Strange Brew

World Reports

The night of March 1, 2010 changed everything in Bududa, a district in the Arabica coffee-growing heartland of eastern Uganda. That night it rained for seven hours. As the water kept coming down, huge chunks of earth started caving in. Then the land began to slip away, burying entire villages in a wave of mud and debris. More than 300 people lost their lives – the highest death toll Uganda has ever suffered in a landslide. The landslide also destroyed 60,000 coffee trees, causing a 10 percent drop in Uganda’s coffee output for 2009-10.

woodcut-style illustration depicting a branch of a coffee tree and cherries

That landslide was just the beginning. Nashanne village in Bududa district was unscathed in the March 2010 rains, but in August of that year more heavy rain scooped out a massive portion of the village hillside. Today, a huge, red gash on the mountain face stands in stark contrast to the green undergrowth around it.

Simuya Yowana, a local farmer, lost about two-thirds of his farm in the second 2010 landslide. Worry lines cut deep across his brow as he points toward the hole where a few abandoned coffee trees still dangle over the precipice, just above the point where his farm was ripped apart. “In one day, I lost 200 of my 300 coffee trees,” he says. Coffee is Yowana’s main source of income. He once earned 1.5 million Ugandan shillings (about $600) a year from his coffee crop. Now he hardly makes anything. In 2011 the rains wreaked havoc again just before harvest. Yowana believes it’s only a matter of time before the rest of his farm will be destroyed. “For the first time in my life, my family and I are experiencing hunger,” he says.

Coffee has been Uganda’s most important export crop since the 1950s. Each year coffee brings in about 25 percent of the country’s foreign exchange earnings. Uganda is the second-largest producer of coffee in Africa, after Ethiopia, and the tenth-biggest in the world. Coffee is the main livelihood for 6 to 7 million Ugandans – a significant number in a country of 33 million people.

Uganda’s position as a major coffee producer is under threat, as are the livelihoods of farmers like Yowana. Shifting weather patterns connected to global climate change are likely to make most coffee-producing areas unsuitable for growing the caffeine-rich crop. A 2008 report by Oxfam, “Turning up the Heat, Climate Change and Poverty in Uganda,” details the danger. “If average global temperatures rise by 2 degrees more – as they are almost certainly going to do – then most of Uganda is likely to cease to be suitable for coffee,” the report says. As much as 80 percent of Uganda’s coffee could be gone within a generation.

Variations in temperature and rainfall patterns in Uganda have been extreme in recent years. The glaciers and snowcaps on the Rwenzoris, also known as the Mountains of the Moon, have started melting at an alarming pace due to the combined effect of global warming and a 30 percent reduction in Uganda’s forest cover. The snowcaps have receded to 40 percent of their 1955 cover and the glaciers, too, are vanishing fast. Droughts and floods have increased. The country has had an average of one to two droughts per decade since 1900. But between 1990 and 2000 it had seven droughts, each more severe than the previous. Rainfall distribution has changed as well. “Earlier, rain used to be distributed evenly throughout the season,” says Paul Isabirye, coordinator of the Uganda Environment and Water Ministry’s climate change unit. “But now we sometimes have 60 percent of the rain in just two weeks of the season.” As a result, there are more landslides. To make matters worse, temperature changes and unpredictable seasons have led to an increased incidence of crop pests and diseases.

Mariam Nanangwe, a coffee farmer in the Kaliro district, is experiencing such problems firsthand. It has just rained in her village of Bugabwe when a group of visitors arrive. Nanangwe’s bare feet are caked with red mud as she leads a tour of her coffee trees. She plucks a leaf and points at the yellow patches underneath it. The yellow will soon turn to a brown reminiscent of burn marks. If it gets too bad, the whole tree will die. Nanangwe first saw this disease eight years ago and she has grown to dread it. “It is some kind of a disease that comes in the dry season,” she says. “It spreads quickly and destroys everything.” She says coffee yields have fallen significantly from 10 years ago, when she started working on the farm.

Nothing reveals the plight of Uganda’s coffee crop more than the situation in Mukono, a district that abuts Kampala. Until a few years ago Mukono was Uganda’s largest coffee producing region. It has since fallen to fifth place. Hardly anyone grows coffee there any more. Yet the district is still home to Uganda’s Coffee Research Centre. “This is a terrible situation,” says Africano Kangire, the center’s director. “If temperature continues to rise, coffee in the lowlands will be highly devastated and the only place left suitable for coffee will be some fringes on the highlands.”

Kangire shows two maps of areas in Uganda suitable for growing coffee – one from 2002, and the second a projection of the coffee areas that will remain after a 2 degree Celsius rise in temperature. The second map is bare: The Lake Victoria Crescent, birthplace of the indigenous “Robusta” coffee that makes up almost 85 percent of Uganda’s coffee crop, is a homogenous patch of white. “Not Suitable” for coffee, the legend says.

If global temperatures continue to rise, Uganda itself might fall off the world map of coffee production.

Neelima Mahajan, a business journalist from India, was a visiting scholar at the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley when this article was researched.

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