Radical collaboration protects Colombia’s birds, coffee farmers

Amanda Rodewald, the Garvin Professor of Ornithology and director of conservation science at the Lab of Ornithology, examines a mourning warbler caught in one of her mistnets on a shade coffee farm in Jardin, Colombia. Credit: Lab of Ornithology/Provided

The traditional approach to environmental conservation goes something like this: A particular landscape or species, usually somewhere in the developing world, is deemed important and, therefore, countries are encouraged to rope off big chunks of land and keep people out.

But the people being kept out are usually farmers struggling with poverty, whose only reliable source of income is that landscape. The approach pits two important principles against each other: and social justice.

Over the past decade or so, conservationists have learned that the most effective, sustainable and just solutions take into account the social, economic and environmental needs of each area. These kinds of solutions are harder to find and require radical collaborations, not just between multidisciplinary academic fields, but also between public and private stakeholders and, most importantly, between conservationists and the farmers themselves.

Focusing on in Colombia, two Cornell researchers are leading just such a collaboration: Juan Nicolás Hernandez-Aguilera, a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Miguel Gomez, associate professor of applied economics and management, and Amanda Rodewald, the Garvin Professor of Ornithology and director of conservation science at the Lab of Ornithology.

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Cornell University scientist Amanda Rodewald and economist Juan Nicolás Hernandez-Aguilera are collaborating on a project to look at the ecological and socio-economic aspects of sustainable coffee. Credit: Lab of Ornithology

Their work centers on supporting a sustainable environment for Colombia’s birds and coffee growers. Coffee is the second-most valuable commodity produced by developing countries, after petroleum, generating income for approximately 125 million people in those countries. And Colombia is the most biodiverse country in the world, per hectare, with the most diverse bird population in the world.

But changes in coffee production are threatening that biodiversity. The chief problem is a shift from traditional practices where coffee was grown under a canopy of trees, called “shade-grown coffee” to more sterile monocultures called “sun coffee.” This conversion has largely resulted from efforts to increase coffee yields, but that comes at the expense of sustainability.

“The notion of sustainability implies different aspects: environmental sustainability, but also social and economic sustainability, and providing opportunities for small-holder growers. We…

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