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How Speciality Coffee Can Help Protect Wildlife

** This is a guest post from one of the UK’s top ecologists, John Altringham, from the University of Leeds.

We are very passionate about the ethics and sustainability around coffee production and consumption so helping showcase how the industry can help protect wildlife and positively contribute to conservation is something we support wholeheartedly.

This blog post discusses the benefits of shade grown coffee and the impact it can have on wildlife. To learn more, make sure you follow John on Twitter to stay in the loop with new research and insights**

Coffee and Conservation – how speciality coffee can help protect wildlife

Two coffee species dominate the global market, Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora (also known as robusta).

Both types are cultivated in most coffee-growing countries, but it is arabica that produces quality coffee, with robusta going primarily into low grade coffee and instants. Robusta makes up most of the global production, but the growing interest in high quality, speciality coffee made from arabica is making a valuable contribution to the conservation of endangered wildlife. The link between a good flat white and helping save the world’s biodiversity is more direct than you might guess.

The key is that much of the best arabica, making the best coffee, is grown under a shady canopy of trees. Coffee cherries develop and ripen more slowly in the shade, producing coffee with greater complexity and natural sweetness. The trees that provide this valuable shade also provide homes for wildlife, by mimicking the complex natural forest habitat. The best trees for wildlife are naturally the native forest trees, so the approach that is being encouraged and supported by conservation organisations is retention of the natural forest canopy and underplanting with coffee.

Scientists and conservationists concerned about the global decline of biodiversity have been studying how wildlife adapts to the spread and intensification of agriculture across the globe. Our team (from the University of Leeds, the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore and the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore) has been working in the Western Ghats region of India. This is one of the most biodiverse places in the world and many of its species are found nowhere else in the world, but it also has more people than any other biodiversity hotspot.

The growth of agriculture has destroyed all but 6% of the original forest of the region which has had major impacts on wildlife. Nevertheless, tigers, elephants, macaques and giant flying squirrels hang on, together with many smaller, less conspicuous species. Studying all wildlife is impractical, but it is possible, by studying selected groups, known as bioindicators, to measure the ecological health of a habitat and the impact of agriculture.

We study bats, which are excellent bioindicators because there are lots of species (almost 1300 worldwide), occupying many different ecological niches. Most species are predators eating insects, a few eat fish, reptiles, birds and other small mammals, and a large number (around 250) are nectar and fruit-eaters, responsible for the pollination and seed dispersal of forest plants. If the bats are thriving, this suggests a good habitat to support them.

As expected, we found that most bat species preferred the unspoilt native forest in reserves, but even small forest fragments in agricultural areas supported a wide range of species. Some species were rare or absent from agricultural areas – but we discovered that shade-grown coffee plantations—in which arabica coffee is grown under a canopy of native trees – had bat communities almost as rich as forest patches. Other forms of agriculture, including extensive tea plantations, had poor bat communities. Wildlife-friendly agriculture in the form of shade-grown coffee plantations is therefore providing a lifeline to endangered species.

I say wildlife, not just bats, because the Nature Conservation Foundation team ( found good populations of birds and frogs in the coffee plantations, and further studies are likely to find the same for other animals and plants. The work in the Ghats is supported by studies in other areas. For example, coffee plantations in Indonesia and Central America also support good bat and bird populations and show other signs of being good wildlife habitat.

By drinking shade-grown coffee we don’t just get a warm glow from helping to conserve endangered wildlife. Wildlife gives us something back. Bats and birds reduce the number of plant-eating insects in tropical crops, including coffee, and reduce the damage to crop plants by these insects. It has been calculated that bats contribute over $20 billion each year to the US economy through pest control. Nectar-eating bats pollinate some very important plants, and one species is the main pollinator in the wild of the agave from which tequila is made. But that’s a whole new blog – or several – bees and coffee alone could fill one!

What does the future hold? There’s a growing global demand for coffee, met primarily from plants grown in full sun, often using environmentally unsustainable methods. The rise in demand for speciality coffee, grown in ways that benefit the local people and the environment, is a welcome trend. Yes, it is more expensive, but if that is reflected in better returns for growers and a better environment, as well as a good cup of coffee, surely it is worth it.

Conservationists and the coffee industry are beginning to work together. The Nature Conservation Foundation is working with coffee-growers in the Ghats to restore and extend remnant forest refuges and to retain native trees for shade in both coffee and tea plantations. This prevents soil erosion, reduces the risk of landslides and enriches the soil, benefitting people as well as biodiversity. Bird-friendly coffee, certified by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Centre in the USA, requires at least 40% shade cover and appropriate diversity and size of trees. Initiatives are sprouting up around the world and the future looks promising.

So, what’s it like to visit a shade-coffee plantation in the Western Ghats? The forest canopy can be very similar to natural forest – lush and complex. The coffee bushes often grow very large and when you walk between them the abundance of the wildlife is obvious – monkeys, Indian bison and elephants as well as innumerable smaller creatures. Visit in the night and study the bats, as we did, and you find the rare forest specialists that have been lost from much of the landscape – and if you are lucky you’ll see the giant flying squirrel and hear the roar of a tiger.


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