In Central America, shade coffee has often helped to preserve tree cover, along with the ecological services it provides, in areas that are under pressure from ranchers, farmers, loggers, and developers. Over the past two decades, however, declining international coffee prices, rapid urbanization, and other factors have undermined shade coffee’s ability to play this role in some countries.
To moderate temperature, humidity, and sunlight, most Central American coffee growers plant their crop under managed or natural tree cover. Unlike most human dominated landscapes, this mixed agroforestry system provides many of the same ecological services associated with natural forests, including harboring biodiversity, preventing soil erosion, sequestering carbon, and facilitating aquifer recharge—albeit at a lower level than in natural forests. Shade coffee’s biodiversity benefits have received particular attention. The crop grows in mountain ranges at altitudes where tropical and temperate climates overlap, areas that are extremely rich in biodiversity.
Unfortunately, Central American shade coffee farmers are facing unprecedented market pressures. In 2001, after a decade of decline interrupted by short-term spikes, inflation-adjusted world coffee prices dropped to their lowest levels in fifty years. This phenomenon is commonly referred to as the coffee crisis, and its causes include the collapse of the international coffee cartel in the late 1980s, increased world supply (mainly due to exports from Vietnam and Brazil), and an increase in the bargaining power of coffee roasters. Because these factors are structural rather than cyclical, prices are unlikely to rebound to pre-1990 levels, at least not in the near term. As coffee prices declined, tree cover in some Central American shade coffee areas was cleared to make way for more remunerative land uses such as urban development and conventional farming. Some of the resulting damages, including species loss and soil erosion, may be irreversible or nearly so. This problem is beginning to attract the attention of policymakers, but it remains poorly understood. The only previous research on the topic was a study of tree cover loss in a 250,000-hectare shade coffee growing area in southern Mexico during the late 1990s. That study found that 3 percent of the area was cleared in the late 1990s, primarily by small-scale coffee growers planting subsistence crops to mitigate the impact of declining coffee prices.
Although tree cover loss may be a problem in shade coffee areas in a number of Central American countries, it is particularly worrisome in El Salvador, the most densely populated country in the Americas and the most severely deforested. Less than 10 percent of the country’s natural forests survive, and a significant share of the remaining tree cover is associated with shade coffee. Data from satellite images, and interviews with Salvadoran stakeholders provide insight into the magnitude, characteristics, and drivers of tree cover loss in El Salvador’s shade coffee areas during the 1990s.