2013: The Year of the Coffee Snake

According to Chinese Astrology, 2013 is the year of the snake. You might be thinking: what in the world does the Zodiac have to do with coffee? For starters: the snake, as opposed to other Chinese Zodiac characters (oxen, rooster, bear, sheel, dog, pig, and so on), boasts a whole genus of snakes called coffee snakes! Also known as ninja snakes, there are eight different subspecies in this genus. What do you think of when you hear the word ‘snake’? For me, the term ‘snake’ conjures up images of Anacondas swallowing farm animals whole and thoughts of sin (Garden of Eden-style), venom, and intrigue.

Over the past few weeks, coffee futures (prices) have hit their lowest price in four years — a remarkable comeback since crops and entire processing plants around the globe were on the brink of shutting down due in June/July to crazy climate change, invasive borer beetles and rampant fungi.

The cute red coffee snake is a non-poisonous, bug-loving, small and harmless snake that lives in Mexico and other parts of Cental and South America. They love eating earthworms, slugs, and snails. This yields excrement that is chock full of nutrients, vitamins, and minerals. They don’t eat plants or birds, so having a few coffee snakes around your coffee crops will do nothing but help! They look like poisonous coral snakes, which helps to keep pesky invasive insects and/or coffee thieves away from your coffee stash.

The harmless red snake has a heart of gold, but they boast the moniker “ninja snakes”. No, they won’t change from scarlet to black and start wielding a samurai sword, but like ninjas, they are creatively elusive when dealing with predators. Their first line of defense: the snake flattens it’s head to a triangular shape (indicative of venomous snakes). If this tactic is unsuccessful, the coffee snake thens plays dead. The body goes limp, eyes appear dark and unfocused, and the snake won’t move a muscle. Ninja Skills Activated!

In India, Pythons and other big snakes have been playing a helpful role in sustaining a healthy coffee ecosystem by eating and demolishing small animals and rodents that pose huge threats to coffee crops, as well as warding off any critter who senses their presence guarding the woods. Snakes don’t eat coffee fruit. Unfortunately, Indian coffee farmers perceive these big snakes as giant threat, killing them where they stand without considering their contribution to the ecosystem of that coffee forest. Thankfully, due to an educational movement to inform farmers of shade-grown coffee forests, the population of snakes is no longer decreasing at such a drastic rate. The grounds of these forests are covered in biomass. Snakes help turn these fallen leaves, sticks and other organic materials into vitamin-rich mulch and compost by processing and excreting them. Because of the vital role snakes have been playing in protecting the shade-grown coffee ecosystems, many coffee farmers have set aside a special plot of land or created snake shrines inside their homes — small areas built for paying homage to the creepy yet essential critters who balance their farms by eating and deterring rodents and other animals who love to rob farmers of their blossoming berries.

Snake preservation for the sake of our morning Joe isn’t just a growing trend in India. The Rainforest Alliance, which is a nonprofit aiming to provide small family-owned coffee farms in Colombia certification, verification and validation services for eco-friendly practices that promote wildlife conservation, protects human and animal rights, and fair-trade systems. The Rainforest Alliance published a study just a few months ago demonstrating the effectiveness and impact of their certifications on certified coffee farms. Snakes, among other animals like tree monkeys, were specifically mentioned and singled out by the organization for their study. The study, titled Impacts of Rainforest Alliance Certification on Coffee Farms in Colombia, is available to read in full, for free, on their website.

Abe Lincoln, Pablo Picasso, Anne Frank, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. were all born in the year of the snake. The Chinese calendar ends on the later half of January. The next time you find yourself curling up with that oh-so-satisfying cup of hot coffee (tomorrow morning perhaps), Let’s all silently acknowledge and commemorate this slithering unsung hero that helps make your beverage all it can be.

By: Alex Riesdorff (G+)

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