Wild coffee conservation

The biggest cause of biodiversity loss is human encroachment on wild spaces, as land is cleared, resources are overharvested and habitats are destroyed. Unfortunately this process is often indistinguishable from ‘development’, which everybody wants more of.

The challenge for conservation is to balance the needs of people and the natural environment, finding ways for local people to profit from standing forests while leaving their biodiversity intact. Eco-tourism is one of the best known approaches, which essentially involves protecting landscapes by getting richer people to come and look at them. Agro-forestry is another, using natural farming techniques that work under and around the trees. At the global level, the REDD project seeks to value trees as carbon sinks and pay communities not to cut them down.

wild coffee

Photo by Jan Irons

Here’s another: wild coffee. It’s now a major international commodity, but coffee began as a wild forest plant growing in the highlands of South-West Ethiopia. It still grows there, and a team at the University of Huddersfield are pioneering a new conservation project around it.

It uses an approach called Participatory Forest Management. It works by granting local communities legal rights to the forest around them on condition that the forest is preserved. They are free to make a living from the natural resources, and that creates an incentive to steward them. Conservation efforts then begin with the community as a bottom-up initiative, owned and implemented by local villages.

40 communities across 20,000 hectares of forest are involved in the scheme, which has been running since 2010. Some are harvesting honey, but the most promising forest product is coffee. Consumers in Britain will pay a premium for wild coffee, and the Ethiopian highlands are the only place where it can be found, so it’s a rare and valuable crop. The project’s next step is to set up marketing channels to reach consumers in Britain, and the university is in talks with a company to market the coffee in London. As revenue streams are established, future investments in processing and exporting may be able to capture more of that value locally.

It’s a great example of conservation as a win/win for people and the environment. The forests and the animals that live in it are protected, and given the importance of carbon sinks, we all benefit from that. Economic opportunity is created for local communities, and it is bottom-up and empowering, rather than development aid imposed by external agencies. Coffee drinkers benefit too – not just from the exotic taste of wild coffee, but also by safeguarding the genetic heritage of Coffea Arabica for the future. And with that thought, I might just go and put the kettle on.

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