Environmental Conservationists Studying Honduran Practices

Researcher Brett Bailey, a graduate student in environmental conservation, demonstrates radio telemetry to coffee farmers in Honduras. At left is research assistant Fabiola Rodriguez.
Researcher Brett Bailey, a graduate student in environmental conservation, demonstrates radio telemetry to coffee farmers in Honduras. At left is research assistant Fabiola Rodriguez.

Watershed scientist Timothy Randhir, environmental conservation, and research wildlife biologist David King of the U.S. Forest Service and environmental conservation, are celebrating the recent official announcement in Morazan, Honduras, by Ángel Matute, director of that country’s National Institute for Forest Conservation Protected Areas and Wildlife, establishing the Yoro Biological Corridor.

Randhir and King are engaged in an interdisciplinary research program that will refine and validate conservation practices viewed by Honduran conservationists as the last best hope for conserving this area’s dwindling forests, which are critically threatened by expansion of unsustainable coffee cultivation. The field research supporting the biodiversity value of “integrated open canopy” (IOC)coffee was done by King’s graduate students in environmental conservation. In collaboration with Victor Arce, a Costa Rican agronomist, published preliminary biodiversity results and full life-cycle analyses of the economic and other benefits of IOC in 2009, King notes.

Arce, King and colleagues published a more comprehensive analysis of the biodiversity data in 2013, and best management practices for bird conservation in an IOC system was the topic of a UMass Amherst student Jeff Ritterson’s master’s degree work.

“This work was critical in getting the Honduran Parks and Wildlife people to recognize the benefits of these practices to biodiversity conservation, and for the other signatories of the co-management agreement to appreciate the economic benefits in terms of yields and ecosystem services, and to agreeing to enter into a co-management agreement to propagate these practices at a regional level,” King says.

“Now that this system is in place and operating at this one cooperative, Dr. Randhir and I are working towards getting large-scale foundation funding to support the expansion of this model throughout the Yoro Biological Corridor and beyond to highland areas in the rest of western Honduras and Eastern Guatemala,” he adds.

The Yoro Biological Corridor, about 2,300 square miles of montane rain forest, pine oak forest, coffee farms, small villages, towns and cultivated valleys, is in northwest Honduras’s central highlands. A key aspect of these conservation efforts is administering the corridor through a co-management agreement, providing a legal mechanism for scaling these sustainable coffee practices up to a broader scale. King explains, “All the signatories of the co-management agreement have an interest in seeing the forest conserved, the government for wildlife conservation, the local communities to sustain water supplies, so this initiative could represent a real breakthrough in curbing deforestation in the region.”

Under this system IOC coffee is produced in forest patches of equivalent area to coffee plots, with the cost offset by sales of sequestered carbon. Coffee is processed using industrial-scale solar-hybrid coffee driers that eliminate the use of fuel wood, which is conventionally used to dry coffee and has been identified as a key driver of deforestation. Solar driers also reduce coffee processing costs and add value to carbon sequestered in IOC forest patches. The benefits of these practices for Neotropical migratory birds resulted in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service International Programs contributing hundreds of thousands of dollars towards this research and also for establishing solar coffee driers, King points out.

These practices are The Yoro region provides critical winter habitat for priority Neotropical migrant birds that breed in North America such as the wood thrush. These bird species have been the subject of extensive applied conservation research by King and colleagues, whose research has demonstrated that these sustainable practices support migrant bird populations. The study, a joint effort between the U.S. Forest Service Northern Research Station, UMass Amherst, the Mesoamerican Development Institute and the COMISUYL coffee cooperative, aimed to increase understanding of habitat-specific abundance and survival of wood thrushes and golden-winged warblers, as well as integrating bird conservation with coffee production.