Loss of biodiversity is one of the most critical environmental challenges currently facing the world. It threatens valuable ecosystem services, their resilience to environmental changes and the well-being of humans. Rural communities depend on ecosystem services and key components of biodiversity found in non-domestic habitats. Thus, there is an important need to find ways to preserve biodiversity outside protected areas, in agricultural landscapes. Coffee grown under shade provides a promising means of doing so as it is very biodiversity-friendly, particularly in its more traditional, ‘rustic’ form. However, recent decades have seen coffee production shifting either to shade-less ‘sun’ coffee or to annual crops or pasture, both of which provide substantially lower biodiversity benefits. A contextualized example of such landscapes is the coffee farms adjacent Mount Kenya forest which incorporated inter-cropping practices with shade trees when coffee was first introduced in the region in the 1935. These traditional coffee farms could be thought of as modified forest habitats and are often the last shelter forest adapted organisms especially the birds.
What is at stake?
Areas where high concentrations of endemic and endangered species coincide with habitat loss form a network of priority sites that are critical for conservation. These include Important Bird Areas (IBA) such as the Mount Kenya ecosystem which is also a biodiversity hotspot. This ecosystem harbors 53 out of Kenya’s 67 African highland biome bird species and 35 forest specialist species. It is also one of Kenyan Mountains Endemic Bird Area (EBA) hosting 7 of the 9 range restricted species. Birds are sensitive to habitat change and are also a frequently studied taxonomic group with respect to degradation of tropical forest. Therefore, they are an important indicator of changes and overall environmental health of the system. Further, Important Bird Areas pinpoint single sites that also tend to be important for wider biodiversity thereby protecting a diverse range of flora and fauna. Traditionally, coffee is grown under shade and harbored relatively high biodiversity owing to the structural and floristic complexity of the shade trees. Therefore, coffee grown under shade by maintaining avian communities that reflect those found in large tracts of forest may be thought of as a surrogate for forest habitats in the tropics. Despite their vital role in conservation, traditional coffee farms and bird life within the Mount Kenya ecosystem continue to face threats from agricultural expansion and intensification in addition to climate change.
Establishing traditional coffee farms
Across the world, the Coffee Belt spans along the equator where terrestrial biodiversity is usually greater due to the warm climate and primary productivity. In Kenya, the highlands around Mount Kenya forest comprise one of the major coffee growing zones owing to proximity to the Equator. Managing the key drivers of deforestation while providing sustainable livelihood alternatives for the rural community is therefore important. For instance, combining previous conservation efforts that focused on protecting large tracts of undisturbed forests (land sparing) with conserving ecological integrity within human-dominated landscapes (land-sharing) is an effective strategy in biodiversity conservation when well implemented. This can be achieved by putting more emphases on biodiversity benefits to humanity such as provision of ecosystem services or the use of innovative markets for specialized products such as shade-grown coffee. Against this background, Iburu coffee is an attempt to revive the shade-grown coffee system among the small holder farmers with appropriate steps in marketing the coffee as a specialty having been grown in a bio-diverse environment. The project aims to increase forest cover by promoting shaded coffee farms as a form of agroforestry and disseminating ecological knowledge about forest resources and biodiversity. These traditional coffee farms can be thought of as modified forest habitats and are often the last shelter for birds among other forest adapted organisms. When managed under a structurally and floristically diverse tree canopy, shaded coffee farms provide vital habitat for diverse avian communities. This is while providing economic support for people, sustaining broader biodiversity and buffering protected areas such as the Mount Kenya ecosystem.
Benefits of shade-grown coffee
Shaded coffee farms have many co-benefits including enhanced ecosystem services as pollination, climate regulation and pest control. They may also provide quality habitat for a diverse wildlife in the agriculture-forest landscape matrix such as the amphibians and small mammals. The native shade trees also protect the under-story coffee plants from rain and sun, help maintain soil quality, reduce the need for weeding and aid pest control. Birds inhabiting such farms prey especially on the coffee berry borers, the world’s most serious coffee pest, which has already expanded its geographical range in East Africa’s coffee growing zones due to global warming. Trees used for shading can also provide alternative food sources including fruits, honey and improve land productivity hence sustain economic returns. They are a source of timber and fuel-wood thereby decreasing the communities’ need to exploit the adjacent rain-forest.