‘Strange Brew’ in Earth Island Journal

Oct 4th, 2012 | By | Category: Featured Stories, Student Work, Top Story

Neelima Mahajan’s piece Strange Brew appeared in Earth Island Journal in the Spring of 2012.  An excerpt of the article is included below.

Mahajan was a visiting scholar with the Africa Reporting Project in 2010-2011 and is now serving as Senior Editor at Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in Beijing, one of China’s leading business schools. She edits the school’s management research magazine as well as their knowledge website.

Strange Brew

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.

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 (pictured above, right), 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.

Read the rest of Strange Brew

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