Can Coffee Drinkers Save the Rain Forest?

Much of the coffee you drink is "technified"; "sustainable" coffee often tastes better, besides being a lot better for the environment.

IT'S a sunny summer morning as three Americans clamber out of the back of a gray pickup truck, following a tall Guatemalan farmer named Martin Keller toward a row of coffee plants. Armed with notebooks, the Americans scribble furiously as the Guatemalan points with pride to the plants' bright-green cherries. Like a number of Guatemala's large coffee farmers, Keller is of German descent; three generations of his family worked Finca Santa Isabel before him. High in the hills in the department of Santa Rosa, southeast of Guatemala City, the air is cool and sweet and the setting picturesque, with soaring cedar trees sheltering a ravine thick with laurel, cuernavaca, oak, and inga. For a week David Griswold, Lindsey Bolger, and Betsy Buckley, all coffee buyers, have been scouring the hills of Costa Rica and Guatemala in search of shade-grown, habitat-friendly coffee. An importer based in Emeryville, California, Griswold runs Sustainable Harvest, a company that specializes in shade and organic coffee. Bolger, who is one of his clients, is the green-coffee buyer for Batdorf & Bronson, a roasting house in Olympia, Washington, that sells the fancy specialty coffees so popular now at coffeehouses like Starbucks. Buckley buys coffee from Bolger for her three Aurora cafés, in Atlanta, Georgia. All are relatively small operators who see selling shade coffee as good both for the environment and for business.

Finca Santa Isabel was the second plantation to be certified by "ECO-O.K.," one of several new environmental labels for coffee, which is backed by the Rainforest Alliance. The plantation isn't perfect from a naturalist's point of view: in parts the shade trees are sparse and consist of just a few species. Like most big coffee farmers, Keller uses some chemicals. And Finca Santa Isabel, a large plantation, is a far cry from the small cooperatives that fair traders -- those committed to paying coffee farmers a fair price for their product -- support. But the plantation has shade trees, virgin forest, and an ecologically sound mill, and the Kellers are conservationists. When the Americans ask if Keller will put in fruit and flowering trees to attract more birds, he agrees.

Recently the impact of coffee growing on the environment has been much debated in the specialty-coffee industry, with labels such as Song Bird Coffee and Sanctuary Coffees surfacing in the market. The movement shows promise for one simple, market-driven reason: it asserts that people can have their coffee just the way they like it and also save the rain forest. Indeed, some believe that Americans' growing taste for fine coffee could help to reverse an agricultural fiasco that has turned one of the world's most benign crops into an enemy of the environment. "All we have to do is get just a small fraction of North Americans and Europeans to demand shade-grown coffee, and we can push the industry back and save tremendous amounts of habitat," says Chris Wille, the ECO-O.K. director for the Rainforest Alliance. "And no one has to sacrifice anything."

As traditionally grown, under a canopy of shade trees and amid other vegetation, coffee is an environment-friendly crop. The shade trees fix nitrogen in the soil, fostering the growth of the coffee bushes, and their fallen leaves provide nutrients, further reducing the need for chemical fertilizers. The mixture of vegetation prevents erosion and protects the coffee from harsh weather. In contrast to corn and cattle, which almost always require clear-cutting, coffee can be grown in relative harmony with the rain forest.

Recently, however, many coffee farmers in northern Latin America have reduced or eliminated shade to grow new high-yielding coffee plants under direct sun. Fear of a disease known as coffee leaf rust sparked an early round of conversions, most of which took place in the 1970s. To prevent the spread of the disease, coffee farmers "technified," replacing older, shade-loving coffee varieties, such as típica and bourbón, with new varieties, packed in tight hedgerows, that can survive open sun -- but only with chemical inputs.

Coffee leaf rust never turned out to be a major problem for Latin America. But sun coffee's high yields soon began to be seen as a major advantage. To boost farmers' incomes, the U.S. Agency for International Development spent some $80 million from the 1970s to the early 1990s, according to a 1996 report from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and the Natural Resources Defense Council, to help growers in Central America and the Caribbean technify. In countries where USAID was not involved, national coffee federations promoted the change, supporting the technification of 69 percent of Colombia's coffee and nearly 40 percent of Costa Rica's. In places including Mexico, Colombia, and parts of Central America and the Caribbean some 30 to 40 percent of all coffee land had been converted to modern reduced-shade systems by the early 1990s. Some countries, like El Salvador, missed the boat, their desultory attempts to convert slowed by war and revolution.

LATELY scientists have begun to raise questions about sun coffee, focusing on the effects that technification has had in northern Latin America. For developing countries, coffee is the second most important export commodity, after oil, and it is the United States' largest legal import from Latin America. In this region the crop grows mostly in middle-altitude tropical forests. These areas contain some of the highest levels of biodiversity in the world, providing habitat for many of the planet's plant and animal species. They also have some of the world's highest deforestation rates, and some scientists assert that conversion to sun coffee is contributing to the deforestation.

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