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Benjamin Abrams 20 November 2012

The impact of coffee plantations on regional biodiversity

Introduction Background An unfortunate side effect of being an overbooked, overworked, and under-slept student is that I rarely have time for a sit-down breakfast. In my ritual rush out the door, most mornings I only have time to grab a cup of coffee before I hurry off to class or the library. It seems I am not alone in my love for coffeeit happens to be the second most traded commodity in the world, right behind oil (Donald, 2004). Worldwide, around 10.2 million hectares of land in 60 countries is used for coffee cultivation (Komar, 2006). To put that into perspective, 10.2 million hectares is roughly the size of Cuba.

The huge demand for coffee has lead to some unfortunate ecological impacts in these growing areas. Not only has coffee historically been grown on high-quality soil, but also plantations are located in biological hotspots, which are threatened sites of high biodiversity with a large number of endemic endangered species (Sombarriba et al., 2004). Although agriculture tends to have negative impacts on regional biodiversity, coffee plantations have the unique opportunity to reconcile with conservation efforts; the influence a coffee plantation has on the environment depends on the growing system the farmer chooses to employ. Typically, coffee is grown surrounded by shade trees for protection and other biotic advantages. There are four main

systems for growing coffee worldwide, each of which uses a different type or mix of shade trees, depending on the desired outcome. The four systems fall on a gradient of ecological and biological impacts and are known as rustic, commercial polyculture, shaded monoculture, and unshaded monoculture.

In this report, I will first outline the general characteristics of each of the methods of growing coffee, followed by impacts on biodiversity (specifically birds, mammals, and arthropods), and conclude with suggestions for future policies and practices.

It is important to note that although much of the worlds coffee is grown on relatively few large farms, the average size of a plantation in coffee-producing country is small. For example, 91% of plantations in Mexico are less than 5 hectares (Perfecto et al., 1996). With this in mind, it should be easier to adopt changes in policies and practices that can have vast biological impacts than in other, larger, agricultural industries.

The four main systems for growing coffee Rustic The rustic system for growing coffee is considered the most natural and least damaging to the environment. Farmers clear the understory of forests but leave the natural canopy intact, meaning diversity and species richness remains similar to that of undisturbed forest (Perfecto et al., 2003). Additionally, rustic farmers do not use any agrochemicals and do not weed their plantation during periods of low coffee prices, which also help to maintain biodiversity (Perfecto et al.,

1996). The main disadvantage to the rustic growing system is that it produces the lowest yield compared to the other strategies.

Commercial polyculture Farmers using the commercial polyculture technique completely remove the original forest canopy trees and subsequently introduce non-native shade trees that are helpful for coffee production and commercial purposes. It is common to find up to 40 different foreign species of trees in a commercial polyculture plot, which provide everything from fruit to firewood, building materials, and medicine. It is risky for a farmer to depend on coffee as their sole source of income due to uncertainties in weather, pest outbreaks, and fluctuations in the global market (Perfecto et al., 1996); these shade trees allow growers to hedge their bets and brace against unpredictabilities. The shade trees also act as protection for the coffee crops against the impacts of wind, rain, frost, excessive heat, or other local climate conditions that would otherwise limit yield. Additionally, the large number of shade tree species also helps maintain biodiversity in these plantations and act as a useful habitat for many mammalian, avian, reptilian, amphibian, and arthropodian species (Moguel and Toledo, 1999). In this way, commercial polyculture plantations act as anthropogenic habitats for organisms that would otherwise be displaced by forest destruction. Indeed, Perfecto et al. (1996) found that the species richness of birds in a structurally and florally diverse canopy compares closely with that of a natural forest habitat with shared species.

Shaded monoculture Shaded monoculture is similar to commercial polyculture in practice, however the ecological impacts are markedly different. If a farmer chooses to have a shaded monoculture plantation, he or she completely removes the original forest canopy trees and plants only a few species of shade trees. In addition to protecting coffee crops against harsh weather (as with commercial polyculture) shading is often introduced in areas to reduce yield and keep production sustainable on nutrient-poor soils (Donald, 2004). Farmers generally choose to grow nitrogen-fixing legumes that help restore soil nutrients as a way to get additional benefits from these trees. Although the planting of shade trees is successful at preserving biodiversity in commercial polyculture plantations, the same is not true for shade monoculture systems. It is believed that polyculture plantations maintain a structural and floral complexity similar to that of undisturbed forest (albeit with different tree species) that is able to support higher biodiversity than structurally simple trees (Mas and Dietsch, 2004; Donald, 2004). Monoculture plots do not produce the necessary food and resources that many organisms need to inhabit these areas, thus biodiversity is decreased. It should be noted, however, that shade systems do serve as acceptable habitat for some non-specialist bird species that are displaced due to nearby forest destruction (Donald, 2004). Although not ideal, shade monoculture plots do serve as a nesting site for many animals that live in landscapes with limited remaining natural cover.

Unshaded monoculture Unshaded monocultures, also known as open-sun plantations, are marked by their complete removal of tree cover with no replacement. Since the main goal of the open-sun system is to generate the maximum yield, farmers plant coffee varieties that grow best under full sun.

Farmers must strike a compromise between yields and plantation longevity, as durability of soil in coffee plantations tends to decrease with diminished shade (Sombarriba et al., 2004). However, when the price of coffee is high the increased yields may offset the increased production costs. Unshaded monoculture plantations also make extensive use of insecticides and fungicides, both of which have negative impacts on biodiversity (Perfecto et al., 1996). In addition, the clearing of canopies allows more solar radiation to reach the ground, which causes temperature and wind speed to increase, relative humidity to decrease, and microclimate factors that affect local fauna to change. The principle benefit of open-sun plantations is the increased yield, though it comes at great cost to biotic and abiotic systems.

A brief history of growing systems and a look to the future As one might assume, the increased global demand for coffee has shifted farmers attention away from polyculture plantations, and more towards unshaded monoculture plots. Indeed, Mexico, Colombia, the Caribbean, and Central America converted 1.1 million hectares of their 2.8 million hectares of coffee plantations to open-sun production by the early 1990s (Donald, 2004). Since the 1960s, the Puerto Rican government has encouraged coffee farmers to convert shade plantations to unshaded systems by offering subsidies and technical assistance for those who want to destroy low-yielding trees and change to more modern cultivation practices (Borkhataria et al., 2012). Although coffee is a vital cash crop for many countries, the ecological impact of the open-sun system cannot be overlooked.

With the projected global population increase over the coming decades, the demand for coffee will surely increase and farmers will be compelled to produce more coffee on their land. Though

it may be enticing to shift to an open-sun system, we should be aware of the biological impacts and consequences of such an action. Even for those not as concerned with biodiversity, there are many benefits to planting a polyculture plantation, as will be outlined in the coming sections.

Impacts on biodiversity Birds Coffee plantations can be appropriate habitats for birds, however the extent to which they are suitable depends largely on the type of shade trees planted. In a study conducted by Moguel and Toledo (1999), the researchers quantitatively compared the avian species in rustic, commercial polyculture, shaded monoculture, and unshaded monoculture plantations. In rustic plantations they found 184 and 136 species in Chiapas, Mexico and Central Veracruz, Mexcio, respectively. Conversely, when they analyzed commercial polyculture plantations, Chiapas plots only had 104 species and Central Veracruz plots had 107 species. The number of species dramatically dropped in observed shaded monoculture plots; only 50 species were recorded in both Chiapas and Central Veracruz. Finally, Moguel and Toledo found only 6 to 12 species in sun-grown monoculture plantations in either area. These data suggest that although monoculture plots provide habitats for birds, they are insufficient in supporting a wide array of avian species. It appears that different types of trees used for shading have varying effects, and birds tend to respond to differences in fruits, nectar, insects, and nesting sites (Carlo et al., 2004).

Reports similar to Moguel and Toledo have gone on to qualify the observed species, which provide important information regarding biodiversity loss, as well as implications for future bird populations. Komar (2006) observed shaded plantations in the Caribbean and Central America,

and found that migratory birds account for 24-40% of the observed species during the dry season. Migratory birds generally have less stringent habitat requirements than resident birds, so these species are able to make use of the limited resources at these plots. Interestingly, Komar found that long-distance migratory birds were actually more abundant in shaded plantations than in nearby natural forests. Accordingly, Perfecto et al. (1996) found that shaded plantations provide fruit and nectar when insect populations are low, and act as important refuges during the dry season for many species of birds. During the winter, shaded plots shelter wintering migrant birds when natural food sources are scarce. The importance of shaded plantations is especially evident in areas that have experienced extensive deforestation and areas that happen to coincide with the migratory paths of birds (Moguel and Toledo, 1999).

Farmers may worry that birds will become unwanted pests or draw other undesirable animals to the plot, however research has shown that birds tend to help coffee plantations. According to Perfecto et al. (1996), birds rarely eat coffee flowers or berries, so farmers need not worry about losing their crop to resident or migrant populations. As Moguel and Toledo have previously concluded, open-sun plantations are almost devoid of birds due to the lack of food and structural complexity at these sites. As expected, Perfecto et al. (1996) also found that most nectarivorous and frugivorous species that are prevalent in shade plantations disappear in open-sun plantations. In addition, insectivorous bird species have been shown to decrease the population of arthropod pests, and therefore also decrease leaf damage of coffee shrubs by up to 80% (Komar, 2006). Clearly, farmers help maintain avian biodiversity by planting a wide array of shade tree species, which is beneficial from an ecological standpoint, but they also receive the additional benefit of an all-natural pest controller in the process

Mammals Another group of animals that are affected by coffee plantations are mammals. Sombarriba et al. (2004) observed large mammals in shaded coffee systems and found 24 species in Mexico and 15 in Costa Rica, including anteaters, bats, coyotes, howler monkeys, mice, opossums, pumas, raccoons, and squirrels. Studies have revealed a strong correlation between structurally diverse and complex shade trees and a high diversity of small scansorial (climbing) and terrestrial mammals in Mexico as well as increased diversity and abundance of mammals in plantations with diverse canopies (Perfecto et al., 1996). Researchers are confident that many scansorial mammals will disappear from these areas due to reduced complexity of shade trees, and that frugivorous species will suffer a marked population reduction as well (Gallina et al., 1996).

As with bird species, many mammalian species can be a good natural resource for farmers. Around 46% of the mammal species found in coffee plantations are insectivorous, and therefore help decrease the abundance of insect pests in these plots. Additionally, Gallina et al. (1996) found that 50% of the mammals observed are frugivorous, and therefore help with seed dispersal and maintenance of shade tree diversity.

Arthropods Arthropods are a diverse phylum that includes everything from Hymenoptera (bees, wasps, ants) to Diptera (fruit flies, butterflies, dragonflies), Coleoptera (beetles), and Arachnida (spiders). Researchers have found 609 morphospecies in Mexican shaded plantations, 322 in Costa Rica, and 168 butterfly species in Colombia (Sombarriba et al., 2004). Most of the areas surveyed

showed similar or higher arthropod diversity as surrounding undisturbed forests, and rustic coffee systems had significantly higher fruit-eating butterfly species diversity and richness than those found in forest reserves (Mas and Dietsch, 2004). This finding is especially important because butterflies are sensitive to habitat change and microhabitat modifications, and are thus a good proxy for the successful maintenance of ecological domains. The discovery that butterfly species thrive in rustic plantations suggests that these plots are able to preserve the ecological and biological balance in these systems, and should be considered an important component to conservation efforts.

As with avian and mammalian species, arthropodian species help with the maintenance of coffee plantations. For example, bees are important pollinators, and may even help increase crop size, quality, and stability (Jha and Vandermeer, 2010). Additionally, species of Hymenoptera and Diptera associated with coffee plantations have the ability to control every known pest to coffee (Sombarriba et al., 2004), thus providing farmers an additional level of natural pest control. There are times, however, when certain Arthropod species are unwanted in agriculture. Luckily for farmers, Moguel and Toledo (1999) found that insect-pest outbreaks were correlated with the reduction of plant and structural diversity, meaning the lower the diversity of shade plants, the higher the population of unwanted insects and pests.

Conclusion Suggestions for future policies and practices The ecological impacts of coffee plantations are interesting because they vary widely depending on the type of system utilized. Plantations can be an anthropogenic safe haven for a number of species, as is the case with rustic and commercial polyculture plots, or essentially a faunal deadzone, as is the case with unshaded monoculture plots. The best indicator of biodiversity for a given plot of land is the structural and floral complexity of the canopy, as many birds, mammals, and arthropods rely on such structures for resources, nesting sites, and nourishment. Coffee farmers face the unique opportunity to plant cash crops as their shade trees, which will not only supplement their income, but also greatly help maintain local biodiversity.

Although coffee plantations have the potential to help environmental issues, we are seeing an unfortunate shift to unshaded monoculture plots. This is partly an aftermath of the International Coffee Agreement of 1989 which caused a huge drop in coffee prices and made it more difficult for farmers to profit from coffee plots. Additionally, some governments offer insurance or subsidies for farmers who employ the open-sun method, which can be a strong push for farmers to switch practices. According to Borkhataria et al. (2012), 89.3% of shaded coffee growers and 60.9% of unshaded monoculture growers in Puerto Rico were satisfied with their methods, though more and more farmers are switching to the open-sun method. One way to attract farmers to the commercial polyculture method would be to market such coffee as environmentally friendly or approved shade grown. Although this solution would require strict standards, the cost of such inspections is low compared to the biodiversity we would preserve. There are many people who are willing to pay premium prices for specialty coffees, so the increased cost of the

product will offset their lower yields and allow farmers to profit more from commercial polyculture plots. Additionally, governments can also offer tax relief, marketing assistance, shade tree saplings, or other subsidies to farmers whose plantation follows commercial polyculture guidelines.

Although human agricultural enterprises have historically damaged the environment, coffee plantations can help reverse this trend. Commercial polyculture plots serve as anthropogenic refuges for a number of species, and in essence act as a substitute for nearby destroyed forests. Many of the species that inhabit these coffee plantation canopies help maintain the farmland in many ways, including pest control, seed dispersal, and soil maintenance. Coffee is a ubiquitous commodity with both regional and worldwide consequences, and the simple choice of which shade tree to plant has huge biological and environmental impacts.

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Perfecto, Ivette, et al. "Conservation of biodiversity in coffee agroecosystems: a tri-taxa comparison in southern Mexico." Biodiversity and Conservation 12.6 (2003): 1239-52. Print. Perfecto, Ivette, et al. "Shade Coffee: A Disappearing Refuge for Biodiversity." BioScience 46.8 (1996): 598-608. Print. Sombarriba, Eduardo, et al. Agroforestry and Biodiversity Conservation in Tropical Landscapes. Washington DC: Island Press, 2004. Print.