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 user 2005-05-12 at 11:04:00 am Views: 51
  • #9553
    Coffee ‘may save’ El Salvador wildlife


    Coffee drinkers around the world could be helping to save what is left of
    the threatened wildlife of El Salvador.

    The original forests of the tiny Central American republic have virtually
    disappeared, but its high-altitude coffee plantations provide refuge for a
    surprising variety of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians.

    Now environmental organisations are hoping that an eco-friendly coffee label
    will help to prevent the mountainous landscape from being stripped bare of its
    remaining habitats.

    As well as the long civil war in the 1980s and the earthquake of
    2001, El Salvador has been beset by serious environmental degradation which in
    the current dry season gives much of the country the appearance of a rocky

    Driving through the mountains west of the capital San Salvador, the bare
    hillsides converted to cattle pasture give way to what appears on first sight to
    be healthy forest cover.

    On closer inspection, these areas turn out to be coffee plantations, using a
    method of cultivation which requires tall trees to provide shade for the coffee
    shrubs themselves.

    Chris Wille of the Rainforest Alliance, a US-based non-government
    organisation, explains: “The country has lost all but about between 2% and 5% of
    its original native ecosystems, but a good healthy 10%-15% is still forested
    with coffee.

    “So it’s coffee farms that are providing the last refuge for wildlife, that
    are protecting the watersheds, that are buffering and extending the few parks
    and that are conserving the soils and importantly providing firewood to the
    rural population, 80% of which depends on firewood as their chief source of

    But coffee growing in El Salvador is under threat as the uncertain world
    price for the product makes many farms uneconomic.

    Everywhere you go, signs advertise “lotificacion” – the sale of plots on
    abandoned coffee plantations which give way to housing or shopping malls close
    to the cities, and more destructive forms of agriculture such as cattle-grazing
    or open crops like maize or sugar cane elsewhere.

    The hope is that by certifying coffee growers who observe strict rules on
    environmental protection and working conditions for its employees, they will be
    better able to compete in the volatile international marketplace.

    ‘Green coffee’

    At the Las Lajas co-operative near the town of Sonsonate, no fewer than 120
    tree species shade the coffee which is fertilised with organic compost made from
    the husks of the coffee beans themselves.

    One of the managers at the co-operative, German Javier Chavez, says that even
    with the relatively healthy world coffee price at the moment of just over $1
    (£0.50) a pound (0.5kg), certification can add 10 cents to the value.

    That difference is much greater when world prices fall, but the
    “green” coffee holds its value.

    “When the prices are really low like they were, and they may be again in the
    future, then certification can be a survival mechanism. It can really make the
    difference,” Mr Chavez told the BBC News website.

    The ecological importance of coffee cultivation can be seen in El Imposible
    National Park, one of the few strictly protected natural areas of forest in El

    Named for its inaccessibility, the spectacular park cut by steep river gorges
    is bordered by coffee plantations which link it to another park, Los Volcanes,
    about 50km (31 miles) away.

    The Salvadoran group Salva Natura, which monitors the certification scheme in
    the country, is hoping to create a biological “corridor” to give the wildlife of
    the area a better chance for survival.

    The executive director of the organisation, Juan Marco Alvarez Gallardo,
    said: “In between the two parks you have a lot of isolated patches of natural
    forest on the top part of volcanic peaks.

    “Below that natural vegetation is this ‘coffee park’ as we call it, because
    the coffee shrub in these plantations and farms is covered by natural forests in
    the majority of cases. So you have an opportunity to connect biodiversity and
    improve gene flow between these parks.”

    ‘Way of the future’

    On one of the plantations near the park, Salva Natura has set up a monitoring
    station where birds are trapped in a net before being logged and released

    When we arrived, the haul for the day included the spectacular blue-crowned
    motmot and a long-tailed manikin, a species normally found only in dense forest.
    In all, 120 species of bird have been observed on the farm.

    At another co-operative, San Jose de la Majade, President Julio Antonio
    Martinez admits he was sceptical at first when approached by the environmental

    “I was one of the people that were against Rainforest Alliance because I
    didn’t like somebody coming into my house and telling me what to do, what to
    plant or what not to plant.

    “But I realise now that they were giving me good advice. They were telling me
    plant trees so you will get water – without trees you don’t have rainfall,
    without rainfall you don’t have coffee,” he said.

    There has been some criticism of the baffling array of certification labels
    faced by coffee consumers, ranging from organic and Fair Trade logos to the
    “sustainability” mark used by Rainforest Alliance.

    But according to the groups running the El Salvador scheme, supported by
    wildlife organisations including Birdlife International, coffee consumers could
    play a crucial role in protecting nature and livelihoods for future generations.