News & Views

Ethiopia: The Most Bird-Friendly Coffee in the World

In the birthplace of coffee, unique new research shows how shade-grown coffee benefits species other than tired humans.

A recent study by PhD student Evan Buechley and his professor and long-term Christensen grantee Çağan Şekercioğlu (University of Utah) shows how ecological and cultural history can determine how agriculture impacts biodiversity and ecosystem function in the forest-farm lands of Oromia, in the mountains of southwestern Ethiopia.

Arabica coffee is native to these forests, and was domesticated fifteen hundred years ago by the forest dwelling farmers of Oromia and places like Kaffa, eventually reaching the West through Arabia. Traditional farming systems here maintain forest structure and function respecting the presence of native tree species. This means that even as more coffee is planted the forests remain attractive to native bird species and to seasonal migrants from Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, as well.

Red-Cheeked Cordonbleu: this lovely little finch is a seed eater that benefits from the opening up of closed forest and the greater presence of grasses. It was among 51 bird species netted by University of Utah researchers who found that shade coffee farms in Ethiopia — the native home of Arabica coffee — are good for birds, but that some species do best in forest. Photo by Cagan Sekercioglu

The new paper reports that, rather remarkably, all 19 bird species living closer to the ground in the “understory” of Ethiopian forests were also living happily in nearby shade coffee farms, albeit in smaller numbers than in the full forest.

“Ethiopian shade coffee is even better than other shade coffee because all the native forest bird species that we recorded in the forest understory we also recorded in Ethiopia’s traditional shade coffee plantations,” Professor Şekercioğlu says. “Not all shade coffee is equal… Because shade coffee is trendy, there are a lot of commercial plantations in the world where they grow shade coffee under exotic trees, not native trees, so they can call it shade coffee. But it’s not as bird friendly as in Ethiopia, which may be the most bird-friendly coffee in the world.”

Sekercioglu also suggests that the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center or the Rainforest Alliance, which certify bird-friendly coffee from other countries, should consider extending their programs to Ethiopia. Certification allows farmers to recoup a price premium, which can help deter the impulse to convert farms to full sun or otherwise develop their land.  “We hope to see increased marketing of Ethiopia shade coffee so the local farmers get a better deal for their beans by keeping the shade coffee intact rather than converting it to open sun farming” by cutting trees, Şekercioğlu says.

The study's lead author Evan Buechley (left), with students and the EWCA dude checking out the birds.

University of Utah doctoral student Evan Buechley, left, finishes a bird banding demonstration for Ethiopian students with Girma Ayalew, right, of the Ethiopia Wildlife and Conservation Authority

Such sustainable agroforestry systems are not rare in Ethiopia. In fact, a consortium of Ethiopian Universities is working with local governments in the country’s southwest to help recognize and realize the benefits of sustainable landscape level farming systems with local crops like the false banana (enset) and sorghum, which thrive amid native tree species. Recognizing that a global commodity like coffee can live in harmony with forests and birds bodes well for the continued success of Ethiopia’s other indigenous shade-grown crops. There are few better examples in the world of how agriculture, nature and people creatively combine to give birth to a rich biocultural landscape.

Just as cities around the world can learn from Ethiopia’s wise and bird-friendly urban development, the example set by the descendants of the world’s first coffee farmers is stimulating, indeed.