Shade-grown coffee benefits birds, forests & people in Venezuela

  • The Aves y Cafe program in Venezuela aids rural communities by encouraging community-centered shade coffee agroforestry, while protecting rare and migrating birds.
  • The project has so far succeeded in protecting 415 hectares (1,025 acres) of montane forest, ensuring the survival of threatened endemic and migratory bird species.
  • Through empowering local smallholders, the program is enhancing livelihoods, promoting biodiversity conservation and safeguarding crucial ecological corridors, including carbon sequestration.

Each morning, as Luis Arrieta heads out to begin work on his shade-grown coffee farm, vindication comes in the form of birdsong gushing from the trees, a cacophony of trills and warbles of passerines punctuated by the croaks of the groove-billed toucanet (Aulacorhynchus sulcatus).

“It’s one of the rewards of my job,” he says.

An agronomist hailing from a family that has grown coffee in Venezuela’s Cordillera de la Costa for generations, Arrieta always had a keen interest in animals, particularly birds. During a stint as the director of the Pinar Zoo, he became involved in a captive breeding program for the endangered red siskin (Spinus cucullatus). After his return to agronomy, the little vermillion red finch would be the muse that inspired the Cafe y Aves (Coffee and Birds) program.

“I realized there could be a way to combine my two passions to conserve our threatened biodiversity and coffee culture, which were both disappearing,” he says. “And that was through shade coffee.”

In the 2010s, Arrieta co-founded the Cafe y Aves program in northern Venezuela, promoting community-based conservation through agroforestry. Since then, the program has pioneered the reforestation of 415 hectares (1,025 acres) and secured the protection of one of the region’s last remaining corridors of threatened tropical dry forest. It also revived a dying tradition of shade-grown coffee cultivation, all while improving livelihoods. Shade coffee is a kind of agroforestry, an agroecology technique that grows coffee shrubs under native trees, allowing for the persistence of forest trees and preserving some of the local biodiversity, like birds.

Now, the program plans to expand by integrating shade-cultivated cacao and introducing a farmer mentorship program.

A military macaw (Ara militaris
A military macaw (Ara militaris), a species threatened in Venezuela due to habitat loss and trafficking, was spotted using the forest corridor in 2024. Image by Jhonathan Miranda.

An endangered way of life and endangered species

Nutrient-rich soils, high humidity and a tropical microclimate make the Cordillera de la Costa a hotspot for growing coffee, a tradition with deep roots in the region’s history. For generations, coffee cultivation has not only been a source of livelihood for rural communities, but also of culture and pride.

In the 1800s, Venezuela ranked among the world’s top three coffee producers. By the turn of the 20th century, 75% of its export income derived from coffee and cocoa, much of it grown in the region. However, ever since the country’s shift to a crude oil-based economy, the coffee way of life has been facing a death of a thousand cuts.

Over the past 25 years, Venezuela’s political and economic instability has crippled coffee production, which has dropped more than 60%. No longer a coffee powerhouse, most of the coffee consumed in Venezuela is now imported from neighboring countries. This, combined with hyperinflation and fixed prices, has driven the widespread abandonment of plantations and the substitution of coffee for other, more profitable crops.

“People had just given up hope with coffee,” Arrieta says. “They couldn’t even afford the price of a bag of flour for the money earned from growing 100 pounds of beans. It was very sad to see a tradition dying.”

Much like Venezuela’s coffee woes, some of the nation’s birds were also struggling. The country ranks seventh worldwide for its avian diversity, housing nearly 1,400 species that make up a staggering 13% of the planet’s avifauna.

The Cordillera de la Costa is itself a hotspot for birds. The region’s tropical cloud, montane and semi-deciduous dry forests are home to 12 birds found nowhere else on Earth. The forests are also stopovers for more than 50 migratory species that travel thousands of miles from North America to overwinter in more hospitable climes and glut themselves on the plentiful supply of insects and fruit.

But these birds and their forests are threatened by urbanization, logging for timber, fuel extraction, mining, livestock farming and agricultural conversion.

“There are major protected areas like the Henri Pittier and Macarao National parks that conserve forests at higher elevations, but the problem has always been the destruction of lowland tropical dry forests, which are also high biodiversity areas but have little to no protection,” says Roxibell Pelayo of the Red Siskin Initiative, a conservation project dedicated to conserving the endangered red siskin, a species that has almost disappeared from the wild in Venezuela due to habitat loss and illegal trafficking.

Between 1986 and 2001, the Cordillera lost roughly 30% of its lowland forest cover, mainly due to agricultural expansion. Future projections are equally bleak, indicating a further loss of 84% by 2036.

Yet, in one area of the Cordillera, agroforestry may prove part of the solution to conserve the region’s forests.

A red siskin
The red siskin, an endangered species in Venezuela due to illegal trafficking and one of the inspirations for the Cafe y Aves program, may one day be reintroduced to the area. Image by Jhonathan Miranda.

Coffee culture makes a comeback

In 2017, Arrieta began holding talks with initially skeptical locals to convince them of the benefits of shade coffee, supported by the Red Siskin Initiative and the Smithsonian’s Bird Friendly coffee certification program. Within a short time, Arrieta persuaded 25 families in the towns of Piedra, Cachimbo and La Florida to assist in his efforts to revive abandoned or semi-neglected coffee plantations.

Arrieta provided locals with a crash course on implementing agroecological techniques, including natural pest control through the use of biocontrol agents and using mycorrhizae fungi to stimulate and enhance soil fertility without the need for pesticides or fertilizers.

To maintain existing forest cover and add to it, coffee growers planted saplings of more than 20 largely native tree species to provide shade for crops and canopy cover for birds.

“It’s hard work and quite demanding, but it’s a very effective method of cultivation. The coffee beans mature slower and absorb sugars better; the plants themselves are less susceptible to diseases and are stronger than sun-grown coffee,” says Jheizy Oropeza, secretary-general of the agroforestry producers association known as ACAFLO (Asociación Civil de Productores Agroforestales Piedra e’ Cachimbo – La Florida).

Cafe y Aves founder Luis Arrieta.
Cafe y Aves founder Luis Arrieta. Image by Genesis Cardozo.

Before long, the efforts began to yield results. Primary-grade coffee produced in the Cordilleras once again began reaching the major cities in the region such as Valencia and Caracas. The coffee, topped by the logo of a red siskin, has since proved popular among inner city consumers and cafes. The Venezuelan government’s deregularization of coffee prices in the past three years has also made selling easier.

However, besides shade-grown coffee, locals have begun using agroforestry techniques for other crops, too. Bananas, avocados, lemons, oranges and native fruits such as ocumo (Xanthosoma sagittifolium), tamarillo (Solanum betaceum) and lulo (Solanum quitoense) are shade-grown for consumption as well as sale at local markets, further bolstering an ailing local economy and providing an additional source of income.

As word spread, more communities sought involvement with the project, leading to the founding of the ACAFLO, dedicated to promoting sustainable agroforestry. Through its work, ACAFLO continues to grow: More than 115 new farmers signed up to be part of the certification process in just 2023 alone.

From humble beginnings and an uncertain future, the Cafe y Aves program has succeeded in reviving coffee culture and providing a livelihood for rural communities.

“The other reward of my work is when elderly people who worked their whole lives with coffee tell us how proud they are that we are keeping this tradition going,” Arrieta says.

The project’s conservation achievements have been just as impressive. Today, it manages 415 hectares of forested land, forming a vital habitat corridor stretching across the lowlands between the Henri Pittier and Macarao National parks. This forest isn’t just protecting wildlife, but also storing considerable carbon in its trees. A local nursery provides thousands of saplings for reforestation.

It’s an accomplishment that impresses Fabiola Vásquez, a researcher at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

“I think they [Cafe y Aves] are a role model for projects in areas of the world where coffee and cocoa are produced,” she tells Mongabay. “Though shade coffee crops can’t ever replace primary forest, they still support a greater diversity of bird species compared to monocultures or sun-grown coffee. That’s why it’s so important to support programs like Café y Aves and the Bird Friendly certification program that promote sustainability and diversity.”

In addition to benefiting hundreds of birds, the protection and restoration also represent a small step toward bringing the project’s symbol and inspiration, the red siskin, back to this area of the Cordillera one day.

“There is still a long journey ahead of us before we can reintroduce birds from our captive breeding facility into the wild,” Pelayo says. “But once we’re ready, this area will be one of the principal sites we’ll consider for their release.”

And, despite its success, Cafe y Aves has no plan to rest on its laurels, with the next phases set to ramp up agroforestry even further.

Building on grassroots origins and informed by input from sociologists, Cafe y Aves has recently adopted a farmer-to-farmer learning strategy. Farmers who participated in the early phases of the project will soon begin teaching others how to grow shade coffee — an approach that facilitates both a rapid dissemination of agroecology to other areas and increases the likelihood of long-term adoption by communities. The project also plans to incorporate the cultivation of shade cacao in the near future.

“We’ve got an opportunity to expand our efforts, and our hope is to encourage people to replicate this model of community agroforestry across Venezuela,” says Arrieta, adding, “We’ve begun advising a project in the Andes focused on spectacled bears, so we’re optimistic that our model of shade coffee cultivation can make a difference there as well.”

Banner image: A red siskin, by Jhonathan Miranda.

Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: Author Laura Martin describes restoration as an attempt to design nature with non-human collaborators, which she details in her book “Wild by Design,” listen here:

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