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Seeking The True Source of Arabica Coffee In The Ethiopian Forest

Sampling Ethiopian coffee beans
Sampling Ethiopian coffee beans
Pascaline Minet

MAGNATE - The jeep makes its way along a path of red earth, bordered on either side by forest trees. We have not passed a living soul for miles, apart from a few baboon troops scampering away as we approach, quickly climbing up trees for a better perch to watch us drive by.

We are at the heart of the Harenna forest, in southwest Ethiopia, 1,800 meters above sea level. Here, or not far from here, there first appeared arabica coffee beans, nowadays widely cultivated and consumed around the globe. In this region, coffee bushes are still mainly exploited in their natural milieu, high altitude tropical forests.

According to specialists, they make a formidable source for genetic diversity that could help improve cultivated varieties. Alas, this unique resource is now threatened by deforestation and climate changes.

The Swedish biologist Carl Von Linné, in the 18th century, mistakenly gave the name “Arabica,” thinking it came from the Arabian peninsula. In fact, botanists trace the origin of this coffee to this swath of territory that spans from southwest Ethiopia to southeast Sudan.

Only during the 15th century was it also introduced in Yemen, where it was cultivated on a larger scale and exported across the Arab world, hence Linné"s misinterpretation. In the 18th century, arabica coffee culture spread to the rest of the world, conquering, among others, Brazil and Colombia, now the two main producers. Ethiopia is only the fifth biggest producer. Overall, arabica makes 70% of the worldwide coffee production, the remaining 30% being Coffea robusta, easier to cultivate, but whose flavor is considered less refined.

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Coffee trees in southern Ethiopia - Photo: UK Department for International Development

But back here in the Harenna forest, and more precisely the village of Magnate, we find ourselves in front of a few mud and wood houses by the side of the road. Several local arabica producers show me their precious bushes. A few meters high, with stiff little leaves, they make a dense underwood.

Picked by hand

“I didn't plant these coffee bushes, they grow naturally. I don't use fertilizer and I don't need to intervene much,” explains Alyi Jiro, the owner of more than 2 acres of the coffee forest. In April, blooming is over, and coffee trees are covered with delicate buds. In a few months, those will be mature and their red berries set to be picked manually. A long job, starting in October and going on for three months in this region.

This traditional means of production is good for the environment. Here coffee planters keep big trees around their crop, because they know bushes grow better in such conditions.

“Coffee is a plant that likes to share. If you cut down the other trees, coffee trees will produce more at first, but will die a few years later,” asserts Alyi Jiro.

If they are preserved, coffee forests promote a rich biodiversity. Leaves are indeed noisy with bird chirps and monkey calls. The many wild bees in the area are put to work in hives made of plaited wood, dangling from trees.

If natural coffee exploitation in forests remains the rule in Ethiopia, plantations dominate worldwide. Offering more consistent productivity, they are however much less favorable to biodiversity and require steady irrigation.

But coffee bushes growing on the other side of the world also have a more basic Achilles heel of their own. Because they descend from a small number of bushes, they have a very weak genetic diversity, and are consequently unable to adapt to changes in their environment and the eruption of diseases. Hence, an epidemic of orange rust, caused by a fungus, is currently wreaking havoc in Central America, where 20% of last years' coffee harvest was lost.

Wild Ethiopian coffee trees offer an alternative to such threats. “These populations, whose genetic make-up is very diverse, include varieties naturally resistant to many pathologies, or having other interesting traits for coffee producers,” notes Aaron Davis, specialist in coffee at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew (England), speaking recently during a seminar at the University of Addis Ababa.

A decade ago, Brazilian researchers tried to create a caffeine-free arabica variety, after studying a cluster of grains brought from Ethiopia. Though this variety did not live up to expectations, it was another illustration of the potential of the “gene reservoir” within Ethiopian coffee trees.

Ideal temperature

But this reservoir is now threatened, primarily by deforestation. As Ethiopia's population grows and urban areas spread, trees are cut to be used as combustible or construction material, or to establish new farming surfaces. According to official statistics, some 75% of the former Ethiopian forest has been cleared. “If this trend continues, the Ethiopian tropical forest could disappear in 30 years,” says Tadesse Woldemariam Gole, from the Ethiopian Coffee Forest Forum (ECFF), an organization fighting for the preservation of this environment.

Climate change is another risk, as coffee trees only grow in temperature between 19 and 25°C. “A temperature increase from 2 to 3°C, by 2080, according to the scenario envisaged by IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) experts could lead to the disappearance of arabica in its region of origin,” says Aaron Davis, who specializes in the impact of global warming on coffee.

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Jimma, in Ethiopia's Oromia region - Photo: Stijn Debrouwere

In spite of these somber prospects, many are active in Ethiopia, including in the Harenna forest, trying to protect wild coffee trees and their habitat. “By offering local farmers the means to live from products of the forest, like coffee and honey, we encourage them to protect it,” says Theodoros Gezaheym from the association Farm Africa, which trains local agriculture producers.

Then there is the very modern challenge of marketing, notes Zerihun Hailemariam, of the Ethiopian branch of the foundation Slow Food for Biodiversity. “We're trying to make our coffee known abroad, as we think some consumers might be ready to pay more, for the taste and because it helps to protect the tropical forest.”

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