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African Origins of Coffee: Why Sustainability Matters

Coffee beans. Credit: Sarah Khan

Coffee beans. Credit: Sarah Khan

Coffee growers are in crisis. According to Kew Gardens, Arabica coffee falls into the vulnerable extinction risk category, though some suggest a rating of endangered is more apt because of the rapid deforestation in Ethiopia. Further deforestation in other Arabica coffee-growing regions and climate change compound the emergency. In short, once Arabica left its place of origin and source of biological diversity, combined with less-than-favorable cultivation practices, coffee plants’ abilities to remain strong diminished. Most global coffee plantations are increasingly vulnerable to the onslaught of pests, diseases and climate change, just like any other monoculture or commodity crop comparable to corn, wheat and soy.

How to proceed, and how to do some good, so you and future generations can still get your coffee mojo? Two approaches: Buy coffee that is produced sustainably and pays a fair wage and safeguard the place of origin of coffee so its rich biological and cultural diversity thrives to benefit all growers in crisis worldwide.

Top tips on sustainable, fair-trade coffee, it’s best to buy:

  • Organic or low-chemical and low-pesticide use beans.
  • Shade-grown coffee. (Rustic is best.)
  • Products labeled fair trade.
  • Rain Forest Alliance-certified coffee.
  • “Bird-friendly” Smithsonian Seal of Approval coffee.

Also, ask your local markets to carry those brands. In sum, vote with your dollars, ask questions and support other establishments that advocate the above practices.

Ethiopia deforestation and hopeful solutions

More than four decades ago, 40% of Ethiopian land was covered in forests; now only 3% remains, based on a report from the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Timber extraction, conversion to agricultural lands and climate change are the main factors causing deforestation. One of the centers of origin of wild Coffea arabica in southwest Ethiopia, the Kafa region, is also the home to a number of culturally and linguistically diverse people. Considered the green lungs of Ethiopia, the remaining montane cloud forests still house more than 5,000 wild coffee varieties. Moreover, the region is designated a global biodiversity hotspot for other plant, bird and mammal species.

Historically, local communities rely on the forest for biological and cultural sustenance. Dependence on subsistence farming, as of late, has changed the delicate balance where deforestation ensues. Partnering with the Ethiopian government, several governmental and non-governmental organizations have designated the Kafa Biosphere Reserve in 2010. The reserve is recognized by UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Programme and tasked to promote sustainable development built upon local community participation and sound science.

An indigenous organization, Kafa Limat Forum, is at the forefront of establishing a National Coffee Museum in the Kafa Biosphere Reserve in Bonga. The museum will be a crossroads and gathering point for the many diverse communities to celebrate the rich cultural heritage, including the origins and ceremonies around coffee. The museum will provide a sacred space for locals and visitors to unify in diversity. The museum seeks to reaffirm the communities’ connections to the dwindling sacred forests that represent the centers of biocultural variety.

Maybe it is time to support the economy and people of Ethiopia directly with the purchase of Ethiopian coffee varieties grown on smallholder farms from some of the main coffee-growing areas: Bedele, Ghimbi, Goma Woreda, Harar, Illubador, Lekempti, Limu, Sidamo and Yirga Cheffe. Or, better yet, follow the general coffee-buying guidelines and help all cultivators, growers and laborers revitalize their lives and their environments.

Top photo: Coffee beans. Credit: Sarah Khan

This article was partially underwritten by the The Christensen Fund, a nonprofit organization, dedicated to biocultural and agricultural diversity of marginalized people and landscapes globally.

Zester Daily contributor Sarah Khan writes about food, culture, climate and sustainability. For her second Fulbright, she is presently traveling in South and Central Asia for a year (2014-15) to tell the stories of female farmers as they contend with a rapidly degraded agricultural landscape, gender inequality, poverty and climate change. She will document their challenges and victories in multiple media. To follow her journey, visit her website.

  • Henry Drewal 5·23·13

    Not only engaging and informative, but also consciousness-raising — get your mojo and help others keep theirs!