"Bird-friendly" coffee growing may be bad for birds



Coffee beans

Credit: Wikimedia

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A new study has found that the conventional method of “bird-friendly” coffee growing may actually be detrimental to bird conservation in the complex habitats of Ethiopia.

Investigating rainforest-based coffee cultivation areas in the country, an international study team have observed a “simplification of the forest structure [that] reduces bird diversity,” said lead researcher Aaron Gove, an Australian environmental biologist from the Curtin University of Technology in Perth.

The traditional method of coffee growing, where beans are grown in small, shaded patches under the rainforest canopy, is usually reported to be bird-friendly - supporting a variety of species, and providing important biological corridors linking key bird habitats.

It also promotes a more natural way of farming, with the birds managing insects and pests in the crop, reducing the need for pesticides.

But Gove and colleagues found a surprising decline in forest birds in forests where coffee was grown, and are now suggesting that cultivation in open farmlands should be encouraged as an environmentally responsible alternative.

Growing the beans on degraded farmland could help restore bird habitat, and from part of a broader landscape-level conservation scheme, the researchers believe, though “allowing some coffee cultivation in forests is, however, one important way of ensuring that forests are valued and retained at a local level,” Gove said.

Though Ethiopia is one of Africa’s largest coffee producers, it is still in the early stages of developing environmental certification for the industry, and this new research “will greatly assist organisations such as the Rainforest Alliance in tailoring an environmental certification program specific to Ethiopian coffee cultivation,” said Gove.

“The research is interesting,” said Anita Neville, a representative of the Alliance, an organisation dedicated to conserving biodiversity and which independently certifies farms and forestry enterprises.

It is important the needs of specific local environments be taken into consideration when developing standards and providing certification, she said, “so the research will no doubt be very helpful to our continued commitment to refine and improve the standards.”

Provided the previously cleared farmlands are replanted with new forest trees, their rehabilitation into new shade-grown coffee areas would be a positive step towards generating new ecosystems and providing new corridors for wildlife, Neville said, though they could never replace the value of long-standing forests.