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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Down on the Coffee Plantation

Air Date: Week of July 26, 1996

The Mexican government is encouraging coffee growers to plant on coffee farms, or plantations. Jana Schroeder reports on the consequences of harvesting coffee continually on the same soil, and how the move away from shade tree coffee growing is also affecting migrating birds and wildlife.

Transcript

NUNLEY: Oil may be the lifeblood of the American economy, but coffee is what really keeps us running. Americans consume six and a half million pounds of coffee a day, making us the world's largest consumers. But as with oil there's an environmental cost to our consumption, some of which we'll examine in this week's program.

(Singing: "Show me the pot and I'll pour me a shot. A cup a cup a cup a cup a cup...")

NUNLEY: Mexico is the world's fourth largest coffee producer. Reporter Jana Schroeder recently traveled to the Mexican state of Veracruz to report on a change that's sweeping the coffee industry there and elsewhere. Growers are turning away from traditional, biologically rich coffee farms, and toward highly managed plantations which grow lots more coffee but little else. Here's our report.

(Footfalls)

SCHROEDER: This coffee field in the Watusco region of Veracruz, not far from Mexico's Gulf coast, was planted only 3 years ago according to the latest recommendations for coffee growing in Mexico.

SEDAS: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: You can see that here the coffee plants are more densely planted, and there's less shade.

SCHROEDER: Francisco Sedas manages this coffee plantation. He looks across the field where only an occasional shade tree rises up above rows of coffee. All the shade trees are of the same species. This is quite different from the more traditional plantation, where coffee is grown together with bananas and other fruits under a varied forest cover that makes a welcome home to birds, insects, and small animals.

(Footfalls continue)

SEDAS: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: You have to be sure to prune the coffee plants enough, and you have to keep the shade up high, cutting away branches on the lower parts of trees.

SCHROEDER: To get the higher yields promised with more sun, more chemical fertilizers are needed, too. And more herbicides because weeds grow faster in the sun. But many growers believe the higher costs are worth it. Juan Pablo Albin has a large plantation in the neighboring state of Puebla.

ALBIN: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: It's true. If I opt for a more intensive production system, I'm going to need a lot more capital. But at the same time I'm going to produce a lot more volume. Why? Because I'll be using the plant's photosynthesis at its full capacity.

SCHROEDER: The Mexican government is pushing the new methods as a way of increasing production. But not everyone thinks it's a good idea. Patricia Moguel is a biologist who's been studying coffee plantations for the Center for Ecology at Mexico's National Autonomous University.

MOGUEL: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: It's clear, these high yields can't be maintained over the long term. It could last 4 or 5 years, but after that it becomes necessary to use more and more fertilizers and pesticides.

SCHROEDER: Critics say all those chemical inputs make the soil wear out faster.

(Rain on leaves)

SCHROEDER: Those who've stayed with traditional methods include many small growers in areas like Watusco. Agronomist Jose Rivera works here with a group of small coffee growers. He says shade trees are important especially on rainy days like today to prevent soil erosion when heavy rains drench the coffee fields. But he says they also bring advantages all year long.

RIVERA: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: It provides us with more organic material for the soil. The organic material makes the soil more porous, so it maintains moisture longer. And it means a greater population of microorganisms that help maintain an ecological balance.

(Crickets)

SCHROEDER: Researchers at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center are also concerned about that balance. They've discovered that traditional coffee plantations in northern Latin America are wintering grounds for migratory birds from the United States and Canada. The plantations serve as a last refuge for the birds, whose winter habitats are shrinking because of deforestation. Andrea Cruz is a field assistant with the Smithsonian Center, who's studying the differences in the number and diversity of resident birds on plantations in Veracruz.

CRUZ: What we have found is that there is a higher diversity of birds in places where there is more shade and usually trees are taller and there is a multilayer structure of the canopy.

SCHROEDER: That's exactly the kind of shade found on the more traditional plantations. But researchers estimate these traditional methods have been maintained on only half of coffee producing land in Mexico.

CRUZ: One thing birds lose when the shade is gone is their protection against predators, and also places to nest.

SCHROEDER: Despite these concerns, the Mexican government's Coffee Institute is urging growers to convert to low-shade production and new varieties of coffee plants that respond to higher chemical inputs. Ruben Castillo heads the coffee institute.

CASTILLO: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: Without increasing land space and without doing anything that major, we're achieving higher productivity through better management of plantations.

SCHROEDER: The Mexican government hopes to boost production by 200% to move ahead of its next biggest competitor, Colombia.

HERNANDEZ: Fortunately that is not going to happen because the production will not increase as they have planned.

SCHROEDER: Luis Hernandez is an advisor to a national coalition of small coffee growers associations. He says the government won't succeed because growers don't have enough capital to convert. And he says if the plan did succeed, the market would be flooded, and prices would drop severely, leaving growers no better off.

HERNANDEZ: The problem is not just to increase production but to have better quality, and have access to niche markets.

SCHROEDER: Small coffee growers in Mexico have already cornered the largest share of the emerging world market for organic coffee. Biologist Patricia Moguel says broader specialty markets, promoting high quality coffee grown in environmentally sound conditions, could help traditional growers get better prices to offset their lower production.

MOGUEL: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: There's no doubt that more incentives must be provided, not just for increasing profits but also for protecting the environment.

SCHROEDER: In the current Mexican climate of deregulation and freer markets, the government isn't likely to provide those incentives. Some alternative coffee importers are using special labels to attract environmentally conscious consumers. And private foundations and international organizations are giving some money to help growers assess their environmental impact and market their coffee. But Ms. Moguel believes producers themselves need to take a more active role. Next year she plans to work with small coffee growers in the state of Oaxaca to measure the sustainability of their coffee growing.

MOGUEL: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: One of the basic objectives will be to educate producers, so they can measure the sustainability of their own ecosystems. And in the future, they can negotiate and even demand their own prices.

SCHROEDER: In the short term it may be up to coffee drinkers to find out how their brew is grown and decide whether they want to pay a little more to protect the environment. For Living on Earth, I'm Jana Schroeder in Veracruz, Mexico.

 

 

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