“I’ll uproot the coffee in a month’s time anyway. I do not see its value anymore.” he told me. My dad grew up in a coffee producing community at the slopes of Mount Kenya. In particular, the Arabica variety does well in the Kenyan highlands where it is cooler. The soils are volcanic, deep and well drained.
Many farmers applied indigenous farming practices when coffee farming was introduced in my village in 1935. They grew native tree species in their farms which offered habitat and food for many birds. However, they began to remove these shade trees when the coffee economy crashed in the 1980s with the hope of increased yields. As the coffee prices worsened in the 1990s, many of them also uprooted their coffee bushes and continue to do so today.
What is at Stake?
Our coffee zone lies within Mount Kenya ecosystem which is a biodiversity hotspot. It is an Important Bird Area (IBA) where 53 out of Kenya’s 67 African highland biome bird species and 35 forest specialist species are found. Mount Kenya is also one of Kenyan Mountains Endemic Bird Area (EBA) hosting 7 of the 9 range restricted species. Despite these endowments, traditional coffee farms and birdlife in this area continue to face threats from agricultural expansion and intensification in addition to climate change.
Establishing traditional coffee farms
These traditional coffee farms can be thought of as modified forest habitats. They are often the last shelter for birds among other forest adapted organisms.
The native shade trees also protect the understory coffee plants from rain and sun, help maintain soil quality, reduce the need for weeding and aid pest control. Birds prey especially on the coffee berry borers, the world’s most serious coffee pest, which has already expanded its geographical range in East Africa’s Arabica growing zones due to global warming.
Additionally, organic matter from the shade trees provides a natural mulch which reduces the need for chemical fertilizers, reduces erosion, contributes important nutrients to the soil and reduces metal toxicities. Shading also preserves quality attributes such as acidity, fruity character and flavor that are typical of coffees produced at cool climates.