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This Is Why Your Coffee Beans Matter to the Planet

A conversation with Fiona Hesselden, a researcher with the Centre for Sustainable and Resilient Communities at the University of Huddersfield, about the globally powerful coffee plant and its little bean.

By Genevieve Belmaker


Coffee is one of the most popular drinks in the world. (Photo: Lotus Head/Wikimedia Commons)

Coffee is more than just a cup of something hot you grab on your way to work, and a drink of choice for billions of people. It is an economic, cultural, and biodiversity powerhouse. One of the world’s most-traded commodities, coffee is so popular that, since 2014, its consumption has outstripped production by about three million cups per year, according to the International Coffee Organization.

Deep in the forests of southwest Ethiopia, Coffea arabica grows in its wild form. These plants are the genetic root of Arabica coffee consumed globally, and a sort of insurance policy for the coffee industry. It is also integral to the lives of thousands of local residents who rely on coffee to make a living and vital to the future of Ethiopian forests, where it thrives in the wild and as a planted crop.

Wild Ethiopian coffee fetches high prices for those who prize responsibly grown beans. In fact, it is worth a whopping three times more than non-wild coffee on the commercial market. Southwest Ethiopia’s vulnerable forests are the center of wild coffee’s genetic diversity, giving it rare scientific and cultural value as well.

Wild Ethiopian coffee, in a way, is an insurance plan for the commercial coffee market.

But maintaining the forests where wild coffee grows can be very tricky. Deforestation in the area is driven by a number of direct actions such as expansion of crop cultivation by local people and private investors, as well as a number of underlying drivers linked to social, economic, political, and cultural factors (such as population growth for example).

Understanding these factors and how they work together is key to protecting the forest and its wild coffee resources.

The Ethiopian government has supported a policy called Participatory Forest Management as part of an effort to protect the country’s forest resources. PFM sees local people as part of the solution, giving management responsibilities for the forests and their commodities, including coffee, to communities that live close to the forest and have long had traditional rights to it.

Fiona Hesselden, a researcher at the Centre for Sustainable and Resilient Communities at the University of Huddersfield, works with the Wild Coffee Conservation and PFM Project. The project operates within several districts in Ethiopia and conducts work with 55 communities that live in or near area forests.

We talked with Hesselden to get some more insight into why the Ethiopian coffee plant matters.

Why is the southwest corner of Ethiopia so important to coffee?

Ethiopia is the genetic hearth and “home” of Arabica coffee (Coffea Arabica). The forests of southwest Ethiopia are where Arabica coffee originated and was first domesticated. The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew (a world famous center for botanical knowledge) considers the afro-montane forests in the southwest of Ethiopia as “by far the most important area in terms of natural distribution and genetic diversity” for Arabica coffee.

This genetic diversity is important: The vast majority of commercial coffee is produced from crop cultivars (plants that have been selected intentionally for specific characteristics) and as such relies on a relatively narrow genetic range (just 10 percent of the diversity found in wild coffee). Commercial plants are thus more vulnerable to diseases and pests, issues exacerbated by climate change.

Protecting the highly diverse wild coffee gene pool as a reservoir will enable us to negotiate new pests and challenges the plant may face and protect the economic, social, and cultural benefits associated with Arabica coffee.

In addition to protecting the genetic diversity of Arabica coffee, the forests of southwest Ethiopia play a vital role as a “water tower” for lowland Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt, as well as mitigating climate change by acting as a carbon store.


Bags of coffee at the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange’s warehouse in Awassa. (Photo: The United Kingdom’s Department for International Development)

How is the region being managed?

The forests of southwest Ethiopia came under government control during the late 19th century as a result of the incorporation of this area into the Ethiopian state. Without adequate resources to police such a large area however, in many places the forest became de facto “open access.”

Deforestation and degradation followed, threatening the loss of the forest and its wild coffee population. Wild coffee is considered by The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew as vulnerable to extinction. There is an urgent need to protect the forest in the southwest Highlands from deforestation and forest degradation.

What role has wild coffee begun to play in the preservation of forests?

In situ conservation (protection of a species in its natural surroundings) is the most viable and desirable means of protecting a species. In protecting the wild coffee plants we also need to protect the ecosystem and habitat where they have developed their distinctive properties — in this case the forest.

What is the PFM-WCC approach based on?

This approach is based on giving communities that have traditional rights to the forest tenure over these areas as well as use-rights and access to revenue from sustainably harvested non-timber forest products such as wild coffee, honey, and spices. In exchange for these rights, the community takes on the responsibility of managing and protecting the forest.

What is coffee’s role?

Wild coffee is a valuable product, and as such plays a crucial role in generating an income and improving livelihoods for communities, helping to make sure that local people remain committed to undertaking their forest responsibilities. In this respect, wild coffee helps the forest to pay its way.

Have forest management groups had any success in protecting the forests?

Yes — the WCC Project empowered local communities to set up 55 Forest Management Groups at the got (village) level and four woreda (district) level Forest Management Associations. Group members are actively engaged in protecting the forest — undertaking patrols on a regular basis to make sure that people are not illegally degrading or destroying the forest, taking part in silviculture practices and monitoring the use of non-timber forest products to make sure that they are harvested in a sustainable manner and to the agreed plan.

What does the direct impact on the natural forest look like?

To date 60,200 hectares of natural forest have been secured by PFM agreements and have been actively protected by communities. Results all point to PFM having a positive impact on the conservation of forest and biodiversity. Over a six-year period, the project area shows a 1.08 percent loss of forest compared with a 15.57 percent forest loss in non-project forest areas.


Coffea Arabica plant. (Photo: Forest and Kim Star/Wikimedia Commons)

Are there any other environmental benefits?

Biodiversity analysis of the PFM protected natural forest shows increases in total biomass, carbon stock, and CO2 sequestered as well as increases in species composition over the six years of the project.

Has the Ethiopian government been proactive in forest management?

PFM practices have become more widespread over the last 40 years, with governments around the world coming to realize that, although forests were under their control in theory, in practice many do not have the resources to implement effective forest management.

In Ethiopia the government recognized this and started to pilot PFM in the late 1990s. Subsequently, the government has identified community ownership of the forest as an approach, though the process involved currently varies in different places.

How does a community become part of PFM?

At a local level the government issues PFM agreements to communities after they have gone through the PFM steps; this includes the development of a forest management plan which is agreed to by both parties — the community Forest Management Group and the local government.

Where do Ethiopian forests in the southwest stand overall?

The forests in the southwest have been reduced by one-third in the last 40 years. This reflects a general trend of deforestation across Ethiopia; less than 4 percent of Ethiopia’s land is forested today, down from around 30 percent at the turn of the 19th century.

What are the challenges facing the forests in the southwest?

The forests in the southwest face a number of challenges; some of these are direct, others are a result of complex social, economic, and political processes that take place outside of the area. Direct drivers of deforestation include agricultural expansion into the forest, unsustainable wood extraction, fire, and the expansion of infrastructure (roads, for example).

Underlying or indirect drivers are related to population growth, economic issues such as the price of coffee, and the impact of policies.

Why is wild Ethiopian coffee an “insurance policy” for the commercial market?

The wild coffee gene pool acts as an “insurance policy” for the commercial market in case commercial strains are ever badly damaged. The vast majority of commercial coffee is descended from a small number of plants that have been bred for a number of specific characteristics such as high yields and so relies on a relatively narrow genetic range, making these plants vulnerable to diseases and pests, an issue that is exacerbated by climate change.

Wild coffee, on the other hand, exhibits much greater genetic diversity, increasing its chances of adapting to new challenges and reducing the possibility of extinction. It is of the utmost importance that we retain a viable population of wild Arabica coffee plants in order to protect the economic, social, and cultural benefits associated with Arabica coffee.

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