Shade Grown Organic Fair Trade


( For a slide show of shade grown coffee, courtesy of Seattle Audubon Society, click here)

(Note: This summary of shade criteria for "Bird-FriendlyTM" coffee has been developed by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center in the spirit of cooperation and mutual interest with others involved in coffee (producers, traders, retailers, researchers, etc.) who share concerns for this very important aspect of sustainable coffee. We urge anyone to make use of these criteria in whatever way(s) s/he sees fit. Comments on particular details are also welcome, and should be sent to us via our Website. For legal reasons beyond our control, any use of the name "Smithsonian" or the term "Bird-FriendlyTM" or reference to them on a commercial product or for commercial activity is forbidden. In addition, any reference to the National Audubon Society and the shade criteria for commercial purposes is not allowed.)

This document is a summary of minimum shade management practices necessary on a coffee plantation for the SMBC to consider that plantation sustainable. Because coffee is grown under diverse management systems and climatic and ecological conditions, the criteria have been designed to be as general as possible. Our field work has focused on the northern Neotropics and we have limited knowledge or experience with shade systems in the Old World. Therefore, further research will be required to extend some of these bio-physical criteria to Old World systems. In addition, further research is required to develop recommended practices that, above and beyond the minimally acceptable management practices for farmers, would enhance the biodiversity of coffee plantations and maintain socio-cultural benefits of the shade complex.

Coffee is grown under two types of shade: Rustic shade, which consists of natural forest vegetation, and planted shade.

Rustic Shade

Rustic shade consists of natural forest species. Rustic coffee can consist of coffee grown under old growth, or more commonly, secondary forest. Where additional trees have been planted to produce useful products, the system is called Traditional Polyculture. The area of coffee grown under such systems varies from place to place, but, from the standpoint of bird conservation, the maintenance of such systems is highly desirable. Two major issues arise: the degree of management and the potential protected status of forest used for shade. Even in rustic or traditional systems, shade trees are generally thinned and trimmed to reduce understory humidity and increase light levels. The SMBC recommends that a minimum canopy cover of 40% be maintained and that no trimming of epiphytic plants or hemi-epiphytic vines be conducted on the shade trees. Vines and unwanted plants on coffee plants, of course, should be removed for production purposes. We further urge that farm inspectors verify that forest converted to coffee production does not have any legal protected status.

Planted Shade

Species composition of shade:

Planted-shade plantations generally consist of a backbone of trees which are the predominant species planted to provide the optimal shade environment for the coffee plant. In New World systems the most common backbone trees are Inga spp. and, at lower elevation and latitude sites Erythrina spp. Less common backbone trees are Gliricidia sepium and Grevillea robusta. From the consideration of biodiversity conservation, Erythrina and Gliricidia are unacceptable as backbone species because they are deciduous during the dry season leaving the "shade" plantation shadeless during a time of the year when canopy cover for both migrant and resident birds may be most critical. Grevillea is unacceptable for two reasons. First, it is non-native and therefore probably supports few native species of arthropods. Second, although it supports high densities of birds, the diversity is the lowest of all types surveyed by the SMBC. Additional types of trees occasionally used as backbone species include Albizia spp. and Pinus spp. These species support few insectivorous birds and are often introduced from other regions and are therefore not acceptable. Erythrina, Grevillea, and Gliricidia are all used by birds--particularly the flowers of the first two--and are an acceptable part of the canopy at low density (< 5% canopy cover).

Numerous species of Inga are used for shade. Individual farms commonly have 3 or more species, each with its own pattern of flowering phenology. It is important that several species are used to maximize the period when Inga flowers and fruit are available. SMBC recommends that, on a given coffee farm, a single species of Inga does not comprise more than 50% of the Inga trees.

The number of species of birds and other organisms will increase with increasing diversity of trees in a plantation. We recommend that no more than 70% of the canopy cover consist of Inga. For general criterion it is impossible to specify the composition of the additional trees since this will vary regionally. Future research should provide the information to develop a list of recommended trees that are of value to both birds and people for different regions. Coffee plantations can be ranked by the total number of tree species per hectare, provided that inspectors are sufficiently well trained in the identification of common trees of agroforestry systems in the region. The diversity of potential supplementary shade trees will vary with region (lower on Caribbean islands, and sites at higher elevations and latitudes). However, we suggest a minimum of 10 species of trees to qualify for certification as "bird-friendly".

Shade Cover and Canopy Structure:

Biological diversity probably increases with the amount of canopy cover. However, coffee is not necessarily a full-shade plant. As a compromise between these considerations, SMBC recommends a minimum shade cover of 40% at solar noon that can be estimated or measured with an optical densiometer. The shade cover measurement cannot include that produced by coffee plants themselves. The shade cover should not be reduced below the 40% minimum even after pruning. Pruning should be conducted during the rainy season.

Probably more critical for biodiversity, at least avian diversity, is the stature of the canopy trees. We recommend that the backbone shade species be allowed to attain a minimum of 12-15 meters in height. In the case of newly established farms in transition to full shade conditions, inspectors should be sensitive to pruning practices that would prevent trees from achieving these heights.

It is well known that vertical structural diversity results in increased bird diversity. Therefore, farmers should be encouraged to plant trees that are shorter and taller than the backbone shade species. Taller trees can include timber-producing species and shorter trees can produce fruit, medicines or other products. As a rule of thumb, lower and higher strata should each total at least 20% shade cover, in addition to the shade cover provided by the backbone species.

Secondary Plant Diversity:

Epiphytic plants, such as Bromeliads, and parasitic plants, such as mistletoes, contribute considerably to overall biological diversity and provide resources for birds. The growth of these plants on canopy trees should be encouraged. Although the expected amount of epiphytic growth varies between regions with different climates, we would recommend that inspectors compare coffee canopies to remnant natural vegetation or visit farms during periods of pruning to determine if epiphytic growth is being systematically removed. In addition, pruning should ideally leave some dead limbs and snags.

 Living Fences and Stream Buffer Zones:

A "living fence" or border strip of trees and shrubs should be maintained along roadways and other borders to prevent the desiccation of the understory due to wind. In addition, a strip of natural second-growth vegetation should be maintained at a width of 5 meters from each side of small streams and 10 meters along rivers.

Gestalt Classification:

In addition to the above specific considerations, inspectors should have a sheet with schematic diagrams showing alternative structures of coffee plantations. One such system, modified from a system developed for Mexico, is attached.

We recommend that farms that have a structure that resemble the diverse commercial polyculture, traditional polyculture or rustic systems be certified as bird-friendly. The less diverse commercial polycultures, characterized by low stature or low species richness, will not be acceptable as bird-friendly.

Café Canopy coffees are sourced through Elan Organic Coffee Company whose green coffee beans have been certified as "Bird Friendly" by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center.


Independent, third party certification of organic food systems has been the foundation of domestic and international organic food trade.  The evolution of this verification effort, which documents the authenticity of organic farming and various subsequent levels of handling, will become manadatory as a result of implementation of the "Organic Foods Production Act of 1990" (OFDPA).  This act administered by the USDA requires certification of all products labeled as organic in the United States.

Quality Assurance International is a private, professional service corporation developed specifically for the purpose of verifying the authenticity of food, fiber and other products which are organically grown under a management policy of sustainable agriculture; and which are handled under goals preserving the integrity created in the organic commodity.


Why Fair Trade?

Fair Trade guarantees farmers a fair wage for their harvest. Why is it  needed? Many small coffee farmers receive prices for their coffee that are  less than the costs of production, forcing them into a cycle of poverty and  debt. With little or no income between harvest months, farmers are usually  forced to sell their next crop in advance to exploitative middlemen, who  pay far below the harvest's value. The farmer's situation is exacerbated by  the fact that the world market price is extremely volatile, frequently  experiencing steep price drops to the farmers when overproduction causes  world coffee surpluses. With few other options for income, such drastic  price drops cause many coffee farmers to lose their farms and become  hopelessly in debt.

Fair Trade encourages family farmers in developing countries to get  organized, start their own export cooperatives and jump over middlemen,  selling their coffee directly to importers here in the US. Through direct,  equitable trade, farmers can double and even triple their net incomes from  their coffee, which, for most, means the difference between losing the farm  versus staying on the land, improving family health, keeping their kids in  school, and reinvesting in the quality of their coffee and their farms. At  its core, Fair Trade is a business-based approach to the issue of Third  World poverty alleviation and grassroots empowerment.

Fair Trade is also good for the environment. Small coffee farmers are  typically the most effective stewards of the land. Most grow under the  shade of the forest canopy, protecting the forest and habitat for migratory  songbirds. And approximately 80-85% of Fair Trade farmers do not use  chemical fertilizers or pesticides on their fields. TransFair USA TransFair USA, a non-profit agency, is the only organization providing independent, third-party certification of Fair Trade products in the US. TransFair promotes mutually-beneficial relationships between farmers and coffee companies, and educates consumers about international trade and economic development. Through regular visits to Fair Trade farmer cooperatives, and partnerships with participating coffee companies in the US, TransFair guarantees that farmers who produce Fair Trade Certified products have received a decent living wage. By monitoring trade from crop to cup, TransFair guarantees that Fair Trade Certified products were grown and traded responsibly. Consumers who want to support Fair Trade must look for coffee packages that bare TransFair's Fair Trade Certified label. Over 60 coffee companies across the US now offer Fair Trade Certified coffee, and the list is growing every day. Although coffee is currently the only Fair Trade Certified product available in the US, Fair Trade Certified tea and chocolate will be available in the next few years.


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