Danny O’Keefe is founder and director of the Songbird Foundation, which works to raise awareness about conservation of migratory-songbird habitat, particularly in coffee-growing regions and urban areas.

Monday, 15 Dec 2003


As usual, the day starts with that first cup of sustainably grown coffee, in this case a home-roasted espresso comprised of a blend of organic, shade-grown, and Fair Trade coffees from Ethiopia, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Indonesia. They were roasted in hot-air popcorn poppers in the back room of the house. It’s great coffee and as fresh as you can get it: Lots of crema on the espresso and a soft chocolate taste with very little back-of-the-mouth bitterness. Yum.

Then to the aid and bane of modern living: the computer and email. Much is happening in the world of sustainably grown coffee. We’re getting into this year’s coffee harvest, which is increasingly problematic with world coffee prices at all-time lows. Because of the glut of coffee on the world market, prices are not likely to improve in the near future. The toll this is taking on coffee farmers can’t be overstated. The coffee farms of southern Mexico and Central and South America are where the migratory songbirds that breed in the U.S. go in the winter. Here’s a website where you can see many of the birds that winter in coffee country as well as some of the native birds.

I’ll fly away: a painted bunting.

Photo: Songbird Foundation.

Destruction of tropical forest has been rampant over the last 20 years, and with low coffee prices it is increasing again as timber becomes another source of income for people pushed to the edge. There is little recourse in coffee production when the price paid for the commodity falls well below the costs of production. You can find out more about the various aspects of this issue at the Songbird Foundation’s website.

We have a new project in development with other local organizations: the Urban Habitat Coalition. We will focus most of our attention over the next year on the coordination of this project, although the coffee crisis will still be a very important issue. Increasingly, urban/suburban landscapes are being recognized as key habitat for native and migratory birds. There are many organizations working on sustainable gardening programs and quite a few of those programs take into consideration the role that wildlife plays. Getting people to think in terms of sustainable strategies in their gardens, in their cups of coffee, and in other localized consumption patterns has a transferable potential to many different contexts.

Gardeners recognize that the soil speaks back to us when we put our hands in it. Put your hands in viable, organic soil that is rich in nutrients and then feel some over-chemicalized dirt that’s been overworked and you’ll instantly understand the importance of nurturing the Earth. As more and more people turn to gardening for solace and spiritual sustenance, it becomes a highly fertile sector to work with. The baby boomers are turning to birding and gardening in increasing numbers. And they vote.

We started with coffee because it is a ubiquitous commodity in the culture, locally, nationally, and globally. It’s the second most traded commodity, after oil, and plays a huge role in personal and national economics in the tropical countries where it is grown. Getting people to think about the quality and the conditions under which their coffee was grown can get them into a mindset of questioning the production of other purchases. Price will always play a key role, but we have real power of purchase and business listens very attentively to what we choose to buy.

I live on an island in Puget Sound and take the ferry to the Songbird Foundation office in Seattle three or four days a week. When I get into the office today, a call is waiting about carbon sequestration in the coffee “forests.” Many rustic coffee farms parallel natural tropical forests in their ability to support diverse life forms and help hold carbon in the soils. There has been an increasing move to trade carbon credits on stock markets as a way of mitigating carbon dioxide levels and increasing the value of forests.

The day moves through the logistics of projects and how to keep momentum in their development to end-of-the-year fundraising. Never a truly enjoyable task, fundraising is absolutely essential. An appeal by board members is prepared with “bonus” Songbird logo items for the generous. An electronic newsletter is discussed and started, which will be sent by the end of the week. We have received commitment from a very generous person to help with the hiring of a key staff person for next year.

We are also in the beginning stages of a new round of grant writing to fund the Urban Habitat Coalition campaign. We’re working first on getting funding to develop a portal website with sustainable gardening information and habitat strategies for urban and suburban gardeners. While this project will focus on the greater Seattle area for the time being, we hope the models we are developing will have greater application as other cities and regions begin to apply them.

More tomorrow.