Coffee Farmers Become Citizen Scientists in Southern Mexico

Resplendent quetzals like this one play an important role as seed dispersers, particularly for wild avocados. (© Efraín Orantes)

Through our Team Earth story, “Chiapas: Coffee, Climate and Conservation in Mexico,” we’ve been exploring many of the connections between communities, ecosystems and the beverage that hundreds of millions of us drink every day. In this guest blog from a scientist funded by the Conservation Leadership Programme, we bring you another part of the story — farmers-turned-birdwatchers whose newfound knowledge is causing bird-friendly shifts in coffee cultivation.

As we enjoy awakening to our favorite coffee blend, sip by sip, how often do we think about where it comes from? Do we stop to contemplate the origin of our coffee beans, the livelihoods of the people who grow them, or the ecological impacts of our consumer choices? Isn’t it time to connect our coffee to its roots in conservation?

Local farmers/bird monitors looking for birds on a transect. (© Elizabeth Tyson)

Most coffee is produced in high altitude forest. Coffee is the main export crop in Nuevo Paraiso, a small one-restaurant town in Chiapas, Mexico where one of the two coffee cooperatives in the area, known as Comon Yaj Noptic is located. The other coffee cooperative, Ramal Santa Cruz, is a pick-up truck or horse ride up the road. Both cooperatives are made up of organic, shade-grown coffee farmers that farm on communally owned and managed lands, called ejido.

Each farmer has a small plot of coffee bushes that grow in the pine-oak forests in the buffer zone surrounding the El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve. This biological hotspot is part of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor and is home to many migratory, endemic and rare birds such as the horned guan (Oreophasis derbianus), azure rumped tanager (Tangara cabanisi), golden-cheeked warbler (Dendroica chrysoparia) — arguably a Texan — and the resplendent quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno). Many of these species spend summers up north in the U.S. and Canada — you may have even seen some of them in your own backyard.

Pronatura Sur, one of the largest non-governmental organizations in southern Mexico, had an innovative idea to train these local farmers, known as campesinos, in bird identification to gather data on bird populations. With the help of scientists, these campesinos are becoming more knowledgeable about birds and the ecosystem services birds provide for coffee, such as pest control.

Campesino bird monitors looking at birds in an organic, shade-grown coffee plot. (© Jennifer Lowry)

Citizen science isn’t new — you may be familiar with the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, which is one of the oldest citizen-science projects still in operation.

These types of projects bring about many additional benefits besides scientific information. In my case, I was evaluating the bird monitors’ technical capacities — such as bird identification and data collection skills — as well as their perceptions of nature. To my surprise, these bird monitors hadn’t always liked birds; some campesinos used to kill birds for pleasure. It wasn’t until they became involved with this program that their attitudes on birds and conservation started changing. As one monitor put it, “We now run outside with our binoculars, instead of a slingshot.”

Now there are community signs that read, “No Hunting,” “Conserve Nature,” and “Do Not Harm the Trees.” Monitors incorporate their bird observations into the management of their coffee farms, leaving more trees standing than in the past.

Having witnessed firsthand the connection between coffee and conservation, I hope I’ve convinced you of the value of buying organic, shade-grown coffee. It tastes better, keeps habitat protected for our birds, and empowers coffee farmers like those in Chiapas to earn a living with binoculars in hand!

Jennifer Lowry is part of a team of scientists currently conducting a research project entitled “Bird Species Richness within Shade-Grown Coffee Farms in Chiapas, Mexico.” This project is funded through the Conservation Leadership Programme, a partnership of Conservation International, BirdLife International, Fauna & Flora International and the Wildlife Conservation Society. Learn more about Jennifer’s work, or check out our Team Earth Chiapas story.

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