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Growing Coffee in the Volcano's Shadow.

"I'll have a bag of coffee, please!" It's a common request that we Nicaraguans have at the corner market each morning. Many of us can't begin our day without our usual cup of coffee.

But few people are aware of the arduous process by which that bag arrives in our hands, beginning with the way the coffee is planted, the different ways it is grown, and the hundreds of people needed to harvest, wash, dry, and distribute the coffee within and outside of Nicaragua. And even more people are unaware of the efforts now underway to ensure that production of coffee does not harm the rich bird and plant life of Nicaragua.

Agriculture: A source of contamination in Nicaragua

Historically, Nicaragua's economic development has been based primarily on agricultural exports, leading to intensive and indiscriminate use of agrochemicals. During the 1950's, Nicaragua became Central America's leading importer of agrochemicals.

In the country's coffee-growing regions, misguided decisions were made to combat la roya, coffee leaf rust (Hemileia vastatrix), by removing shade trees and growing the coffee in full sun. At the same time, attempts to combat la broca, the coffee-boring beetle (Hypothenemus hampeii), demanded intensive chemical controls, all leading to the destruction of one of the most sustainable and environmentally benign agroecosystems in Nicaragua: traditional shade-grown coffee farms. This shift towards more technical methods of coffee production brought disastrous economic, social, and environmental consequences.

Nicaragua has 74,000 hectares (183,000 acres) under coffee production, with the dominant system now being "technified" or sun coffee. In addition to large concentrations of chemicals being applied year after year, increased development of sun coffee plantations results in the loss of forest habitats. The disappearance of forests often also means the disappearance of many spectacular birds, such as the pale-billed woodpecker (Campephilus guatemalensis), similar to the ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) of North America, and the keel-billed toucan (Ramphastos sulfuratus), one of the most colorful and recognizable species in the New World tropics. Also, some neotropical migrants, such as yellow-throated vireos (Vireo flavifrons) and orange-crowned warblers (Vermivora celata), may not fare well with conversion of native forest to sun coffee.

Coffee with a Mombacho aroma

But all is not lost yet. Currently in Nicaragua, some organizations are promoting programs to assist small and medium-sized coffee producers to move toward organic production and replace the shade trees.

Fundacion Cocibolca is a non-governmental organization that manages the Volcan Mombacho Nature Reserve, located on the shore of Lake Nicaragua, southeast of Managua. This protected area extends up the slopes of the inactive Mombacho volcano, encompassing the last remnant of Pacific cloud forest in Nicaragua. It is home to toucans and parrots (which are threatened by a thriving illegal bird trade) as well as to 87 species of orchids and an endemic butterfly. The Fundacion promotes the conservation of native habitats, and has begun studies to compare the sustainability of organic and nonorganic coffee farms. Applying a coffee production system that is more environmentally healthy, and at the same time economically viable, is not just a dream, but a goal to benefit everyone.

Jose Manuel Zolotoff Pallais is an Ecologist with Fundacion Cocibolca in Nicaragua.
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Author:Pallais, Jose Manuel Zolotoff
Publication:Endangered Species Bulletin
Geographic Code:2NICA
Date:Jul 1, 1998
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