Coffee may soon have a new role to play in the future of conservation biology. A recent study in Ethiopia found that coffee production has contributed to a decline in deforestation.
Kristoffer Hylander of Stockholm University and his team found that deforestation rates in areas where coffee is grown are significantly lower. However, coffee management comes with an unfortunate cost—the study also found that, while the forest may be conserved, biodiversity in coffee-growing areas is diminished.
In Ethiopia, Coffea arabica only grows in a certain range of higher elevation—1300 to 2000 meters above sea level. When the researchers compared satellite images from two patches of Ethiopian forest over the past thirty-seven years, they found that deforestation rates within coffee’s elevation range were up to thirty percent lower than at elevations outside this range.
The reason for this difference in deforestation is economically driven. Coffee arabica plants thrive in the damp, semi-shaded environment that the Ethiopian forest provides. Since coffee is a major export of Ethiopia, it’s more profitable for local farmers and the Ethiopian government to reserve these areas for coffee, rather than clearing the land for agricultural use or logging.
Interestingly, the researchers also note that global warming may become an advantage in using coffee for conservation. As temperature and precipitation increase with climate change, the elevation range in which coffee can thrive will broaden.
However, the startling lack of biodiversity at some sites of coffee production is reason to think twice before considering coffee in conservation strategies.
The loss of biodiversity at these sites depend on how heavily the areas are managed by humans. Strategies for coffee production range from forest coffee, which is less managed, to garden coffee, where coffee-growing areas are highly modified.
Garden coffee, or “coffee plantations,” have the biggest negative impact on local biodiversity. To optimize coffee growth, Coffea arabica are planted at very high densities, competing species are removed, and trees are even cut down to moderate sunlight.
As humans tamper with the environment to achieve the best coffee growth, the resulting decline in biodiversity has a negative effect on specialist species in particular. In addition, heavy management threatens the integrity Coffee arabica as a species.
Coffee management involves picking the “best” plants for production. This places wild-growing coffee at risk and could ultimately lead to a decline in Coffee arabica’s genetic diversity. A lack of genetic diversity gives species less room to adapt, and leaves them more vulnerable to extinction.
Although the resulting decline in biodiversity counters the benefits from preserving forest coverage, the discovery of coffee’s role in preventing deforestation can still be used to advance conservation, if considered wisely.
The researchers conclude that conservation policy in the future should attempt to find a balance between habitat protection with biodiversity degradation. One way is to promote the use of less heavy-handed management systems, like forest coffee, which leave the integrity of the environment more intact.
If this balance is achieved, coffee production may go a long way in preserving the forests of Ethiopia and similar areas.
Hylander, K., Nemomissa, S., Delrue, J., and Enkosa, W. (2013). “Effects of Coffee Management on Deforestation Rates and Forest Integrity.” Conservation Biology, 27: 1031–1040. doi: 10.1111/cobi.12079