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Some migratory birds and coffee simply don’t mix

The New Straits Times, May 12, 2002

By Dzulkifli Abdul Razak

Coffee, of late, has been making its present felt with the emergence of many new up-market brand names. Some though ridiculously priced, seem not to deter people, especially the young ones, from sampling them. Most do not even care to ask about the caffeine content, although generally speaking, drinking decaffeinated coffee is more health-friendly.

But now there is another question namely, is the coffee bird-friendly too? This is because some coffees and birds do not mix. But what have birds to do with coffee? As we know, at certain times of the year, birds migrate from one part of the world to another in search of a more favourable weather and living condition. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, from August to April every year, Malaysia becomes a transit point for water birds from all over the world.

Malaysia's vast rainforest is home to "more than 700 species of exotic bird-life, including some extremely rare ones," according to some sources. Many parts of the country, including Taman Negara, Fraser's Hill, Kinabalu Park and Pulau Layang-layang and Kuala Gula in Perak are bird sanctuaries. It is estimated that during migratory months, some 48 species can be found in Malaysia. But over the years, the number of migratory birds are slowly declining. This is where the coffee factor comes in.

Birds, supposedly, can act as an indicator of how important coffee is in protecting biodiversity, according to the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Centre Fact Sheets. This is because in an increasingly deforested environment, coffee plantations have been known to be critical refuges protecting diverse forest species such as insects.

Traditional or shaded coffee plantations are considered by some as modified forest habitats, with shade trees providing shelter from adverse and intense weather to coffee plants, and promoting growth by providing quality soil through natural means. The shade canopy also presents tremendous op-portunities for conservation of migratory birds.

Thus, due to altered and shrinking habitats, migratory birds especially in North and Latin America, have turned to the forest-like landscape of traditional coffee plantations for sanctuary and can support many species of birds, exceeded only in numbers in undisturbed tropical forest.

However, with recent changes in production and marketing strategy, there is a tendency to grow coffee in areas without shade canopy. This has led to what is called "sun coffee" cultivation, involving varieties that are planted densely in the sun.

"Sun-coffees" are not considered friendly to migratory birds. Sun coffee cultivation (though producing higher yield) has caused significant habitat change for migratory birds reportedly for the last two decades, largely in the northern hemisphere. Studies indicate that the diversity of migrating birds is reduced with the change in production from shade to sun coffees as these birds are deprived of the shade canopy. Fewer species are found in sun-coffee plantations.

To save the migratory birds, each time before making or buying coffee, stop and reflect whether we are being bird-friendly. Do not patronise sun-coffee because in doing so, we are losing traditional habitat, and also the rich biodiversity, including the migratory birds associated with it.

Also, the use of chemicals (fertilisers and pesticides) is bound to increase, thus further threatening the environment. All these could be addressed by choosing bird-friendly coffee.

Since most of the coffees sold in this country are imported, be sure they are not sun-coffees. Attempts are being made to label shade-coffees so that consumers are better informed in making their choice. Meanwhile, we must do our best to protect our bird sanctuaries and promote bird conservation.

Better yet, beginning today make it a No-Coffee Day! 

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