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Analysis: Conflict Brews: Coffee growers in Western Oromia battle for beans amidst violence, instability

The conflict between government forces and armed groups in Western Oromia is having a detrimental impact on the livelihoods of farmers who depend solely on coffee cultivation and marketing for their sustenance (Photo: Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union/Facebook)

By Abdi Biyenssa @ABiyenssa

Addis Abeba – Belachew Abdisa, whose name has been altered for reasons of security, resides in the Anfillo district, situated within the Kellem Wollega Zone of the Oromia region.

This locale has gained recognition for its production of premium coffee, affording Belachew the opportunity to generate income and provide for his family through the cultivation and marketing of coffee twice a year, until recently.

However, the situation has undergone a notable shift in recent years with the establishment of a base by the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), referred to by the government as “Shene,” within the confines of Anfillo.

This development has transformed the district into a battleground between government forces and OLF fighters, thereby adversely affecting the livelihoods of coffee farmers such as Belachew, who rely entirely on coffee cultivation and marketing for their sustenance.

Belachew has also observed that the influx of labor from the neighboring Amhara region, particularly those engaged in coffee harvesting contracts within western Oromia, has dwindled due to the precarious security situation prevailing in the area.

“Consequently, the harvesting of coffee in our villages has seen a decline, resulting in beans being left to fall to the ground and go to waste,” he remarked.

Belachew has voiced apprehensions regarding the pressure imposed by parties to the armed conflicts on farmers. He elucidates that farmers like himself find themselves ensnared in the midst of hostilities, with both factions accusing them of aligning with one side to the detriment of the other.

“One faction alleges our support for the OLA, while the other accuses us of backing government forces,” he stated.

Belachew emphasizes that the broader security challenges in his village not only impede coffee production but also imperil the livelihoods of farmers, given their heavy reliance on coffee cultivation for sustenance.

Over the past five years, the intensity of the fighting in Oromia region between the OLA and government forces showed no sign of easing, and has dramatically increased over the last two years, causing countless loss of lives, gross violation of human rights and immeasurable destruction against civilian infrastructure in the region and beyond. Two rounds of attempts to resolve the conflict permanently and peacefully haven’t been successful.

The conflict also exerts a detrimental influence on other coffee-growing areas in western Oromia, such as the West Wollega zone where Tesfaye Takele resides. Hailing from the Nole Kaba district within the West Wellega zone, Tesfaye has been engaged in coffee farming endeavors for numerous years.

Nevertheless, he notes that the region is encountering escalating security challenges as a result of the conflict, with farmers like himself caught in the crossfire, thereby impeding their capacity to engage in coffee cultivation.

“The persistent conflict in the region not only impacts the economy but also presents a significant threat to the livelihoods of farmers, who grapple with maintaining their coffee farming activities amid the prevailing security challenges,” he stated.

The persistent conflict in the region not only impacts the economy but also presents a significant threat to the livelihoods of coffee farmers.”

Tesfaye Takele, a coffee farmer residing in West Wollega zone

In the western Oromia zones of Kellem, East, and West Wollega, over 780,000 farmers, including individuals such as Belachew and Tesfaye, engage in the cultivation of more than 160,000 hectares of land. Annually, their endeavors yield in excess of 1.1 million quintals of coffee, representing more than a quarter of the total annual coffee production in the Oromia region, according to the latest survey by the Ethiopian Statistical Service (ESS).

The annual coffee production in Ethiopia is estimated to be around 5.5 million quintals, with coffee cultivated in the Oromia region contributing close to 70% of the national output.

Specifically within the Oromia region, there are 2.8 million coffee farmers tending to 580,000 hectares of land.

Merid Tullu, a macroeconomist, emphasizes the decline in coffee cultivation in western Oromia, despite its previous status among the top-ranking producers since 2018.

He underscores the imperative for stability in coffee production, noting the formidable challenges posed by the prevailing security crisis for both coffee cultivation and marketing.

Merid elucidates the two predominant types of coffee farming in the Oromia region: wild coffee and commercial coffee. He points out that, while most coffee production in western Oromia originates from wild coffee, commercial coffee production primarily occurs in Guji.

“The ongoing instability in areas like western Oromia, where wild coffee cultivation persists, could have a negative impact on foreign currency generation capacity of the country,” he argues.

Two years ago, Ethiopia achieved a record-breaking $1.4 billion in revenue from coffee exports by exporting 300,000 tons to the international market.

This achievement was hailed by the Ethiopian Coffee and Tea Authority as an “unprecedented record in terms of volume and revenue since the country started exporting coffee to the world market.”

However, in the last fiscal year, revenue from the green bean exports declined to $1.3 billion, while the volume of coffee shipped abroad decreased to around 240,000 tons.

In the first half of the current fiscal year, coffee generated $571.47 million, exhibiting a decline of over 23% compared to the corresponding period in the previous fiscal year.

Exporters engaged in sourcing and processing coffee from western Oromia assert that security risks pose threats to the safety of their employees and hinder the transportation of products (Photo: Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union/Facebook)

Ibrahim Mohamed, a coffee exporter (name altered for security reasons), has been involved in sourcing and processing coffee in conflict-affected regions, particularly in the Anfilo district of Kellem Wollega.

He emphasizes that exporters confront a multitude of challenges that profoundly affect their business operations. “Security risks, including the presence of violent and armed groups, jeopardize the safety of employees and the movement of products,” he stated.

According to the exporter, roadblocks and checkpoints disrupt supply chains, escalating export costs and generating logistical complications. “Furthermore, in conflict-ridden areas, coffee exporters face additional challenges such as damage to crucial infrastructure, limited access to markets, and regulatory compliance issues.”

Ibrahim indicates that supply chains are disrupted, output is affected, and exporters are left in uncertainty due to the political unrest in West Oromia. “There are no benefits for exporters operating in these politically unstable areas until the situation is resolved.”

Merid contends that this trend forebodes a bleak future for the country, considering the significant role that coffee plays in both the economy and the livelihoods of Ethiopia’s rural population.

The significance of coffee to Ethiopia’s economy cannot be overstated. Close to 6.7 million farmers across the nation engage directly in coffee production, cultivating over 800,000 hectares of land. Overall, the coffee industry provides employment for an estimated 15 million Ethiopians.

In addition to the security threat, Belachew and Tesfaye emphasized the substantial challenges faced by coffee farmers in western Oromia, particularly relating to inadequate infrastructure.

“The dearth of essential amenities such as roads, electricity, and water supply is impeding both coffee cultivation and transportation from rural areas,” Belachew remarked. “This deficient infrastructure not only escalates production costs but also causes delays in the delivery of coffee beans to markets, thereby diminishing overall efficiency.”

Tesfaye concurs with the observation put forth by Belachew.

“The inadequate transportation infrastructure for the efficient delivery of coffee from farms to markets exacerbates the predicament for coffee farmers such as myself,” noted Tesfaye.

Tesfaye also highlighted the presence of notable challenges faced by coffee farmers in the region, which encompass the risk of coffee genetic erosion, production constraints stemming from diseases and pests, and a scarcity of pesticides.

He emphasized that the proliferation of pests and diseases, such as coffee berry disease and coffee leaf rust, can markedly diminish crop yields and overall production levels.

“Despite the prevalence of these diseases affecting coffee cultivation, there is a limited availability of pesticides for treating coffee plants, exacerbating the adverse effects of pests and diseases on coffee crops,” he elucidated.

Tesfaye also drew attention to the aging coffee trees in numerous farms within his village as an additional threat to coffee cultivation in the region.

“The aging coffee trees further compound the issue, as without adequate replanting efforts, the quality and quantity of coffee beans continue to decline, posing enduring sustainability concerns for the local economy and the capacity for coffee production.”

EU regulation spells trouble for coffee industry

In addition to the existing challenges hampering coffee production, Merid, the economist, highlights the imminent impact of the enforcement of the new European Union Deforestation-Free Regulation (EUDR) on the coffee industry.

He argues that the ongoing instability in regions like western Oromia, where wild coffee cultivation persists, could imperil the quality and reputation of Ethiopia’s renowned coffee production under the stipulations of this regulation.

It is necessity for Ethiopia to align with the new EU regulation.”

Merid Tullu, a macroeconomist

Enacted by the European Parliament and Council in June 2023, the European Union Deforestation-Free Regulation (EUDR) is scheduled to take effect on 30 December 2024, prompting countries such as Ethiopia to formulate comprehensive strategies for compliance and sustainable resource management.

This regulation targets various products, including coffee and six other commodities (timber, beef, palm oil, soy, cocoa, and rubber), intended for the EU market, mandating that they be deforestation-free. Its overarching objective is to mitigate the Union’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and global biodiversity loss.

Ethiopian officials recently expressed apprehensions regarding the impending enforcement of the EUDR, highlighting the challenges faced by countries like Ethiopia with fragmented coffee cultivation systems overseen by smallholder farmers.

In a recent meeting with delegates from the Embassies of the EU Member States, UN agencies, and the World Bank, Semereta Sewasew, the State Minister for Finance, conveyed the government’s expectation of a favorable response from the EU concerning a requested time extension.

“This extension would afford Ethiopia sufficient time for preparation and provide assurances to Ethiopian coffee buyers in the EU until the country aligns with the compliance measures stipulated by the EUDR,” she affirmed.

However, experts like Merid stress that the imperative necessity for Ethiopia to align with the EU regulation, emphasizing that around 30% of the country’s coffee exports are destined for European Union member countries. AS

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