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August 25, 2011

Good Harvest: Shade-Grown Coffee and Organic Chocolate Benefit Wildlife and Farmers

Shade-grown, organic, and fair trade products show good taste and good conscience.

All Animals magazine

  • Humane Society International and U.S. State Department

by Karen E. Lange

It’s a beautiful vision: In a forest that conjures images of the Garden of Eden, a farmer stretches to pick a ripe pod of cacao, the raw ingredient of chocolate. Above his head, a toucan looks down with a benevolent eye, a sloth lounges in flower-strewn branches, and a howler monkey dangles from a vine. In the shadows lurk an agouti and a deer. A cyan motmot wings swiftly over the forest floor.

The reality, as Jennifer Dinsmore can attest, isn’t always as idyllic as the painting on Humane Society International’s environmental education poster. Reaching traditional cacao farms in Costa Rica and Nicaragua involves a muddy hike uphill, says HSI’s Latin America program supervisor. It’s hot and humid. Often, it’s raining. And yet, there is something magical about the cacao farms HSI is helping to bring back into production. On a visit Dinsmore made to a farm in Costa Rica, there really were toucans and monkeys in the branches overhead. Birds of many species sang and flitted through the trees. A poison dart frog hopped through the leaf litter. And a large yellow snake uncoiled from a tree.

In a region where trees are otherwise being cut for agricultural land and timber, traditional farms like this are “the next best thing to natural forest,” according to a 2010 report from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. Stands of trees surrounding cacao or coffee crops can provide food and shelter for more than 200 species, including threatened and endangered animals and around 150 species of migratory birds who spend summers in the U.S. and Canada and winters far south. Many of these birds are in decline because of habitat loss at both ends of their ranges—Baltimore oriole numbers, for example, have fallen 30 percent since 1980.

By purchasing shade-grown coffee and organic chocolate products, consumers can help protect birds and other wildlife. HSI and The HSUS are doing their part as well by supporting farmers who practice wildlife-sustaining methods.

Learn the lingo of conscientious coffee. »

With a grant from the U.S. State Department (under the Central American Free Trade Agreement), HSI is helping 300 small farmers in Nicaragua and 100 in Costa Rica to bring farms abandoned because of disease back into production. The farmers graft more disease-resistant and productive varieties of cacao onto their existing trees, use organic fertilizers, and plant a variety of native fruit and flowering trees, such as banana, plantain, and palm. HSI also helps farmers get the organic certification that will win their product a higher price. Meanwhile, environmental workshops teach local schoolchildren to appreciate and protect the wild animals in their midst.

To promote eco-friendly coffee, The HSUS has formed a partnership with Grounds for Change, which sells a special Humane Society blend of organic and fair trade certified coffee to support The HSUS’s animal protection work. This year the beans are coming from Nicaragua and Bolivia, says Grounds for Change cofounder Kelsey Marshall. Unlike most coffee grown in Latin America, these beans are shade-grown, without the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Elsewhere in the region, farmers have cut down trees to plant high-yielding sun-grown coffee, creating biological deserts.

If farmers instead plant a diverse mix of trees, allowing them to grow tall enough to provide a canopy, they can supply crucial habitat for birds and other wildlife, says Russell Greenberg, head of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. As for wildlife-friendly cacao, like the kind HSI is promoting in the Talamanca range on the edge of Costa Rica’s La Amistad biosphere reserve, Greenberg says it could play a vital role as a buffer around or corridor between protected areas.

For the farmers, these programs mean income—money that will keep them from having to hunt endangered species and other wildlife, cut trees for wood, or clear land for livestock grazing or other crops. It’s an innovative approach to ensuring that communities thrive alongside their wildlife and, as Dinsmore says, “that forest remains as forest.”

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