Environmental News from Africa:
- The Yayu forest in southwestern Ethiopia is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and one of the world’s only remaining ecosystems in which genetically diverse varietals of arabica coffee grow wild.
- The forest also sits atop a massive deposit of coal, estimated to be enough to meet Ethiopia’s domestic coal demand for 40 years.
- With Ethiopia’s government looking to boost the country’s mining industry, a shuttered mining venture in the forest’s buffer zone is set to be revived.
- Coffee farmers who have carefully managed and protected the forest for generations say a shift to mining will completely change their society, the local economy, and the environment.
Sitting high in the hills of southwestern Ethiopia, the thick green forest of Yayu is a haven of biodiversity where Nuradin Aliyi, a third-generation wild-coffee farmer, has lived his whole life intertwined with nature.
“I know every tree in the forest by name,” says the 62-year-old, who lives in the district, or woreda, of Yayu in the Oromia region. Like most of the 12,600 households in the district, Nuradin depends on the forest for survival. He harvests wild coffee beans from the forest and plants them on 4 hectares (10 acres) of farmland, harvesting some 6,000 kilograms per hectare, or about 5,400 pounds per acre, of coffee yearly.
Located 1,500 meters (4,900 feet) above sea level, Yayu’s coffee forest is one of the last and most significant ecosystems where genetically diverse varietals of arabica coffee grow wild. Due to the global interest in preserving the Yayu coffee gene pool, as well as the other indigenous plants, animals, and bird species the forest supports, it was designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2010.
Farmers say they live in harmony with the forest they depend on. “We only plant coffee seeds we collect from the forest, and we do not use any inorganic fertilizers,” Nuradin tells Mongabay by phone.
This form of traditional coffee management has been practiced for generations by the residents of Yayu, leading to the conservation of the genetic diversity of the forest’s wild arabica coffee. “Wild coffee is life here,” Nuradin says. “We protect it like our children. From cutting invasive trees around it that hamper its growth to planting broad-leaved trees that shed it from too much light, we make sure wild coffee trees thrive in the forest.”
But in recent years, increasing interest in what lies underneath the forest threatens to overturn this way of life. Around the turn of the century, a massive coal deposit was found in the area, generating huge interest from the government and mining companies.
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