This research explores interactions between farmers' knowledge and socioeconomic circumstances and the floristic composition of multistrata coffee plantations in Chiapas, Mexico. Interviews with 24 individual farmers with accompanying vegetation transects and two community level participatory workshops were carried out. The frequency, density, dominance, utility and importance value for all tree species surveyed were obtained. Farmers were grouped by cluster analysis on the basis of their land area, time producing coffee and the age of their coffee farms but the dominant shade species in their coffee plantations was not influenced by socioeconomic status (p < 0.05). A total of 74 shade species were recorded and classified as temporary, suitable, or unsuitable as shade species by farmers, based on attributes such as leaf phenology, foliage density, crown shape and the amount and timing of litter decomposition, as well as their overall impact on coffee yield. Principal component and cluster analysis using these attributes confirmed the consistency of the farmers' classification system. A group of preferred species was identified, but less than half the trees recorded on farms were of these species, showing that farmers retained a wide range of trees and shrubs in their plantations, taking into account not only commercial interests but also their contribution to ecosystem functions. Farmers harnessed the forces of secondary succession by retaining pioneers as temporary shade, knowing that they would naturally be succeeded, while at the same time promoting and tolerating other longer living native species that they considered more suitable as coffee shade. Managing diverse secondary succession instead of establishing monospecific shade was an efficient way for farmers to achieve acceptable coffee yields while contributing to biodiversity and landscape conservation that could allow them access to niche markets.
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