafé researchers have conducted bird censuses in several different coffee-producing regions since 2004. During the first six years, 29 communities participated in the program, recording 448 bird species.

The program helps increase the scientific knowledge of Colombian birds and contributes to conservation efforts such as watershed restoration and the preservation of forest fragments. Yet one of the greatest benefits of the project has been getting local residents invested in protecting birds. They, after all, will be the ones who will pass on a conservation ethic to the next generation.

“Birds really are magnets for grabbing people’s interest,” remarks Mehlman.

The Conservancy and its partner, US Forest Service International Programs, facilitate the outreach programs, providing funding and expertise to help Cenicafé implement the bird censuses. The project has also helped identify shade tree species that are valuable to birds.

The Conservancy hopes to replicate this success in other parts of Colombia as well as in other countries such as Peru, Venezuela, Guatemala and parts of Mexico. In fact, this past year, the Conservancy brought Colombian farmers to Peru for a workshop to share best practices and learn about community-based conservation.

Read more about the Conservancy’s work in Colombia at

Read more from the Winter 2012 issue of the Inside Nature newsletter.

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