Development of Ethiopia's Yayu biosphere a lifeline for organic coffee –

by Zelalem

Elias Gebreselassie

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia – The Ethiopian government and its NGO partners are working to revive local community use of domestic, organic coffee by preserving the last of Ethiopia’s original biospheres. Among them is the UNESCO-recognized Yayu Coffee Forest Biosphere Reserve, which covers 50,000 hectares of land in its core and buffer zones in southwest Ethiopia. Yayu is the center of origin for the most popular coffee in the world (Coffea Arabica), and the largest and most important forest for the conservation of these wild populations.

The Yayu reserve is directly or indirectly related to the livelihoods of more than 150,000 people in the environs, according to UNESCO. Some argue that projects to help preserve and help local communities need to be scaled up to exploit reserve resources.

Neagash Teklu is executive director of the Ethiopia Population, Health and Environment Consortium (PHE), an NGO that works within the Yayu biosphere. According to Teklu, even though it’s been six years since Yayu was registered by UNESCO, the absence of a coherent management plan has hurt ongoing work to protect it. In 2014, the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Facility started  work to improve the management of the biosphere and community livelihoods with funding and technical assistance to NGOs and other private sector partners to protect critical ecosystems.

It seems that more can be done, though.

Teklu says leadership is needed to address the social, economic, and biodiversity issues in a practical, integrated manner. Such an approach would encompass the local community, NGOs and administration from the lowest local level to the federal government.

“The growth and sustainability of environmental schemes in Ethiopia depend on them being scaled up, and for this purpose, we’re working…to market organic coffee,” Teklu said. He added that a management plan to save Yayu and important forest products is being studied.

Teklu says one promising option is to trade forest coffee on the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX). The coffee plants grow wild in the reserve and are also planted in the forest by coffee farmers.

This UNESCO coffee forest atlas shows Yayu Coffee Forest Biosphere Reserve in the south. Map via UNESCO
This UNESCO coffee forest atlas shows Yayu Coffee Forest Biosphere Reserve in the south. Map via UNESCO

ECX is an exchange that brings together the private sector and the Ethiopian government to create a marketplace that provides a reliable system for handling, grading and storing commodities.

The exchange facilitates matching offers and bids for commodity transactions, and a secure, efficient payment and goods delivery system to settle transactions. Despite hundreds of thousands of coffee farmers being members of the commodity exchange, organic forest coffee has yet to make its debut.

While the discussions with ECX are underway, local NGOs are working to connect various cooperatives that produce organic coffee with lucrative markets in countries like Japan and Germany. The work is still in its early stages.

Caring for the biosphere

There are other efforts to make organic Ethiopian coffee, which fetches three times the value of its non-organic cousins on the market, an economic priority while minding conservation.

Local NGOs have partnered with the government, including the Ministry of Forestry, Environment, Forestry and Climate Change. They work with the Ministry of Science and Technology to help create partnerships with research institutions and universities around the world to study the scientific benefits of the ecosystem.

Ararsa Regassa, deputy director general of the public enterprise Oromia Forest and Wildlife Enterprise (OFWE), said his organization has organized 30 cooperatives with more than 6,400 members to help them with sustainable use of forest resources and to preserve the biosphere.

OFWE helps the cooperatives by administering Yayu to support its preservation and working with the community help them with sustainable use of the forest’s resources. It also provides expertise and materials in the production of high-quality organic coffee, as well as organic honey and natural spices found in the biosphere.

The organization also supports the sale of forest products by fostering connections with potential customers for a competitive price. In partnership with OFWE, cooperatives have implemented more environmentally friendly practices. For example, coffee husks once dumped in biosphere reserve rivers are now used for biomass briquettes as a household fuel substitute.

Nearby development projects

Yayu’s faces challenges beyond management. In addition to a growing population that needs to clear the forest for household and farming purposes, there are also some large infrastructure projects nearby.

One of those is a Yayu fertilizer project to produce fertilizer for a largely agrarian nation of 100 million people that largely imports agricultural fertilizer. Another is the planned 385 Mega Watts Geba I hydro dam project.

OFWE’s Regassa admits that such projects could have a negative impact on Yayu, not only from their construction but also from subsequent human settlement and related ongoing needs.

However, he says OFWE is giving its input into the Environmental Impact Assessment of the projects as well as close follow up of the progress of the projects to mitigate the negative impact. The impact assessment is a study done typically by the Ethiopian government in collaboration with domestic and international partners before a project is launched and finance secured to see what the positive or negative impact of a project might be.

The negative risk of infrastructure projects close to Yayu biosphere is something that PHE’s Teklu says the country should avoid as it aspires to reach a middle income economy by 2020.

“If we lose it, we will lose the organic coffee, the natural resource, and its extinction will threaten the existence of the community who are dependent on this natural resource,” Teklu said.

He added that for the country to have robust export trade, high quality natural resource products from the likes of Yayu are crucial.

There are already plans for the Yayu biosphere to be used as a carbon sink to the coal fired fertilizer plant nearby, according to Teklu. Yayu biosphere has vegetation that can absorb the carbon dioxide produced by the burning of fossil fuels such as coal. This plan fits well with Ethiopia’s ambitious Climate Resilient Green Economy strategy, which aims to have the country be a net zero carbon emitter by 2025.

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