The Coffee Dilemma:
A story from Sheka
The prediction from Keria is that the number will continue to rise. Mostly young girls doing business, and consequently, you can see a lot of young men chilling out in these containers. A rising trend/culture?
I was in the car waiting for Keria on a market day while tens of farmers were going up and down the street. Some farmers to my right were holding seedlings and arguing over something. I lowered my window, ‘Good afternoon. What is in your hand?’ ‘Coffee seedlings,’ they replied in chorus, wondering why I am asking. ‘How much did you pay for one?’ ‘They are expensive,three birr for two seedlings.’ ‘Three birr is not that expensive,’ I said. They smiled and the older one said,‘It was 50 cents for one seedling a few weeks ago but now it is over one birr per seedling!’ ‘But in two years time, you will be rich,’ I insisted,‘I was told by one of the elders a few days ago how coffee planting is spreading and how nowadays it is ready for harvesting in just two years. They laughed, ‘Maybe!’
The farmers are part of a growing number of Sheka farmers, businessmen, government workers, Shakichos who live in Addis or abroad that are now planting thousands of coffee seedlings in the Sheka forest. Some five years ago, it was not the case. Coffee plantations are changing the Sheka landscape. Even the famous are coming to Sheka to plant coffee and spices,Haile Gebresilasie was given 1,500 hectares to plant coffee. Two other investors, I was told, were given over 1000 hectares for coffee and spices. They are all promising roads and bridges, the local people eagerly giving their consent. About two years ago, we did a participatory 3 dimensional modeling of the Masha Wereda and the local communitiesidentified the land given to the investors as lush primary forest. The investors have said that they will not cut the trees. Only time will tell.
What is worrying is that a large chunk of the community think that coffee planations will pose no problems for the forest. They say that coffee loves shade and as it is planted under a tree, there is no need to cut the trees. I see three fundamental problems here. One is that they clear the undergrowth for planting coffee, so most of the shrubs and herbs are cleared- a loss of biodiversity. When talking about forests, people only think oftall standing trees. What about the herbs and the shrubs, whichcover the landscape as a green carpet and serve as food, medicine, fiber, etc? The second problem is that the locals cut what is commonly called the Geteme/Galeniera saxifrage/ tree if they find it within a few meters of the coffee seedlings. They say that when this tree is young, it will kill the coffee seedlings. But this is the tree, which gives the Sheka honey its characteristic white color and taste. The bees love it. The third problem is the use of chemicals. Like any other plant, the farmers will wish to enhance its growth and protect it from disease. So they will use chemicals as they are not trained in growing coffee organically. What is going to happen to the local ecology when this happens? Well nobody has done research in Ethiopia as to its effect on the local culture.
Some of youreading this article may say ‘Are you implying that the local people should not get an extra income, diversify their economy and improve their life?’ My response would be “No”, they should do all of these things but we have to talk about the consequences of changing from one form of using the landscape to another. I was told, forexample, that at a place called Gatimo, the local farmers have gone in to vegetable farming. Apparently they are getting a lot of money through that. What some of the local elders are worrying about is that the farmers are uprooting Enset, false banana, Ensete ventricosum to plant these cash crops. What will happen to these farmers if and when these newly introduced vegetables are subjected to the vagaries of climate change? Enset is known to be both nutritious and resilient to many changes. There are over 70 Enset varieties in Sheka and what will happen to the diversities in the future is anybody’s guess?
So I must say I do not have an answer. I can only ask questions? So the questions are: what will be the effect on both the ecosystem and the culture of the people if and when coffee replaces the natural forest? What will happen to the local community and the ecosystem if the coffee fails? Under changing climatic and other social and ecological conditions, is coffee a good strategy for the future of the Sheka people? I do not have the answers to all these questions and I can only ask.
Now!Now! Now! The Sheka Zone has become a biosphere reserve. People are extremely happy and proud that their area has been recognized globally. People in every walk of life have told me this. Under this new form of governing the land, there are Core zones where any kind of investment is forbidden except traditional activities which are not extractive such as apiculture. Then, there are Buffer areas(areas found between the Core and the transition and which are designed to reduce the impact on the core. Much the same logic as you cover your glass with a sponge or papers to avoid breaking it when you travel) and investment is limited to certain activities but coffee is allowed. Finally, there are Transition Zones where almost all kind of investments are allowed except those which will hugely impact both the environment and the culture of the people. So what does the spread of coffee planation mean under this changing policy direction?
Sorry to leave you with so many questions!!
Million Belay Ali, PhD
MELCA – Ethiopia
Tel. +251-115507172/ 5079949
E-mail – firstname.lastname@example.org/ email@example.com