Drink Coffee, Eat Chocolate, Save Birds!

The Smithsonian Bird Friendly coffee and cocoa certification program just opened its new Latin American office at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, STRI, in Panama, making it easier for regional coffee and chocolate industries to join the global movement to produce sustainable coffee and chocolate.

The Smithsonian Bird Friendly Coffee (and cocoa) initiative is a certification and research program: a way for consumers to make smart, science- based choices that are good for the environment by supporting healthy bird habitat and biodiversity as they drink coffee and eat chocolate. A Bird Friendly label on a bag of coffee beans means that there is at least 40 percent shade covering the coffee on the farm. The farm must have at least 10 different species of trees and 60% of the trees must be native to the region—important because birds need a variety of habitats and food sources to thrive. And the farm must be certified organic because pesticides kill the insects that birds eat.

The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute has joined the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Migratory Bird Center in leading the Bird Friendly program. The two groups jointly promote best management practices for coffee and cocoa farms in Latin America. Dr. Ruth Bennett, research ecologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Migratory Bird Center is the lead scientist for the Bird Friendly program and the first Associate Scientist at STRI. Melissa Mazurkewicz, Senior Program Manager for Latin America, is based at STRI to better serve the producers and auditors in the Latin American region.

“For the first time we have interest from all the different people across a coffee supply chain in making coffee production more biodiversity friendly,” said Ruth Bennett, “There’s interest from the exporter and importer community. And then we’re seeing increased interest from coffee roasters and consumers who want to know that their coffee came from a landscape that’s actively conserving biodiversity instead of harming it.”

The idea is to put science to work to slow or reverse the sixth great extinction of life on our planet, a crisis directly tied to human population growth and resource use. The Bird Friendly program is also a part of another new program at STRI: the new Resilience and Sustainability Center, the hub of the Smithsonian-wide Adrienne Arsht Community-Based Resilience Solutions Initiative, which will support research, engagement, solutions, and training to support resilience and sustainability in Latin America and beyond.

The world population doubled from 4 billion to 8 billion between 1970 and 2023 and is expected to reach 10 billion by the end of the century. People need to change the way we produce food, to protect birds and other wildlife that are directly affected by consumer choices.

In the tropical forests of central Panama, for example, Smithsonian researchers reported that the numbers of more than half of the understory bird species have declined since the late 1970’s. And in the United States, according to yearly counts, there are 3 billion fewer birds now than there were 50 years ago. Two and a half billion of the missing birds are migratory: they fly from 400 to 10,000 miles (about 16093.44 km) between breeding grounds in the Northern Hemisphere to the Southern Hemisphere and back again.

In addition to supporting a several billion-dollar eco-tourism industries, birds supply essential ecosystem services, controlling disease by eating mosquitos and dead animals and pollinating crops like bananas, plantains, and papayas.

In the 1970’s international aid organizations pushed small farmers to remove vegetation from coffee and cacao plantations and to intensify agricultural production. As agricultural systems intensified, birds declined. Russel Greenberg (1953-2013), formerly a staff scientist at STRI, founded the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center in the 1980’s after his research in Mexico and Peru showed that there were many more birds on farms where coffee was grown in the shade of tropical trees than on farms where coffee was grown in the sun. On farms in Peru, for example, researchers counted 61 bird species on sun coffee farms and 243 species on farms growing shade coffee. As a rule of thumb, shade coffee usually has about four times the bird population of sun coffee.

The Bird Friendly Coffee project began in Panama in 1996 when Greenberg and the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center hosted the first Sustainable Coffee Congress, convening 270 people from 19 countries. Not only did the meeting include representatives from the coffee industry, representatives of Starbucks, USAID, and the Specialty Coffee Association of America also took part. Conference papers made the case for shade-grown coffee and proposed a certification system to motivate both producers and consumers to adopt this system.

In the 20 years since the Bird Friendly Coffee program first launched, there is much to celebrate. In 2023, there are now Bird Friendly certified producers in 13 countries. 17,000 hectares of coffee farms and 38 million pounds (about 17236496 kg) of coffee certified as Bird Friendly and 1 million pounds (about 453592 kg) of cacao. In the past, the program has targeted farms in Peru, Colombia, and the Caribbean and consumers in the United States. One of their goals is to partner with mission aligned organizations like zoos and aquaria in the United States to sell only Bird Friendly coffee.

In Panama, where the program was originally conceived, the potential for certification of Bird Friendly coffee is growing with increased awareness and consumer demand for sustainable products. One challenge to overcome is that organic cultivation is still not common because consumers will buy Panama’s coffee for its high quality, whether it is certified organic or not. Also, fungal pests and pathogens and the arrival of a tiny beetle called the coffee berry borer (Hypothenemus hampei) from Africa, led to the increased use of pesticides.

Katherine Araúz-Ponce, a STRI fellow and Panamanian doctoral student at the University of Georgia designed her thesis research to better understand if there are ways to make coffee production in Panama more environmentally friendly. She asks if landscape structure affects survival and bird movements in coffee-growing landscapes.

In Panama, there are also opportunities to help certify cocoa farms as Bird Friendly. Coffee and chocolate farms have various levels of tree cover. Working closely with Panama’s Ministry of the Environment, MiAmbiente, which is already encouraging buffer zones between protected areas and farms, the program will look for ways to incentivize farmers and communities to make their farms more resilient to conservation of birds and other wildlife across landscapes.

The project staff will work directly with farmers to implement best practices to protect birds and biodiversity. The project has already been successful in Cundinamarca, Santander, in Colombia and in the Villa Rica region of Peru.

“We want this to be fun as well as educational,” said Melissa Mazurkewicz, “We want to create more shade tree catalogs for more regions to show what trees can be grown on coffee farms and share lists of birds as a part of training for bird tourism guides. One of the best ways we’ve found to reach people is through coffee and chocolate tastings, like the one we recently held for STRI employees. We want people to be on the lookout for the Bird Friendly label on the coffee and chocolate they consume.”

“The best thing a consumer can do is to actively look for coffees that are conserving biodiversity,” said Ruth Bennett. “Your choice of your daily cup of coffee really matters.”