Small coffee farmers hoping for a wake-up call at climate talks


IN A COUNTRY where political and economic stability have been difficult to sustain, one thing the Ugandan farmer Ngambe Ehab could usually rely on was his region’s annual weather patterns.

Consistent temperatures and rainfall ensured the small-scale coffee and banana producer from Bushenyi district was able to provide for his family at a time when poverty and hunger stalked much of the east African country.

But over the past decade the rising global temperatures predicted by scientists have led to changing weather patterns in Uganda’s mountainous western region, a development that has put the 76-year-old’s five-hectare farming operation at risk.

“In a good year I used to be able to harvest 18,000kg of raw coffee beans,” says Ehab. “But in 2003-4 I was only able to harvest 12,000kg because of poor weather, and we have had a number of bad years since then. So my income is now reduced by a third.”

According to scientists at the Colombia-based International Centre for Tropical Agriculture, some of Uganda’s most lucrative tea- and coffee-producing areas could be wiped off the map if average temperatures rise by an expected 2.3 degrees by the middle of this century.

The region’s farmers are already seeing this prediction become a reality, says Ehab, with drought periods and erratic rainfall creating an environment susceptible to new diseases and pests. “At the moment I am losing half my coffee tree garden, 2,000 trees, each year to the disease coffee wilt, which has affected many farmers in my village in recent years. My banana trees are also affected by a similar disease. I replace the dead coffee trees every year at a cost of 500 Ugandan shillings [15 cent] each to buy and transport, which is expensive,” he says.

To try to mitigate the effects of climate change, Ehab and his 6,600 fellow smallholder farmers at Ankole Coffee Producers Cooperative Union (ACPCU) have introduced a variety of farming practices designed to preserve water and improve soil quality.

Large trees have been planted in their coffee gardens to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions and provide shade for crops; manure and mulch are spread annually to improve the soil quality and save moisture; and trenches have been dug between coffee rows to capture moisture. “With the help of Twin Trading, a UK-registered charity, and the development organisation Fairtrade, we have embarked on a programme that involves tree planting, and educating farmers how to restore their environment if it has been affected by flooding or drought,” says John Nuwagaba, the general manager of ACPCU. “A big part of the project will also focus on protecting our wetlands, which are under threat from people.”

Such is the danger of climate change to small-scale farmers across the continent that well-placed individuals, such as the former president of Ireland Mary Robinson, have travelled to recent United Nations climate-change conferences to champion their cause and push for action. And one need only look at the famine conditions gripping many parts of the Horn of Africa to understand how vulnerable rural Africans are to drought and many governments’ weak disaster-response capabilities.

According to Toby Quantrill, head of public policy at Fairtrade Foundation, small-scale farmers are vital for food provision in African nations, so their communities need to develop climate-change mitigation projects to ensure they continue in that role.

This makes establishing the Green Climate Fund – a mechanism that will help developing countries adapt to their changing environment – at the United Nations climate-change negotiations in South Africa essential, he says. “What we are seeing is [that] climate change will return people across Africa, who have managed to extract themselves from crippling poverty, back to a state of dependence on international aid to survive.”

As far as Quantrill is concerned, agriculture needs to be given a high profile at the negotiations, and support for vulnerable small-scale farmers needs to be highlighted under this heading, and addressed through the new fund.

“It doesn’t matter where the funds [for the Green Climate Fund] come from,” he says. “They have to be put on the table in Durban, and we need to ensure the money gets to the people who need it.”

Thousands of kilometres away from Bushenyi, Sidney le Fleur’s fledgling career as a honey-bush farmer near Plettenberg Bay, in South Africa’s Western Cape province, has also come under threat from climate change. In the years after he and his partners established Ericaville Farming Trust, in 2000, everything went according to their business plan, says le Fleur, a descendant of the Khoisan, the region’s indigenous people. The trust even managed to expand its production operation to more than 14.5 hectares by 2005.

“Initially we sold raw product, but after the success of the first few years we started processing the honey bush – which is used in a herbal tea – ourselves through outsourcing and selling it to companies linked to Fairtrade,” he says.

These early successes were quickly tempered by the combination of successive floods and drought that hammered their region over the following five years.

“In the year following the first floods in November 2005 we lost 13 per cent of our honey-bush crop because of recessive water from the floods seeping into the soil. This continuously wet soil gave our plants a disease called root rot, which causes them to decay.

“Each year we lost more and more of our honey bush to the disease until we were down to only seven hectares. We decided to build a dam to try and mitigate the effect of the floods, but then the weather patterns began to change and the flooding stopped in 2009.

“Since then we have been hit by the worst drought in 130 years, which has wiped out another 2.5 hectares of our crop, leaving us down to only 4.5 hectares. Last year we had to replant because we did not have enough honey bush to produce a viable crop.”

Although efforts to develop agricultural strategies to combat rising temperatures and poor rainfall patterns are ongoing, research presented at the Third International Forum on Water and Food in South Africa this month paints a particularly disturbing picture of how climate change will affect the continent’s water sources, crucial for farming. Scientists have found that climate change could significantly alter water flows in Africa’s 10 major river basins, presenting a new barrier to nascent efforts to better manage water for food production.

Particularly alarming are the predicted changes in southern Africa’s Limpopo Basin, home to 14 million people. Here experts found that rising temperatures and declining rainfall over the next few decades would reduce water availability, depressing food production and intensifying poverty.

While it is questionable whether any significant progress will be made at the negotiations in Durban over the coming week, at least a new extreme weather insurance scheme designed to help African countries resist and recover from the ravages of drought will be unveiled.

The African Risk Capacity was developed by the UN World Food Programme. It uses satellite weather surveillance to estimate risk and can trigger readily available funds to African countries hit by severe drought. The creation of this disaster risk pool, says the UN, could save countries up to 50 per cent of the cost of emergency contingency funds while decreasing reliance on external aid.