top of page
  • smitsa04

The Effects of Coffee Plantations on Tropical Forests


Legend has it that coffee was first discovered on the Ethiopian plateau by a goat herder named Kaldi, who observed his goats eating berries from a certain tree. Apparently, when the goats ate the berries, they gained so much energy they would not sleep at night. Kaldi reported his observations to members of a local monastery, who used the berries to make a special drink that kept them alert through hours of evening prayer. Word of the special drink spread across the land, and coffee began its journey towards becoming a global phenomenon. Coffee did not become particularly popular in the New World until 1773 when one certain Tea Party in Boston shifted the American drinking preference from tea to coffee. As demand for the beverage continued to grow, efforts were made to bring clippings of the plant to the Neotropics, and a new industry was born (National Coffee Association).

Today coffee is grown by more than 25 million farmers in 60 different countries. The energizing beans have become one of the world’s most important crop commodities, worth around $15 billion a year (Magrach & Ghazoul, 2015). The demand for agriculture is expected to double by the year 2050, further contributing to this number (Railsback and Johnson, 2014). Unfortunately, the cost of coffee is greater than just dollars. The expansion of coffee plantations has increased in recent years, both because of the high demand for the crop and because lower yields of the bean are being obtained as global warming continues to increase the global temperature. Coffee plants prefer a relatively narrow range of temperature, either 18 – 22°C or 22 – 28°C, depending on the species. As global temperatures continue to fluctuate, the plant is not able to produce an optimum yield, causing farmers to expand their plantations in an attempt to make a profit. The expansion of coffee has historically led to deforestation of tropical forests, an environment already at risk for destruction (Magrach & Ghazoul, 2015).

In recent years, Peru has become one of Latin America’s top coffee growers, producing as much coffee as Honduras and more than Costa Rica. The majority of Peruvian coffee is grown in Cajamarca, Junin, Cuzco, San Martin, and on the eastern slopes of the Andes. At the rate the industry is currently growing, it is very possible that Peru could become Latin America’s third largest coffee producer, behind only Brazil and Columbia. This production increase is the result of the expansion of the area under cultivation. Unfortunately, with increased plantation production comes increased deforestation and loss of biodiversity (Tulet 2010).

Image 1. Countries producing the greatest amount of coffee annually.


Coffee belongs to the plant family Rubiaceae, which contains approximately 600 genera and 13,500 species. Two of these species are cultivated by coffee farmers: Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora. C. arabica is endemic to Ethiopia, Southeastern Sudan, and northern Kenya, and is the species that would have been identified by the goat herder Kaldi. Today, C. arabica represents 95% of the coffee grown in the Neotropics. Although the coffee shrub is an understory plant that is genetically adapted to grow in shade, varieties have been produced that thrive in full sun. Traditional shade-grown coffee has gradually been replaced with full-sun, high-intensity agriculturally grown coffee, in an attempt to reap a larger profit. Canopy trees are removed to open up the forest and allow the coffee shrubs to receive more sunlight, resulting in a reduction in biodiversity on the coffee plantation (Kircher 2011).

Coffee plantation production in Peru began prior to World War II when a British company called the Peruvian Corporation purchased 500,000 hectares of land. The British vacated the area after the war, and plantation workers purchased the abandoned land. Since then, Peru has become one of the world’s leading coffee producers, increasing production from 1995 – 2005 from 96,700 tons to 155,000 tons, and increasing the cultivated area from 163,000 hectares to 215,000 hectares in the same time period (Tulet 2010).

One study, published in 2013, examined the impact of coffee and pasture-agriculture on both omnivorous and predatory leaf-litter ants in Brazil. The response of the ant guild was used to indicate the reaction of the entire community to such a disturbance, as previous ant guild studies showed that the response of the guild is predictive of that of the community. Coffee plantations are usually low in plant biodiversity, although shaded plantations historically disrupt ant communities less than unshaded plantations, as shaded plantations allow for more canopy cover and therefore more plant diversity. The results of the study showed that both pastures and coffee plantations have an impact on ant species, but coffee plantations create a larger disturbance than pastures. Coffee disturbs both predatory and omnivorous leaf-litter ants while pastures only disturb predatory ants, which were determined to be more sensitive to environmental changes than omnivorous ants because of their more specific diet. Coffee plantations disturbed both the number and diversity of predatory ants when compared to forest fragments. In contrast to this, pasture had no negative effect on leaf-litter ant diversity but did have a negative impact on the abundance of predatory ants. Either way, a loss of biodiversity such as was demonstrated by this study can lead to catastrophic effects in the long-term, as an entire ecosystem can be thrown off by the loss of a vital species such as leaf-litter ants (Dias et al., 2013).

Figure 1. Impact of coffee and pasture-agriculture on leaf-litter ants in Brazil (Dias et al., 2013).


The export of Peruvian specialty coffee has been steadily increasing since 1997. These exports include biological coffee (organic coffee), Fair Trade coffee, sustainable coffee, and gourmet coffee. Biological coffee guarantees the absence of chemicals both in the coffee grove and the process of transforming the coffee berry into marketable coffee. Biological coffee must obtain a rather costly certification from an international organization to display the “organic” label. Fair Trade coffee focuses on helping small coffee growers, by guaranteeing relatively stable prices and rapid payment, as well as offering the growers a higher price than the world average. Fair Trade coffee ensures small coffee growers can cover the costs of production and live a dignified life. Sustainable coffee fulfills various requirements for the protection of the environment and also attempts to provide decent working conditions and avoid child labor. Gourmet coffee is defined by the quality of the bean and is sold at a very high price (Tulet, 2010).

An ecological problem of coffee growing that has been a debated topic for many years is that of whether to have shaded or unshaded coffee plantations, simply put whether the coffee plants are grown under the shade of larger trees or if they’re grown under direct sunlight. Coffee plants are susceptible to many funguses and pests including fungi and leaf rust. Many farmers believed that if they decreased the amount of shade on their plantations, then the direct sunlight would get rid of the fungi and leaf rust. But a study by Jhu et al. (2014) showed that the opposite was actually true. They found that moderate shade, which they classified at 35-65% shade, was actually the optimal amount of shades for coffee plantations. This amount of shade reduces brown eye spots, weeds, citrus mealybugs, and the increases the effectiveness of the parasites that prey on the pests of coffee plants. In addition to the direct effects on coffee plantations, increased shade is also good for biodiversity because of the presence of so many trees. The trees are home to many birds and animals that would suffer if the trees were to be cut down for the coffee plantations.

One of the largest economic issues with coffee lately has been the steady drop in price. Coffee price is currently 25% of the cost in 1960, making it the cheapest it’s been in 100 years (Mugged: Poverty in Your Coffee Cup).

Figure 2. The trends in coffee prices from 1960 – 2000 ( Mugged: Poverty in Your Coffee Cup).

Although this sounds like a great thing for consumers, coffee farmers are really suffering. Many farmers are now no longer making enough money from coffee farming to support their families. They can no longer send their children to school and they must all cut back on the amount they eat because they cannot afford enough food. Seasonal workers become destitute in their off seasons and because they cannot unionize, they are not able to negotiate wages (Mugged: Poverty in Your Coffee Cup). Because of all of this, many coffee farmers are converting their coffee farms into cocoa farms, the raw material for cocaine. The growing conditions required for coca plants are very similar to that of the coffee plant so the transition is very easy for coffee farmers. The turnover rate of coca is much quicker than coffee and the market value is much higher. The coca plant is also resistant to diseases so farmers have higher yields. Peru, specifically Vrae Valley, has become the cocaine capital of the world and the growing presence of cocaine has brought with it a strong presence of prostitution, gang violence, and rape (Cocaine: White Gold Rush in Peru).

Going forward, a big issue that coffee growers are going to face is climate change. As mentioned before, coffee has a very narrow growing temperature range and as the globe warms, this temperature range will soon be unattainable. Additionally, coffee plantations will be faced with drought, decreasing crop yields. Peru will especially feel the hit of climate change, but for a different reason. Because of Peru’s location and climate, their coffee growing season typically begins in April, which is six months before any other growing season. This gives Peru a huge economic advantage because their coffee is being sold without competition for months (Uncommon Grounds). As climate change shifts global temperatures, this will no longer hold true and Peru will lose their advantage and will feel the economic hit of competition for the first time.


Fair Trade is an international trading partnership encompassing several organizations with a commitment towards seeking greater equity in international trade, with goals of sustainable development and better working conditions (Weber 2007). As described earlier, Fair Trade coffee offers small coffee growers higher prices than the world average and works to ensure price stability and rapid payment. For many small coffee growers, Fair Trade guarantees the costs of production will be taken care of so the farmer can make a profit (Tulet, 2010). Although the system has succeeded in improving living standards for many participating coffee growers, there are still large issues in place, such as a disconnect between advertising and reality, excess supply, and marginalization of economically disadvantaged producers and groups. These are all issues that must be addressed for Fair Trade to be an effective mechanism for economic improvement (Weber 2007).

Image 2. Examples of labels often seen on commercial coffee brands.;;

Shade-grown coffee is one agriculture technique that may prove beneficial for conserving wildlife populations. On shaded coffee plantations, the coffee is ideally grown under a canopy of trees native to the area. Shade-grown coffee is an example of “land sharing,” in which farming may take up a large area of land, but that land is designed to remain wildlife-friendly (Railsback and Johnson, 2014). On shaded coffee plantations, the canopy above the coffee shrubs maintains the biodiversity of birds on the plantation (Kircher 2011; Railsback and Johnson, 2014). This, in turn, benefits the crop production, as the birds eat pests that would otherwise eat the coffee beans and might have to be controlled with insecticides (Railsback and Johnson, 2014). There are still some issues with shade grown coffee. Because there are a variety of certification programs and minimal enforcement in the field, it can be difficult to certify coffee as shade-grown. In addition, some plantations and farmers retain only a single canopy species and remove the rest of the trees, which results in a lower biodiversity than truly shade-grown coffee (Kricher 2011).

There are currently many different labels in use, certifying different coffee brands as eco-friendly, equal exchange, equal trade, organic, bird friendly, or shade-grown. Each of these labels can have a different meaning depending on the specific plantation or farmer to which it is assigned and, equally as important, what organization assigned the label. To help consumers negotiate all of these different labels and what they stand for, it may be helpful to come up with a single, all-encompassing “happy beans” label that incorporates environmentally-friendly and worker-friendly requirements. The plantations and farmers applying for this label would have to be strictly monitored to ensure they are following the specific guideline correctly. To further encourage consumers to purchase only coffee brands using this “happy beans” label, a tax could be placed on all brands using beans that come from “unhappy bean” farms. Hopefully, this would encourage plantation owners to switch over to environmentally- and worker-friendly environments for their coffee shrubs and the rainforest could stay a little greener.


105 views0 comments


bottom of page