Abdul Mohamed has an unenviable job. He’s a park ranger tasked with protecting Harenna Forest in southern Ethiopia from illegalbe activities like logging and charcoal production. Mohamed realizes the importance of preserving it for his, and his neighbors’, livelihoods. The problem is that Mohamed and his eight colleagues are in charge of protecting an area that’s about 100 square kilometers (40 square miles). “We need more people,” he says.
Patrolling for shenanigans can be dirty work. On the off chance that they catch someone red-handed burning charcoal or cutting trees for firewood or furniture, there are sometimes aggressive confrontations.
“People are ready to fight,” Mohamed says. Communities that want to clear land for crops don’t understand the position of the rangers, and often start arguing or threaten violence, he says. “I get very scared!” he adds, a shocking statement from a man with his job and physical stature.
Mohamed is on the front lines in a mounting battle to preserve Harenna Forest, part of a crucial ecosystem in southern Ethiopia’s Bale Mountains National Park. Economic development, climate change and population growth threaten the health of the park. The region is vital to the survival of endemic flora and fauna, like the mountain nyala (Tragelaphus buxtoni), a large antelope, and some of the planet’s last wild coffee, as well as ancient forms of livelihood such as beekeeping. The park serves as a watershed for 12 million people, many of whom live in the arid lowlands and rely on the park’s rivers for survival.
Harvest season in the birthplace of Arabica
On the banks of the Yadot River, which runs through the edge of Harenna Forest, Ali Nurut is in good spirits. The coffee harvest runs from mid-September to mid-November and is well underway.
This year, Nurut’s wild coffee plants are producing better than expected.
Vibrant red fruits hang from the thin coffee trees that grow at elevations of 1,300 to 1,800 meters (4,300 to 6,000 feet). The berries stand out from the wiry branches and minimal foliage of the trees. Nurut is careful to pick just the ripe ones, but moves with practiced speed and efficiency. Without stopping to answer this reporter’s questions, Nurut drops the red berries into a long cylindrical straw basket draped over his shoulder. The baskets are ubiquitous in the area this time of year.
The land in the forest is owned by the community and then parceled out for families to pick coffee. Unlike many of his friends, Nurut’s plot of land in the rainforest is surrounded by a fence to keep out animals. He’s cleared the brush around his coffee trees, whereas his neighbors’ trees are suffocated by the intense plant life of the rainforest. Clearing allows the trees to produce more and better berries, Nurut says.
He harvests about 120 kilograms (260 pounds) of coffee beans per year, but expects an increase this season. In previous years, he’s received the equivalent of $2.75 per kilo ($1.25 per pound). It’s a good thing, too, because “I have seven kids to support with coffee,” he says, still not breaking from the methodical work. Around 3,000 people collect coffee in the national park, says Abdul Kadeem, a member of the Sankate Coffee Association.
As the birthplace of Arabica, southern Ethiopia is a well-known source of the world’s 100th most traded product. It is also one of the last places where endemic coffee still grows naturally in the wild. The small, unassuming fruit trees can be found in the midst of the mayhem of the rainforest.
But these wild plants, and much of Ethiopia that is suitable for farming coffee, may soon be a thing of the past. In a 2017 study published in Nature, scientists projected increasingly unfavorable changes for coffee-farming areas in Ethiopia, including Harenna Forest. The culprit: climate change. The study predicted that up to 59 percent of such land would no longer be able to grow coffee by the end of the century because it would be too warm and dry. While other regions can move their coffee to higher altitudes, the slopes of the Bale Mountains are too steep to allow such a transition, says Justin Moat, a spatial scientist at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, U.K., who led the study. “No matter what kind of scenario [for climate change], by the end of the century, Bale is not looking good,” Moat told Mongabay.
But climate change is not the only concern for those harvesting coffee in Harenna Forest. Agriculture, deforestation and livestock grazing also threaten the coffee industry. As park ranger Mohamed notes, people living on the edge of Harenna Forest clear land and use it for agriculture.
For small-scale wild-coffee producers like Nurut, who rely almost entirely on the harvest for their livelihood, that’s bad news.
Just 100 meters (330 feet) from where Nurut works his coffee plantation, a herd of cows marches through the forest. It’s not illegal to bring livestock into the forest, but many believe grazing has an adverse impact on the forest.
The lowland residents of Bale Mountains National Park have access to fewer resources than those living near the forest. In fact, many herders bring their livestock into the highlands of the national park to graze for weeks at a time. Farm Africa, a nonprofit based in the U.K., is trying to improve the livelihoods of people living in the lowlands so they don’t make that journey. The work is being done in the context of a nearly 7 percent loss of forest annually, according to Farm Africa.
The wild coffee picked in Harenna Forest is often mixed with farmed coffee from nearby Delo Menna, to be roasted and exported. Locals say they can taste the difference between farmed and wild coffee. But if the global marketing machine shone a spotlight on wild coffee here and there was a boom in demand, pressure to clear away other plants to maximize the harvest of wild coffee could spike. That would hurt the forest, says Kadeem of the coffee association. A 2006 study published in Forest Ecology and Management seems to corroborate this, finding a 50 percent reduction in the number of species of lianas, small trees and shrubs in areas where plants were cleared to help the coffee grow.
Ethiopian wolves roam the mountains
High above Harenna Forest, where thousands are at work picking coffee, at an elevation of about 1,800 meters the rare Ethiopian wolf prowls the windswept plateaus. While there are only about 400 of the wolves left in the world, making them Africa’s rarest carnivore species, they roam freely on the Sanetti Plateau in Bale Mountains National Park. Home to the highest road in Africa, the park is one of the few Afromontane areas in Ethiopia. But the wolves are shy creatures, so it was particularly extraordinary to encounter one while hiking on the plateau. The wolf was hunting for rodents no more than 15 meters (50 feet) from us.
Access to food isn’t the biggest concern for the survival of the Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis), which is the size of a medium dog with a striking red coat. They wolves’ main source of food, rats, abound in the National Park; there are 3,000 kilograms of rats per square kilometer (10,500 pounds per square mile) in some meadows. The main threats come from domestic animals and pressure on the land where they hunt.
Disease outbreaks brought by dogs that accompany livestock herders in the highlands of the park are one of the most immediate threats to the wolves. There have been successive outbreaks of rabies and canine distemper virus in recent years in the park. Three out of four wolves die in such outbreaks.
But the wolves bounce back from each outbreak, suggesting they’ve developed some type of resilience, according to the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme, which also helps vaccinate domestic dogs to avoid outbreaks. A more permanent threat to the wolves, according to the EWCP, is habitat loss.
As human populations move farther up the mountains in search of land for farming and grazing, the wolves are squeezed into smaller areas. Barley and potatoes are grown as high as 4,000 meters (13,000 feet) in some areas, and 60 percent of the habitat potentially suitable for the wolves has been converted to agriculture, according to the EWCP.
While the Ethiopian wolves are the most prominent endangered species in the park, the area is an endemic hotspot for both animals and plants. Bale Mountains National Park hosts a quarter of Ethiopia’s endemic mammal species, including the entire global population of the big-headed African mole-rat (Tachyoryctes macrocephalus) and largest global population of mountain nyala, as well as 6 percent of the country’s bird species. Almost half of the 1,000 known medicinal plant species in Ethiopia are found in the park.
More mammal species would go extinct with the loss of Bale Mountains National Park than with the loss of any other area of equivalent size on the planet, according to UNESCO.
Traditional beekeeping only for the brave
Harvesting wild coffee isn’t the only traditional practice taking place in the forest. Scattered and camouflaged throughout the tallest canopies in the forest are oblong wooden contraptions: traditional beehives honed over centuries of practice.
While every village near Harenna Forest hums with activity from the coffee harvest, these structures are a reminder of the myriad ways locals have lived in harmony with the forest for generations. The beehives are made of two large canoe-like pieces of wood, fastened together with rope. They are then placed high in native African redwood trees, usually 21 meters (70 feet) above ground, to deter daring honey badgers or potential thieves.
When the honey is ready to harvest, the beekeeper will scale the tree with a rope and nothing else. It’s a risky business, suited only to the courageous and fit. Kadeem, who has five beehives near his house, hires someone else to harvest for him because he’s scared of heights. He says people have fallen and died.
After reaching the hive, the beekeeper burns moss and blows smoke inside to disorientate the bees and prevent them from aggressively protecting their prized creation. Kadeem harvests about 36 kilograms (80 pounds) of honey twice a year and makes the equivalent of $1.50 per kilo (70 cents per pound). It’s less than half of what he gets for coffee, “because the coffee is for export but the honey is for local consumption.” Honey is sold as a remedy for the common cold and to make tej, a mead or honey wine.
Honey and bees are a fixture of the traditions of Ethiopia. The northern town of Lalibela, renowned for its monolith churches cut out of the rock in the 13th century, is named after a king who, legend goes, was swarmed by bees at birth but remained unscathed. His mother saw this as a sign of his long reign and named him Lalibela, which translates to “the bees recognize his sovereignty.”
With a pinch of salt
As his bees produce their honey in hives high above the ground, Kadeem remains focused on plants at eye level. At his home, the coffee beans have been separated from their berries and laid out in the sun to dry. His wife, Ashraka Kadeem, starts to prepare a traditional brew with already-dried coffee beans. Ashraka is 20 and has been making coffee like this for over half of her life; it appears she could do it with her eyes closed.
The beans are cleaned and then roasted on a metal pan over an open fire under a makeshift canopy outside. The beans change in color from pale green to brown then black, accompanied by the familiar scent of roasted coffee. The coffee is ground in a wooden bowl until it is a fine powder. The intensive labor required is why most people buy grounds from nearby towns, but Ashraka maintains it tastes better homemade.
The grounds are placed in a jebena, an Ethiopian coffee pot, and water is poured in. Before serving, a pinch of salt is added. Hard-core coffee drinkers the world might do a double take at this point, but it’s hard to argue with artisans in the birthplace of the drink.