Drink Coffee, Save the Birds

For coffee lovers, sipping a good brew can be as sweet as hearing the trill of birdsong in the wild. Ecotourists can enjoy both delights at Costa Rica’s Finca Rosa Blanca, a National Geographic Unique Lodge of the World.

Here in the lush hills above San José, fragrant coffee plantations unfurl down the volcanic slopes of the Central Valley. Small towns such as Santa Bárbara de Heredia have had “their whole history and fates created by coffee culture,” says Finca Rosa Blanca co-owner Glenn Jampol.

But the story of coffee in Costa Rica isn’t without some buzzkill: for the past half century, conventional sun-baked coffee farms here contributed to deforestation that stripped this verdant land of part of its tree canopy—in the process cutting down the habitat for a kaleidoscope of native birds.

Luckily for our winged friends—and fine coffee lovers everywhere—the old ways of coffee farming, in which coffee is grown in the shade, have begun percolating again at environmentally minded farms such as Finca Rosa Blanca. The eco-lodge added a 30-acre plantation to their estate when a neighboring finca went up for sale in the early 2000s. To save the property from development, the owners snatched it up—and quickly recognized an opportunity to revive the land as a shade-grown organic coffee plantation. Coffee now grows along the curves of the earth under a dense tree canopy, thanks to their planting of more than 5,000 native trees.

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Finca Rosa Blanca, a National Geographic Unique Lodge of the World

The canopy is particularly abundant with the poró tree, a favorite among birds who sip on the nectar from its bright orange flowers. This fast-growing tree also captures nitrogen in its leaves and draws it to the surface of the soil—in the process feeding the coffee plant and incubating a fertile ecosystem for micro-organisms that help battle weeds and insect pests without the use of chemicals. In 2010, the global Rainforest Alliance awarded Finca Rosa with one of its highly regarded Sustainable Standard-Setters awards.

Farming shade-grown coffee is slower and offers lower output, says Jampol, but it yields immeasurable benefits in bean quality as well as biodiversity. Quantifiable changes include the swelling numbers of bird species that flock to these shade-grown coffee plantations. “When we started, we identified 60 species of birds at our hotel,”Jampol says. “Now, 15 years later, we have 130 species of birds.”

Lodge guests can see this fluttering spectacle—and taste its delicious harvest—on an immersive plantation tour and coffee tasting led by naturalist guide and coffee expert Ulises Valdez Zuñiga. As the Costa Rican native explains everything from methods of natural irrigation (via banana trees) to picking the beans by hand and laying them out to dry in the sun (following traditional African wisdom), he also points out colorful neotropical birds that flitter among the canopy, from the iridescent Lesson’s motmot to the gobbling oropendola and the clay-colored thrush.

“In the morning, all these birds are out there competing for who’s going to sing the loudest,”says Jampol. “It’s a great feeling to know I helped bring them here by planting their homes.”