Bird-friendly coffee in Haiti
by Nate Swick
Environmental issues on the island of Hispaniola may not, at first glance, appear to have a great deal of influence on the birds we enjoy here in North America, but as the second largest island in the Caribbean, so many of our neotropic migrants use the remnant forests of the Donimican Republic and Haiti as important wintering and stopover habitat. This includes, but is in no way limited to, several species of warblers and the endangered Black-capped Petrel, which breeds only on a few remote cliffs in two of Haiti's beseiged national parks. So the ongoing humanitarian concerns of the nation, especially in the wake of the devastating earthquake in January of 2010, have a very real effect on the birds we watch here in North America.
The question of what to do to encourage the nation of Haiti, and any nation with a relatively poor population whose survival needs often conflict with environmental concerns for that matter, to address over-exploitation of natural resources, has long concerned international NGOs. It should concern anyone with an interest in birds too, as they don't see national boundaries, only habitat that was there, and now isn't.
I suppose that's a long-winded way of saying that any opportunity to combine natural resource protection with initiatives that provide residents of Hispaniola, specifically Haitians, an opportunity to make a living should be encouraged. And one of the most exciting of those opportunities comes from shade-grown coffee, because it turns out the cultivar from Haiti, which still grows as a mostly wild plant, is apparently some of the finest in the world:
The coffee [restaurant owner Aimee] Olexy had fallen for, Haitian Blue Forest, came from [coffee grower Nelson] Robinson's home in the destitute mountains of southeastern Haiti. The beans had been handpicked from semiwild vines that his great-grandfather and neighbors had planted from heirloom seeds linked to ancient Ethiopia.
Robinson told Olexy and her staff how, as a child, he had watched his father burn most of the family's coffee plantation. Although Haiti was once one of the world's major coffee exporters, politics and economics had conspired to kill off the trade. Precipitous drops in the price along with rising oil costs made the vines more valuable as a fuel source and the land more useful for growing peas.
It's an amazing story. The benefits of shade-grown coffee for migratory birds have been touted here on the ABA blog in the past, and it goes without saying that development of this resource, especially if it's the super premium stuff, would be a boon for birds and Hatians, both of which could really use the help. The coffee grows in some of the last remnants of forest left in Haiti, it would be wonderful to see them protected.