Gold Standard

Gold Standard

When it comes to protecting natural havens for bird species, shade-grown-coffee farms are second only to virgin forest. A writer's journey through Nicaragua illustrates just how key coffee farms can be for the well-being of a certain warbler.

By T. Edward Nickens
Published: May-June 2011

"Eduardo, toucan! Vienen aqui!" Come here! Omar Quintero's pleas jolt me back to focus. I'm beat. Late yesterday, Smalling and I drove south from El Jaguar's misty cloudforests toward Managua, past beneficios where coffee beans dried on large concrete platforms and tiny villages with mud homes hunkered under banana trees. We arrived at Finca Esperanza Verde at sunset.

I scan the ridges of the Cordillera Dariense but see nothing. "Mas alto," Quintero instructs me. Look higher. I focus in on a distant ridge and there is the Central American rainforest's signature bird--the keel-billed toucan--showy and exuberant, as if all of the colors and drama of the tropics were distilled into the features of a single animal.

Opened in 2000, this ecolodge was founded on an ethos of ecological coffee farming. Scientists study golden-winged warblers among 265 acres of steep, forested slopes and shade-grown-coffee patches that were once cattle pasture. Some tourists plumb five long trails in search of orchids; others come for the monkeys and tree sloths. There are more than 150 bird species here. The lodge's cabin rooms are built from handmade bricks, and the property protects the watersheds of seven springs and generates power through solar panels and a micro-hydro generator. Drawing 1,300 tourists each year, Finca Esperanza Verde has chalked up seven international ecotourism awards or distinctions.

And just like the golden-winged warblers, summer tanagers, and American redstarts that winter in its woods, the farm has strong links to North Carolina. In 1993 five Durham, North Carolina, churches formed Sister Communities of San Ramon, Nicaragua (SCSRN). Church members had spent years protesting the U.S.-backed Contra war of the 1980s. After the hostilities, visits to Nicaragua's San Ramon region led to a more personal commitment. Stateside, the group sold Nicaraguan coffee in church sales to support various food distribution and clean water projects, but there were bigger dreams. "The poverty there was just overwhelming," says Lonna Harkrader, a former Peace Corps volunteer who served as executive director for the SCSRN from its inception until 2009. "We felt there was more we could do."

From that despair grew the idea of an ecolodge that would employ local workers in sustainable-coffee cultivation and plow its profits back into the community. In 1997 the group bought an abandoned coffee farm on a remote hilltop northeast of Matagalpa. There was no water, electricity, or telephone service. All around were plunging cliffs and tiny wattle-and-daub homes clinging to narrow, muddy roadsides. The closest bus stop was an hour's walk away. "What you see now--the coffee, the lushness--was all barren," Harkrader says. "It had been classic slash-and-burn agriculture for so long that nothing would grow on it."

That's hard to imagine. Smalling monitors golden-winged warblers at a dozen sites scattered across Finca Esperanza Verde, and we take off after an early breakfast to make the rounds. Just 50 footsteps from the dining pavilion, I am cocooned in cathedral forests of ceiba trees, most draped in veils of green philodendrons. Streams tumble in head-high waterfalls, across mossy rocks and under tree ferns forming primeval shapes.

We break into the dappled sun of a coffee patch, and Smalling wedges the MP3 player in the crook of a tree. The loop of golden-winged warbler territorial calls was recorded in North America, so, oddly, we hear the calls of crows and indigo buntings as well.

Soon a pair of male golden-wings zips into the nearby trees, chipping vigorously. I watch one bird closely as he hops from tree branch to tree branch, head flitting this way and that. He stands nearly erect, fluffing his feathers. The next moment he's rubbing his bill against the branch, first one side and then the other, declaring this is his turf. "That's called bill swiping," Smalling laughs. "He's got all this adrenaline pumping through his system, but he can't find anyone to take it out on." I can't help but think that he's sharpening his rapier. Ten feet away one of my home state's most threatened birds is having a full-blown hissy fit.

On the edge of a coffee patch, I can hear the zing of machetes downslope as unseen coffee workers chop at the weeds and shrubs growing between the rows of coffee plants. Though my visit is at the peak of bird numbers for these woodlands, I have just missed the height of the coffee harvest. Still, a few pickers move through the groves, baskets of red berries slung around their waists, using fingertips and the palms of their hands to snip each berry, one by one.

As at El Jaguar, coffee plays an important role in keeping golden-winged warblers on the land. At many sites the birds hunt insects in the dead, dangling leaves and among the tangled vines and shrubs that grow up in sunlit forest gaps, while small patches of shade-grown coffee support the mix of canopy and undergrowth the warblers seek.

When Finca Esperanza Verde was first training locals to guide birders, the learning curve was as steep as the region's rugged mountains themselves. "We had to teach them to go slowly," Harkrader tells me. "To pull out the field guide, to talk about the birds. They were just zooming people through the woods!"

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