Ethical coffee 'can help to save forests'

Posted: 16 July 2002

A global shift to shade-grown coffee production can save nearly 10 million hectares of rainforest and provide better tasting coffee, reports Worldwatch Researcher Brian Halweil.

"Shade-grown organic coffee is better for the environment, better for the farmer's pocketbook, and tastes better," Halweil says in World Watch magazine." A few major coffee houses are now offering "ethical" coffee, triple-certified to be organic, grown in the shade, and fairly traded.

"Coffee, if grown right, can be one of the rare human industries that actually restore the Earth's health," according to Halweil. But in the last few decades, over 40 per cent of the area devoted to growing coffee in Colombia, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean has been converted to full-sun cultivation. While this conversion allows farmers to grow more coffee per hectare, it destroys the rainforest and squanders many of the natural benefits of growing coffee in the shade. The initial economic gain is, at best, short-term.

Coffee grown under a rainforest canopy requires fewer pesticides, less chemical fertilizer, and almost no irrigation water, thus cutting down on farmers' expenses. Farmers' finances benefit in other ways as well. For example, on shade coffee farms in Peru, farmers derive nearly 30 percent of their income from sales of firewood, timber, fruits, medicinal plants, and other natural products grown in tandem with coffee beans. When shade farms are converted to full-sun use the diversity and number of organisms in the area crashes, says Halweil. The rainforests' role in sequestering carbon and protecting freshwater resources is lost.

Coffee aficionados, too, are beginning to taste the difference: Shade-grown coffees are now winning a disproportionate number of tasting competitions all over the world and bring a premium price.

Source: World Watch magazine, May/June edition.