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Coffee cornucopia

“This is much more than a coffee plantation,” said Isodoro Morales as he neared the top of the hill.

Although his organic plantation appears helter-skelter, it is the product of considerable management skill and hard work—more work, in fact, than the manicured monoculture that defines large-scale commercial operations. In his plantation, Morales explained, coffee bushes are only the common denominator of a whole floral and faunal community, outwardly messy but possessing an important inner logic.

The most critical members of the community are the trees, for they cast the shade needed to produce the finest beans. Coffee grown in full sun yields more, but shade coffee tastes better.

Some 25 species of trees grow on Morales’ plantation, both natives and fruit bearers. He cuts and thins them to let in just the right amount of sun, like adjusting a Venetian blind. The trees provide other services as well. In this land of mountains and mist, the trees intercept the low-lying clouds and catch their moisture, which then drops gently to the ground. The roots of some of the trees support colonies of microorganisms that fix nitrogen from the atmosphere and return this key nutrient to the earth in a form that can be used by plants.

Image removed.The finest organic beans need just the right amount of shade.Morales’ plantation could almost qualify as a nature preserve, and in fact, his community of Lagos de Colores is surrounded by a national park (To find out how this happened, see article, “Dueling parks.”)

That day Morales had harvested a big sack of oranges, only one of a variety of fruits that ripen on his plantation throughout the year. He had also recently felled a dying tree and deftly chain sawed it into boards, which were now stacked to dry. From one of his trees he plucked the abandoned nest of an oropendola bird, an elegant construction shaped like a baggy old sock. He planned to hang it in his house for decoration.

His plant community also includes banana-like plantains and some medicinal plants, although he admits that much knowledge of useful plants has already been lost with the passing of the older generation.

Accompanying Morales was Gerónimo Bartolón Ortiz, a technical expert who provides assistance to the producer organizations belonging to the Indigenous Ecological Federation of Chiapas (FIECH), which is carrying out a program of improvements with the help of financing from the Inter-American Development Bank. He compared the Morales plantation with the conventional, nonorganic agriculture he has seen practiced elsewhere in Chiapas.

“When the farmers began using agrochemicals, we lost the traditions of our ancestors,” said Bartolón. “Now the soils are becoming impoverished, and we are seeing diseases that we didn’t have before. We have to rescue this traditional knowledge,” he said.

The biological diversity in an organic coffee plantation helps to keep diseases in check. The most important coffee pest around the world is an insect called the broca (Hypothenemus hampei), which bores into the green fruit. But biological control, using species of wasps and a certain fungus, will keep it in check. Even toads help out with their voracious appetites. Another pest, the grub called gallina ciega, became a problem when farmers reduced the amount of organic material they were adding to the soil, according to Bartolón.

“When we started practicing organic agriculture, we learned about these interactions between the trees, the soil, the animals,” said Bartolón. “Now we use fewer chemicals and we do less burning.”

Another member of the technical advisory team, Eleuterio Mendez, said that the farmer himself is also part of the natural community. “Many times technicians know the theory,” he said, “but farmers have knowledge that comes from experience, that comes from being there. They know the trees, the diseases, the animals.”

Impressed by their experience with coffee, local farmers are using organic techniques to grow traditional corn and beans. Agrochemicals may produce handsome profits in the short term, said Morales, but they jeopardize his future livelihood and that of his children.

Image removed.The other half of the latte equation: Cattle can be raised under organic conditions, just like coffee, maintains Morales.

If his coffee crop yields the profits he expects, Morales plans to get into the dairy business—completing the latte equation. He acknowledged that conservationists single out livestock as a major cause of deforestation and environmental degradation, “but not if you raise them under ecological conditions,” he said. “With my 15 years of experience as an organic farmer I think I can manage anything.” The key, he said, is to use trees to keep the soil moist, but still let in enough sun so that the grass grows.

Ornithologically correct. Organic coffee is aimed at a niche market of coffee connoisseurs who know and appreciate superior coffee. Experts believe that this niche will keep growing: witness the remarkable expansion of pricy Starbucks coffee, whose outlets are now so numerous that they are sometimes within sight of each other.

Nature conservationists are also happy to pay a premium for organic coffee. Some private firms and many environmental groups are spreading the word that buying shade-grown coffee protects nature in the tropics. Many of the world’s biodiversity hotspots are in coffee-producing areas.

Birdwatchers in particular have a personal motive for buying shade coffee: Intact avian habitat in the tropics will help ensure good numbers of feathered migrants in the northern spring. The websites of birdwatching groups hammer home the coffee connection. One group’s site informs its members that half as many bird species—and two-thirds fewer individual birds—live in full-sun plantations than in shade plantations.

Wealthy, educated consumers are not the only ones who appreciate the environmental benefits of shade-grown coffee. Farmers do too. “I believe that nature suffers when we farmers do not show the proper respect,” said Morales. “I talk with the plants and with the forest, because they are alive like ourselves and need affection. Even coffee.”

“What is important for me is to respect nature, and not just money,” Morales continued. “We farmers don’t aspire to be professionals, because our job is to produce. We can produce in a way that lets us maintain our way of life, changing certain things, but keeping to our traditions. We don’t have to look for happiness in other places, in the cities or in the United States.”

Morales concluded:

“Some say that you have to stop being indigenous if you want to live well. We now know this is not true. We want to recover our traditional values and our language. Most of all, we believe that God created nature, and humans must take care of it.”

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