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Question of the Month

From the Catherwood Library reference librarians

February 2002

PLEASE NOTE: The Reference Question of the Month is kept current only during the month for which it was written. Archived questions will not be updated, and over time may contain inaccurate information or broken web links. We provide archived questions as a service, since much of the information will remain accurate and of continued interest to the ILR community.

Question: What is shade coffee?  What are some of the reasons I might want to consider buying it?

Answer: "Shade coffee" is coffee grown under a canopy of diverse species of trees that provide a suitable winter habitat for migratory birds. Unlike coffee grown in full sun, shade coffee does not need to be treated with protective chemicals. As a result, the coffee can be tested as certified organic: no pesticides, herbicides, fungicides or synthetic fertilizer have been used for three years.

While environmentalists and ornithologists certainly have an interest in promoting shade coffee, there are also labor-related issues associated with it. Larger coffee producers grow coffee on plantations which replace workers with machinery. Agrochemicals used to protect the coffee from the sun can cause injury to the workers, kill beneficial insects and poison the soil. In order to sell shade coffee as "certified organic," smaller farmers must pay for U.S. certification fees, making competition with larger "sun" coffee growers even tougher. However, some smaller growers have been able to tap into the niche market of organic or shade coffee. For example, Cien Años de Soledad, A Hundred Years of Solitude, is an organic coffee cooperative (800 members strong as of 1998) located high in the mountains of Southern Oaxaca. The people in this cooperative joined originally because they could ill afford the cost of pesticides. As certified organic farmers, they can earn considerably more on the world coffee market. Not every small farmer is so lucky: due in part to a recent coffee bust, it is reported that hundreds of thousands of workers on small family coffee plots in Latin America will be forced to seek other work.

The shade coffee movement has affected much larger coffee producers as well. Starbucks responded to pressure in 1998 by unveiling its Framework for Action for Improving the Lives of People Who Grow, Harvest and Process Coffee" to shareholders. They have developed an incentives program to pay growers a premium to improve working conditions, providing workers with benefits in education, health care, and housing. In 2000, under pressure from human rights activists to guarantee a living wage to small coffee farmers in the developing world, Starbucks announced it had signed a contract to sell Fair Trade Certified coffee as one of its brands in more than 2,000 cafes across the United States starting this fall ( They are encouraging other coffee companies to follow their example. (Since the initial furor over shade coffee, at least one ecological study indicates that shade coffee is not a panacea for conservation of bird species: see Higgins, below.)

There is much written on shade coffee. The list of references below includes pieces or articles used to answer this "question of the month" as well as further resources for study. Feel free to conduct your own searches using your favorite databases/indexes/ search engines and keywords such as "shade coffee" or "organic coffee".


Web sites
Available to Cornell patrons through Dow Jones Interactive
  • Fair Trade Movement and Indian Coffee (Nitin R Gokran, The Economic Times,February 12, 2001)
  • In Latin America, Coffee Bust Brings Ruin to Small-Scale Farmers, Spurs Exodus (Mark Stevenson, AP, July 29, 2001)
  • Organic Movement Stirs Coffee Growers in Guatemala (Stephen Franklin, KRT News Service: The Star-Ledger, June 6, 2001)
  • Shade Grown Coffee Doesn't Always Help Protect Birds (Margot Higgins, Knight-Ridder Tribune Business News: World Reporter, (September 27, 2000)
Available to Cornell patrons through EIU Country Reports
  • Agriculture: Ugandan coffee enters the organic market (April 5, 2001, search for "organic coffee")

— Researched by sy82