Shade-Grown Coffee Benefits Birds, Forests & People in Venezuela

Luis Arrieta, an agronomist from Venezuela’s Cordillera de la Costa, co-founded the Cafe y Aves program in the 2010s to conserve threatened biodiversity and coffee culture. The program has pioneered the reforestation of 415 hectares (1,025 acres) and secured the protection of one of the region’s last remaining corridors of threatened tropical dry forest. It also revived a dying tradition of shade-grown coffee cultivation, all while improving livelihoods.

The Cordillera de la Costa is a hotspot for growing coffee, a tradition with deep roots in the region’s history. In the 1800s, Venezuela ranked among the world’s top three coffee producers, with 75% of its export income derived from coffee and cocoa, much of it grown in the region. However, since the country’s shift to a crude oil-based economy, the coffee way of life has been facing a death of a thousand cuts.

Over the past 25 years, Venezuela’s political and economic instability have crippled coffee production, which has dropped more than 60%. Most of the coffee consumed in Venezuela is now imported from neighboring countries, combined with hyperinflation and fixed prices, has driven the widespread abandonment of plantations and the substitution of coffee for other, more profitable crops.

Much like Venezuela’s coffee woes, some of the nation’s birds were also struggling. The country ranks seventh worldwide for its avian diversity, housing nearly 1,400 species that make up a staggering 13% of the planet’s avifauna. The Cordillera de la Costa is home to 12 birds found nowhere else on Earth and is also a stopover for more than 50 migratory species that travel thousands of miles from North America to overwinter in more hospitable climes and glut themselves on the plentiful supply of insects and fruit.

The problem has always been the destruction of lowland tropical dry forests, which are also high biodiversity areas but have little to no protection. Between 1986 and 2001, the Cordillera lost roughly 30% of its lowland forest cover, mainly due to agricultural expansion. Future projections are equally bleak, indicating a further loss of 84% by 2036.

In one area of the Cordillera, agroforestry may prove part of the solution to conserve the region’s forests. The red siskin, an endangered species in Venezuela due to illegal trafficking and one of the inspirations for the Cafe y Aves program, may one day be reintroduced to the area.

In 2017, Luis Arrieta began promoting the benefits of shade coffee, supported by the Red Siskin Initiative and the Smithsonian’s Bird Friendly coffee certification program. He persuaded 25 families in Piedra, Cachimbo, and La Florida to assist in his efforts to revive abandoned or semi-neglected coffee plantations. Arrieta provided locals with a crash course on implementing agroecological techniques, including natural pest control through the use of biocontrol agents and using mycorrhizae fungi to stimulate and enhance soil fertility without the need for pesticides or fertilizers.

To maintain existing forest cover and add to it, coffee growers planted saplings of more than 20 largely native tree species to provide shade for crops and canopy cover for birds. This method is effective as the coffee beans mature slower and absorb sugars better, and the plants themselves are less susceptible to diseases and are stronger than sun-grown coffee. The Venezuelan government’s deregularization of coffee prices in the past three years has also made selling easier.

Besides shade-grown coffee, locals have begun using agroforestry techniques for other crops, such as bananas, avocados, lemons, oranges, and native fruits such as ocumo (Xanthosoma sagittifolium), tamarillo (Solanum betaceum), and lulo (Solanum quitoense). As word spread, more communities sought involvement with the project, leading to the founding of the ACAFLO, dedicated to promoting sustainable agroforestry. Through its work, ACAFLO continues to grow, with more than 115 new farmers signed up to be part of the certification process in just 2023 alone.

From humble beginnings and an uncertain future, the Cafe y Aves program has succeeded in reviving coffee culture and providing a livelihood for rural communities. The project’s conservation achievements have been just as impressive, managing 415 hectares of forested land, forming a vital habitat corridor stretching across the lowlands between the Henri Pittier and Macarao National parks. A local nursery provides thousands of saplings for reforestation.

In addition to benefiting hundreds of birds, the protection and restoration represent a small step toward bringing the project’s symbol and inspiration, the red siskin, back to this area of the Cordillera one day. Cafe y Aves has no plan to rest on its laurels, with the next phases set to ramp up agroforestry even further.

Read More @ Mongabay

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