Situated in sub-Saharan Africa, Ethiopia is considered the birthplace of coffee. Ethiopian nomads might be the ones who discovered the beans and their invigorating effect for the first time. The country’s history has been full of sudden changes for at least last four decades and so it is hard to imagine Ethiopia as a region that has high mountain ranges and tropical cloud forests. But the truth is Ethiopia has a beautiful landscape too and the red coffee cherries aren’t just woven into country’s agriculture, but also grow in the wild.
Coffee has been a part of Ethiopia’s culture for multiple generations now. Currently the country’s economy depends on agriculture that makes up 45% of the GDP, 85% of employment, and 90% of foreign exchange earnings. Some 200,000 tones of clean coffee are produced each year by Ethiopia and 400,000 hectares of land is considered covered by different coffee types.
The ways coffee is grown in Ethiopia can be roughly divided into four categories; forest, semi-forest, garden and plantation coffee. It also grows naturally in the wild of north-western highlands of Kaffa and Buno. But the naturally growing or pure wild coffee makes up merely 5% of the total output. The yields never exceed 200kg per hectare and usually remain somewhere between 7-30 kg.
The remaining three categories include the cultivated coffee with semi-forest comprising 35% of the total coffee yield and the most popular way of agriculture chosen by the farmers. Plantation coffee where land is deliberately cleared for agriculture makes up only 10% of the Ethiopian coffee yield. Large fields pick up this method usually but sometimes a small holder may also get involved. The semi-forest coffee grows under the natural canopy or under the shade of naturally grown trees and even though the land is cleared to make space for coffee trees the forest is “altered” rather than being “cleared” and that is the main difference between semi-forest and plantation coffee.
The remaining category; garden coffee makes up about 50% of Ethiopian coffee where farmers grow and keep coffee trees around their homes and hence the word garden or among their other fruit trees and even embed coffee trees among their crops. Yields range from 200 to 700 kg per hectare each year. The beauty of this coffee is its genetic uniqueness. Coffee trees among different farmers may differ from each other as plants usually come from the nearby forest. The plants are best adapted to their microhabitats due to this very reason, although the farmers may exchange the best seedlings among themselves.
But still, the genetic diversity plants in the wild exhibit, is unparallel when it comes to coping with threats like pests and climate fluctuations. The Arabica which is grown around the world as “plantation” has very limited genetic diversity and hence lack the flexibility that is required when it comes to resistance.
The climate change is not only affecting the commercial coffee production around the world. The troublesome prospect is that climatic stress is also affecting the natural vegetations around the world and wild growing Arabica from the Ethiopian forest is no exception. Next big troubles are deforestation and loss of habitat for the plants to grow and hence the conclusion is no difficult to be drawn; wild-Arabica is on the verge of extinction.
Estimates are predicting it can go extinct by 2080 as are many other climax forest species have disappeared and are continuing to do so.
The great loss is the great yet un-discovered genetic database these wild Arabica plants may hold that may hold in itself the solution to the sensitivity widely grown Arabica exhibits. But the reality is; changing climate has not left enough time on the clock, researchers may require to un-lock all the potential wild plantation of Arabica have to offer.