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Downturn in Shade-Grown Coffee Putting Forests, Wildlife, People at Risk

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Shade-grown coffee is regarded as a form of permaculture, in which coffee is grown under a canopy of native trees in full to moderate shade cover. This allows native vegetation to persist, thereby reducing the impact of agriculture on the natural landscape. While production of shade-grown coffee surged in recent decades, it is now experiencing a decline. A recent study, published in Bioscience, analyzed the situation, finding that the growth of consumer demand and changes in coffee agronomy has caused coffee production and management to change drastically.

Coffee is grown in tropical locations around the world, with Vietnam currently one of the top producers. Between 1990 and 2010, this country alone increased cultivated area "by 731 percent, yields by 45 percent and total production by 1,102 percent," according to the study conducted by researchers with various U.S. institutions. Overall, coffee cultivation in Asia has risen significantly since 1990.      

Shade-grown coffee in Latin America. This type of cultivation requires less deforestation than sun-grown, and helps maintain habitat connectivity and biodiversity. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Shade-grown coffee in Latin America. This type of cultivation requires less deforestation than sun-grown, and helps maintain habitat connectivity and biodiversity. Photo by Rhett A. Butler. However, land used to cultivate shade-grown coffee has decreased by 20 percent globally since 1996, with rapid conversion to sun-grown coffee. In total, only 24 percent of the total cultivation belongs to shade practices. There are a variety of reasons why farmers, both large-scale and small-scale, are making the change. These include development of coffee varieties that are more tolerant of sun exposure in effort to combat fungal diseases that are problematic in shady areas, as well as to increase production.

"To the extent that smallholders are intensifying their production and thinning out shade trees (we have seen some evidence for this in parts of Nicaragua and elsewhere), it is often with the goal of planting more coffee bushes per unit of area and increasing coffee yields in the short term," coauthor Christopher Bacon told mongabay.com. "However, we know that this would decrease the yields of other non-timber forest products such as firewood, fruits, and medicinal plants all gathered from shade coffee farmers."

According to Bacon, incentives encourage farmers to intensify production by shifting away from shade-grown practices.  


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