Interview with Matthew Johnson, Humboldt State University

Interview by Melissa Krenke, Rainforest Alliance

“The goal is to document the ecological services of birds and convert that service into dollars. If farmers produce five more boxes of coffee in the presence of birds, that’s a dollar value you can assign to them.”

The Blue Mountain and John Crow Mountains National Park is Jamaica’s largest remaining tract of intact broadleaf forest, spanning 196,775 acres (79,665 hectares). The park’s forests have among the highest degree of endemism and species diversity in the Caribbean and is home to approximately 150 species of resident and migratory birds. The biggest threat to the park is deforestation, largely for coffee farms. Because Blue Mountain coffee is renowned as one of the finest coffees in the world and earns some of the highest prices on the global market, promoting sustainable coffee cultivation for niche or “green” markets is difficult.

Coffee Cherries -- Photo by Dr. Matthew JohnsonMatthew Johnson, Professor of Wildlife at Humboldt State University in California is working to determine the ecological services, such as pest control, that birds can provide to coffee farmers, which he hopes will encourage them to plant more trees on their farms, and thus increase resident and migratory bird habitat in the Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park and its buffer zone.

Question: Coffee grown under shade trees provides important bird habitat in many Neotropical countries. How is coffee cultivation in Jamaica different?

Johnson: While coffee is considered a valuable conservation tool in many regions of the Neotropics, it is the premiere threat to the Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park. The park is one of the most threatened in the world, and is included in The Nature Conservancy’s Parks in Peril program. Most of the coffee grown in the park’s buffer zone is not grown under any kind of a tree canopy — yet the coffee bushes still grow under shade, because the park is at a high enough elevation that the clouds provide shade.

Another reason is because Blue Mountain coffee is one of the world’s premium coffees — it can sell for up to US $80 dollars per pound. This creates a different application of the coffee market than what has been applied traditionally, which is to earn a slightly higher price over commodity-level coffee for a product that is grown sustainably. This doesn’t apply in the Blue Mountains because the farmers are already selling their coffee for such a high premium.

Q: Then how do you encourage coffee farmers to adopt conservation practices on their farms?

Johnson: We are focusing on the potential benefit of birds in these coffee farms by linking conservation practices that attract birds with economic benefits derived from them. Farmers in Jamaica are spending a lot of money to control insect pests that damage their crops. In Jamaica, as well as elsewhere throughout Latin America, the two major coffee insect pests are the coffee berry borer beetle (Hypothenemus hampei), and a caterpillar called the coffee leafminer (Leucoptera coffeella). We are focusing on the borer beetle — if insect-eating birds prey upon these pests, then it would benefit farmers if they manage their farms to attract birds and receive free pest control. Of course, a good way to attract birds is to plant shade trees for habitat, which would also provide an ecological buffer along the park’s border.

Group of Men -- Photo by Dr. Matthew JohnsonQ: How are you measuring bird predation on these pests?

Johnson: We are doing exclosure experiments, which are fairly standard in ecological research — they are called so because they “exclude” birds. In November of 2005, we placed 35 exclosures around a number of coffee bushes to keep birds off of the plants. We monitor the amount of insects inside and outside of the exclosures, as well as coffee berry infestation rates and sellable coffee yield. If the birds are controlling these pests, we should find more insects inside the exclosures than outside.

Q: What do your results to date suggest?

Johnson: We are still collecting data, but our preliminary results clearly show that infestation by the borer beetle is much higher in the absence of birds. In the fall of 2005, we did a shorPhoto by Dr. Matthew Johnsont companion study where we simulated an insect outbreak on coffee farms by collecting a different species of caterpillar that doesn’t eat coffee plants. We gathered hundreds of these caterpillars, placed them inside and outside of the exclosures, and then repeatedly monitored how quickly they disappeared by bird predation over a 24-hour period. We found that they were eaten two times more quickly outside the exclosures — in the presence of birds these caterpillars were disappearing almost immediately. This gave an interesting companion result that shows that not only can birds suppress chronic coffee pests, but if there is an additional infestation on diversified farms, birds can help control that as well.

Q: How are you converting your data into economic benefits for farmers?

Johnson: The goal is to document the ecological services of birds and convert that service into dollars. If farmers produce five more boxes of coffee in the presence of birds, that’s a dollar value you can assign to them. We’re still working out the details, but we are going to quantify several variables — one is the crop yield in the presence or absence of birds and the second is the proportion of that yield that is sellable in the presence and absence of birds. The difference between the two represents the increase in the amount of sellable crop from the presence of birds.

Q: Are park officials involved in this project?

Johnson: We are working with them as closely as we can. As is the case in a lot of parks in the tropics, they are understaffed and under-funded. They are a really hardworking group of folks. They’ve been very cooperative.

Q: How are the farmers responding to your research and findings?

Johnson: In general, the farmers are very cooperative. Some of their resistance to planting shade trees is because they think it might encourage the spread of leaf-spot fungi (Mycena citricolor and Cercospora coffeicola), because this is a high-elevation, very moist region. To investigate this speculation, we are going to do some surveys to determine if these fungi are indeed related to the amount of shade present.

After we finish collecting our empirical data, we’ll focus on analyzing the results and disseminating our findings. We are going to organize educational outreach workshops in the summer of 2007 to bring together all of the stakeholders — the farmers, government agency personnel, and biologists, to facilitate a discussion about the pros and cons of shade trees, and try to start to effect change on the ground.


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