By now, many of us are well aware that Fair Trade products provide small-scale farmers with higher prices, access to credit, technical assistance, global markets, and solidarity networks. Most of us here at Equal Exchange enjoy a daily cup (or more) of fine coffee. And knowing how incredibly labor intensive coffee cultivation is, we deeply appreciate the farmers who climb those mountains, under the hot sun or in the torrential downpours, to pick the beans just at the right moment so that we in the North can have nothing less than the finest quality of coffee.
But most of us who work at Equal Exchange aren’t here simply for that artisanal coffee (tea or chocolate). We’re here because we think about farmer livelihoods and want to work in an industry that values the rights of small farmers to have the same dignified life and opportunities that many of us enjoy. In short, we think high quality coffee is not just desirable in its own right, but when it’s grown and sold through the Fair Trade system, it can also be a powerful tool for economic advancement.
While we place a high value on our farmer partners’ livelihoods, we also know that we all share part of an increasingly fragile planet with a finite amount of resources. Many studies have documented the positive impacts that organic Fair Trade coffee, grown under shade, has on soil and water resources, and on our health. With the awareness of the devastating impact of climate change, the benefit of shade coffee cannot be overstated.
Nor can the value of the diversity of trees that provide shade for coffee be undervalued. Many of our partners are increasing the number of shade trees on their farms; not only does coffee grown under shade taste better, but the trees are beneficial to the soil (live barriers protect against soil erosion and their leaves provide ground cover). In addition, fruit and timber trees are used to diversify diets and provide additional sources of income for farming families.
Last, but by no means least, is the wildlife which takes refuge in the shaded farms. It’s been a while since we’ve focused on the migratory songbirds that delight us in the summertime but need a specific habitat in Mexico and Central America to survive the winters. The following article by Ruth Ann Smalley offers a lovely appreciation for songbirds and a reminder of why and how we need to protect them. It was published in the Schenectady Gazette’s column, Greenpoint, on August 14, 2008. Ruth is an educator and a certified Eden Energy medicine practitioner with a practice in Albany. She’s also an Honest Weight member worker, and writes a monthly column for the coop’s newsletter.
Listening to the Birds
by Ruth Ann Smiley
After the rains today, the birds began singing in my neighborhood.
The sweet twittering of the goldfinches alerted me just in time to catch a glimpse as three flashed past my porch. In the late afternoon, some passing crows announced themselves, raucously. The street is home to many chickadees, blue jays, house finches, starlings, mourning doves and the occasional catbird, hummingbird and nuthatch. I’ve seen more cardinals displaying their scarlet finery this year than ever before. Lately, we’ve also heard from a couple of particularly vocal woodpeckers. More accustomed to their drumming, I never knew they could scold like that!
The presence of birds and their songs never fails to pull me back into an awareness of the natural world that still surrounds us, even in the midst of an urban landscape. They remind me that while we may have paved over the ground, and chased practically everybody but the squirrels into hiding, there are tiny, vibrant lives being lived out alongside ours. Birds bridge the many layers of our world, treading the ground in search of the worm, and taking flight above our heads, into realms that the child in us still dreams of winging through.
Because of their seasonal habits, birds help connect us with cyclical rhythms. I enjoy marking winter’s progress by spotting the little dark-headed juncos searching through the snow at the foot of the feeder, looking a bit like the bird version of the black and white cookie. In the spring, the bare branches of the towering, dead pine the next street over are inviting to hawks, who sun themselves in the late afternoon rays while surveying the neighborhood.
Birds have another role, as nature’s “indicators” — indicators of the health of our ecosystems. We’ve all heard of the canary in the coal mine, and on a larger scale, migratory songbird health, especially, reflects that of huge swathes of the planet.
This spring, biologist Bridget Stutchbury noted in The New York Times that songbird numbers are dropping in the U.S. because “the birds are being poisoned in their wintering grounds” by pesticides that are “either restricted or banned in the United States.” Increased demand for out of season produce in North America and Europe has prompted huge increases in pesticide use in Latin America. Stutchbury explains that “a single application of a highly toxic pesticide to a field can kill seven to 25 songbirds per acre” and there has been a fivefold increase in the use of pesticides in the past 15 years (You can read her March 30 oped here.)
What can you do to help the songbirds, besides trying to eat local, seasonal produce more of the time? If you are a coffee drinker, you can pay the roughly one and a half cents more per cup and buy fairly traded, certified shade grown coffee. The 2006 documentary film, “Birdsong and Coffee” illustrates how it is a matter of “two countries, one bird,” asserting that there is a “natural connection between farmers, coffee drinkers, and birds.” This is because many of the world’s coffee growers belong to traditional cultures, whose livelihoods are endangered, much as the migratory birds are. The documentary profiles a number of farmers and villages that have been hit hard by the crisis in the coffee market, which, according to Oxfam estimates, affected 125 million people. One of the saddest impacts was the loss of much of the male population, as displaced farmers migrated north in search of work.
Volatile markets pressure small farmers who do stay in the business to try to increase their production by clearing more land, or by switching to other crops that require even more intensive — and destructive — farming methods. But in many areas, fair trade contracts now help promote traditional, organic methods of growing coffee under shade.
This creates habitat for birds, while providing a safety net of sorts for the farmers themselves, as fair trade offers stable prices and premiums. The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center has found that in some areas, “traditionally managed coffee and cacao plantations support over 150 species of birds,” while the “diversity of birds plummets when coffee is converted from shade to sun. . . . Studies in Colombia and Mexico found 94-97 percent fewer bird species in sun grown coffee.” (For more information, click here.) It is also better for the coffee plants, as, according to the documentary, coffee plants have only an 8-10 year productive life out of the shade, as compared to 25-30 in the shade.
More and more companies are offering fairly traded, organic, shade-grown coffee, and it is becoming more available in stores. Equal Exchange and Dean’s Beans, to name a few, work in close contact with farmer cooperatives, organizations that play an important role in giving the farmers more decision-making power and greater potential to raise their standard of living. For example, in addition to the regular terms of its fair trade contract, Equal Exchange donates 20 cents for each sale of a 12 oz. package of “Organic Love Buzz” coffee to the Small Farmer Green Planet fund. This money goes to farmers in several countries to support their work in “reforestation, organic conversion and environmental protection efforts” (You can read more in the May issue of “Coop Scoop”, Honest Weight Food Co-op’s newsletter.)
If you’re choosing coffee from an unfamiliar roaster, be sure to look for official certification that your coffee was shade grown. The Smithsonian has a Bird Friendly Seal that’s easy to spot, or you may find beans that are Rainforest Alliance Certified.
About the author: Ruth Ann Smalley, Ph.D., is an educator and a certified Eden Energy medicine practitioner with a practice in Albany. She’s also an Honest Weight member worker, and writes a monthly column for the coop’s newsletter.