For decades conservation meant removing land from human use in order to protect the plants and animals living there. Local people were often barred from pursuing their ancestral livelihoods in an effort to promote biodiversity. Communities were even relocated in some instances. “What was considered a common approach 20 years ago was setting aside land,” says Amanda D. Rodewald, Cornell Lab of Ornithology/Natural Resources and the Environment. “There’s been a paradigm shift since then. Now there are still some places with restrictive land use, but that’s not the only approach. We are trying to find solutions that will benefit communities living in the landscapes we want to protect.”
Rodewald is an ecologist by training. Her focus is on preserving biodiversity, especially of birds, in Central and South America. For the past 10 years, she has been looking at the ecology of coffee farms, especially those producing shade-grown coffee, trying to understand the characteristics of trees and vegetation that can best support the birds using the habitat. “A lot of migratory birds, in particular, use coffee farms in the winter,” Rodewald says. “They breed in the United States and Canada in summer, then migrate to Central and South America. They often spend most of their lives down there—seven months out of the year—so coffee farms are very important habitats for them.”
Shade-Grown Coffee versus Sun-Grown Coffee
Farms that specialize in shade-grown coffee are more crucial given the widespread deforestation that has taken place across Central and South America, some of it driven by the earlier trend of converting coffee farms from shade-grown to sun-grown. “Farmers were told it’s best to grow coffee as a monoculture in full sun because that will produce higher volume,” Rodewald explains. “Over half of all shade coffee has been converted to sun.”
Farmers weren’t aware of the toll that conversion would take on their quality of life and their environment. Traditional shade-grown coffee farms included species of trees that provided fruit and fiber for farmers’ diets. The trees also prevented soil erosion and landslides, which are now major problems in areas where sun-grown coffee dominates. Then, too, sun coffee requires more chemicals, such as fertilizer, since it no longer has the benefit of the nitrogen-fixing trees and the fertilizing leaf litter from the upper-story canopy.
Coffee and Sustainable Trade, Balanced with a Sustainable Environment
Rodewald says that all of this is bad for birds and bad for people. The return of shade coffee is one way to reverse the negative impacts. Four years ago, she teamed with Miguel I. Gomez, Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, who were studying the economics of coffee as well as some of its social impacts. They collaborated on a research project focused on coffee in Colombia. They wanted to know if direct-trade relationships, where buyers and growers work more closely together, could influence positive economic and environmental outcomes.
“What we need to do is find conservation solutions that also make sense to the people and will have natural co-benefits for families and communities.”
For their study, Rodewald and Gomez identified approximately 300 coffee farmers growing shade coffee in two departments in Colombia—Cauca and Antioquia. For two years they followed the farmers’ progress, looking at the interface of economic and environmental factors. On the economic side, they monitored such things as farming practices, financial access, and the market price the farmers received for their coffee beans. On the environmental side, they measured the habitat and soil characteristics of the coffee farms, and surveyed the bird and plant communities there. The researchers also obtained samples of coffee beans grown on each farm in the study, to ascertain the quality of the coffee compared to the price the farmers received from buyers. They hypothesized that buyers would prefer shade-grown coffee over sun-grown because of its superior quality and taste. The buyers would pay more for shade-grown beans, which would then incentivize farmers to plant more trees and take care of their land better in order to produce more.
Data analysis is still ongoing, but Rodewald says so far there is evidence that some farmers engaged in direct trade are employing more environmentally sustainable practices. Participating farmers conserved more water, were more likely to use organic methods, and had larger and more diverse trees on their farms. On those farms, some bird species are also more common, implying a correlation between the farmers’ actions and an increase in the quality of the birds’ habitat.
The Nicaragua Challenge—a Collaborative Effort
In another project funded by the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, Rodewald and Viviana Ruiz-Gutierrez, a scientist at the Lab of Ornithology, have partnered with Mark B. Milstein, Johnson Graduate School of Management, John Tobin-de la Puente, Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management/Cornell Institute for Public Affairs, and Miguel Gomez. Along with external partners at ECOM Agroindustrial Corporation Limited and Rainforest Alliance, the Cornell researchers aim to help Nicaragua fulfill its pledge to restore 2.8 million hectares of land. Nicaragua made the pledge in response to the Bonn Challenge, which asked countries to restore deforested and degraded land in an effort to help them achieve priorities such as water and food security and rural development, while also increasing biodiversity and combating climate change.
“We’re working with Nicaragua to identify the priority landscapes and regions where restoration needs to happen,” Rodewald says. “Then we’re trying to come up with market-based instruments and other incentives that will result in restoration on the ground. This whole challenge is supposed to be funded by the private sector. It’s about finding investors who can come to the table to support the types of practices that will have positive environmental and social outcomes and also generate a profit for them.”
In Nicaragua Rodewald points to coffee farms as one example of how the process might work. “People could be incentivized to plant trees over their coffee in a number of ways. Shade-grown coffee can bring them a better price, and maybe they can also get payments for protecting water resources or for sequestering carbon by keeping trees on the land. We’re trying to see it from multiple angles because conservationists now know we cannot just tell people, ‘You should be doing x, y, and z.’ That doesn’t work. What we need to do is find conservation solutions that also make sense to the people and will have natural co-benefits for families and communities. Then we’ll have a win-win situation.”