A new study found high biodiversity on traditional coffee farms.

By Brian Clark Howard

Shady coffee plantations in Ethiopia, where coffee has been grown for at least a thousand years, hold more bird species than any other coffee farms in the world, new research shows.

The research suggests that traditional cultivation practices there support better bird biodiversity than any other coffee farms in the world.

Ethiopian coffee farmer Awol Abagojam and his son Isaac harvest their product near the village of Choche, much the same way their ancestors did a thousand years ago. (Photograph by Ami Vitale, Panos)

Ethiopian coffee farmer Awol Abagojam and his son Isaac harvest their product near the village of Choche, much the same way their ancestors did a thousand years ago. (Photograph by Ami Vitale, Panos)

In Ethiopia, coffee is traditionally grown on plantations shaded by native trees. These farms boasted more than 2.5 times as many bird species as adjacent mountain forest, according to a study slated for publication February 11 in the journal Biological Conservation.

“That was a surprise,” says study co-author Cagan H. Sekercioglu, a biologist at the University of Utah and a National Geographic Society grantee. Further, “all 19 understory bird species we sampled in the forest were present in the coffee farms too, and that just doesn’t happen elsewhere.”

Other studies have shown that shade coffee farms provide better bird habitat than full-sun plantations, but the effect may be more prominent in Ethiopia because farmers there tend to use native trees instead of the exotic species popular elsewhere

Why It Matters

The new study may be the first of bird biodiversity on Ethiopian coffee farms, because the country is relatively remote and poor. Ethiopian coffee farmers face pressure—as in many countries—to convert more coffee production to full-sun plantations.

Growing coffee in the sun can reduce the risk of fungal disease, cuts labor, and can yield more coffee beans, but at the costs of lower-quality coffee that fetches less per pound and degraded habitat for wildlife, says Sekercioglu.

The Big Picture

Scientists found all but one of nine species of migratory birds on the coffee farms, but not in adjacent forest. Sekercioglu suspects that the open structure of the farms was more inviting to the birds than the denser natural forest because it more closely resembles the habitat they are used to in the north.

Still, Sekercioglu cautions that “coffee farms cannot simply replace forest for habitat.” Although all local bird species were found represented on the farms, their number of individuals was about 80 percent lower. (See how coffee changed America.)

What’s Next

The team would like to measure how birds in the canopy above the coffee farms are faring, since they only measured birds caught in the understory, or the first ten feet above the ground.

Sekercioglu also suggests that the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center or the Rainforest Alliance, which certify bird-friendly coffee from other countries, should consider extending their programs to Ethiopia. Certification allows farmers to recoup a price premium, which can help deter the impulse to convert farms to full sun or otherwise develop their land.

Source: National Geographic

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