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Climate change and coffee on Mount Elgon

Thousands of growers rely on sales of their Arabica coffee (© The Fairtrade Foundation/Simon Rawles)
Thousands of growers rely on sales of their Arabica coffee
© The Fairtrade Foundation/Simon Rawles

High on the misty slopes of Mount Elgon in eastern Uganda, a group of coffee growers are constructing a shade for their nursery of fruit and timber tree saplings. They are only pencil thin, but as the trees mature they will be planted out on the slopes among the coffee plants to fight the region's newest foe - global warming. A series of similar nurseries will provide up to a million trees as part of a three year climate change action plan, which began in 2010 and has been orchestrated by the Welsh Assembly Government and funded by the Cardiff-based Waterloo Foundation.

The project aims to reforest the once verdant slopes of Mount Elgon and help safeguard the future for thousands of growers who rely on sales of their Arabica coffee, the region's premier cash crop. Over time it is hoped that consumers in the Western world will pay a premium for the climate-friendly coffee to support similar schemes.

The impact of climate change on Mount Elgon coffee growers has been vast and devastating, says Willington Wamayeye, team leader of Gumutindo Coffee Corporation, which is one of the Ugandan partners on the project. Gumutindo is Fairtrade certified and buys coffee from around 7,000 farmers in the mountain region. Rising temperatures have supported an unprecedented level of pests and disease in coffee trees, which is impacting on yield and quality. Leaf rust fungus has spread throughout the region and some growers have seen their yield drop by more than half. "The changes in climate are everywhere to see," says Wamayeye. "Rain patterns have changed, river beds have dried up and all the impacts are felt more clearly here than in Europe."

The incidence of landslides has increased in the region (© Emmanuel Wandega)
The incidence of landslides has increased in the region
© Emmanuel Wandega

Arresting landslides

Heavy and unseasonal rains coupled with deforestation have increased the incidence of landslides in the region. In March 2010, during the supposedly dry season, torrential rain pounded Bududa District on the western slopes of the mountain for more than seven hours, until the saturated soil could hold on no longer. Thousands of tonnes of earth collapsed down the slope into the village at the bottom, killing 300 people as it went and demolishing 60,000 coffee trees. Landslides are relatively frequent on Mount Elgon due to the heavy deforestation but never has one had such a devastating impact as this.

The experience was the wake-up call that stimulated the Waterloo Foundation project. The project is a pilot scheme backed by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and it could form the basis of more climate change adaptation projects across the developing world. "We are encouraging farmers to reverse climate change in their own small way and we hope it will catch on," says Wamayeye, who has a long waiting list of farmers wanting to join the cooperative. Not only do farmers get a premium for their coffee when they join Gumutindo, but they are also trained in agroforestry and given trees to plant on their land. The trees will be intercropped with the coffee to provide vital shade from the intensifying sun and to protect the slopes from landslides. Over time the trees will also yield fruit, and some will be harvested for timber and firewood. "I have about 30 groups wanting to join Gumutindo, which is too many for now but by 2015 we might have 15,000 members," says Wamayeye, who estimates there are around 250,000 smallscale farmers growing coffee on Mount Elgon.

Will consumers be willing to pay for climate-friendly coffee? (© Twin)
Will consumers be willing to pay for climate-friendly coffee?
© Twin

Future funding

The Waterloo Foundation has stumped up £150,000 for the three-year tree-planting project but beyond this, Wamayeye hopes consumers will be willing to pay for climate-friendly coffee so that his growers can continue to adapt to global warming. "I think the market will soon be willing to pay more for our coffee because of the climate actions we are taking," he says. Gumutindo is also a member of Twin, an organisation which helps to develop the fair trade supply chain. Jessica Frank from Twin says a premium on coffee is doubtful given the credit crunch and current high price for coffee. "But we are working with roasters who could be willing to factor climate change mitigation costs into their overall costs to help maintain climate change projects," she says.

As for the project in hand, it has been cruelly hampered by the very conditions it is hoping to mitigate. "We have had a big challenge of the weather," says Joan Kabayambi, the project coordinator. "From July 2010 to February 2011 we had a drought which affected many of our nurseries. Streams dried up, which meant we couldn't water the seeds and many failed to germinate. But we are learning and adapting," she says. To further illustrate the problem, in August this year another landslide killed more than 50 people, including one of the founding members of Gumutindo. "He was a very good farmer. One of the very best farmers in Gumutindo," says Wamayeye. "Now the coffee, his home and himself are no more," he adds, a poignant reminder of why the region needs climate-friendly coffee production.

Date published: September 2011

 

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