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While farmers in much of the world work hard to increase the yield of coffee by various methods, including increasing the number of coffee plants that can grow in a small area, a group of Queensland, Australia conservationists are working hard to reduce the number of coffee plants encroaching on native plants. The Tablelands National Park Volunteers have been working for several years to eradicate wild coffee plants that are crowding out indigenous plants in the park. The group was recently honoured with the 2015 Weed Society of Queensland George N. Batianoff Award for team excellence.
According to park conservation experts, the problem is especially intense in the Crater Lakes National Parks, where coffee plants make up to 75% of the plants in the critically endangered Mabi Forests. This concentration of coffee plants impacts the forest’s diversity and reduces natural food sources for native wildlife.
The Tablelands National Park Volunteers have been working on pest management in the park since 1993, and consistently contribute 1,500 to 2,000 volunteer hours annually to help manage weeds, educate the public on environmental issues and provide information and threatened species. In 2014, members contributed 377 hours to just the coffee control program.
Simon Burchill, who accepted the award on behalf of the group, told attendees at the awards dinner that the coffee eradication project is a challenging one. Because coffee has been bred as a commercial crop, the trees are very high yield, putting out 800 to 1,000 seeds per plant. Many of those seeds find fertile ground, and sprout into new coffee seedlings. After all, coffee is “a rainforest plant that’s growing in a rainforest environment, which is ideal for its growth,” Burchill told the group.
In addition, the forests have many plants that look similar to the coffee plant, which makes identifying the coffee “weeds” a challenge for new volunteers, especially.
In addition, there’s a concern that the coffee plants could harbor coffee leaf rust, known as la roya, which has decimated many of Central America’s coffee growing regions over the past few years. The disease eats away at coffee leaves and causes irreparable damage to local plants. While there is no indication that la roya is present in Australia, the large concentration of coffee weed plants could seriously threaten the coffee industry if coffee leaf rust should be imported into Australia and take hold in the wild-growing coffee plants.
Finally, the group says that reinfestation from private gardens nearby makes it difficult to eradicate the wild coffee population.
Coffee has not been declared a pest plant, and is not a priority for the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, but the Wet Tropics Management Authority has classed it as an environmental weed. The volunteers, in conjunction with the park service, are conducting a public awareness campaign to ask neighboring landowners to remove coffee from their gardens.