Ethiopia’s coffee forest is threatened by coal mining

The Yayu woodland in southwestern Ethiopia is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve where arabica coffee grows wild.

The forest also contains enough coal to supply Ethiopia’s internal demand for 40 years.
Ethiopia’s government plans to resurrect a shuttered mining enterprise in the forest’s buffer zone.
Coffee producers warn a transition to mining will affect their community, the local economy, and the environment.
Nuradin Aliyi, a third-generation wild-coffee farmer, lives in the deep green forest of Yayu in southern Ethiopia.

The 62-year-old from Yayu, Oromia, knows every tree by name. Nuradin depends on the forest for survival, as do 12,600 other households. He takes wild coffee beans from the jungle and plants them on 4 hectares (10 acres) of farmland, harvesting 5,400 pounds per acre of coffee year.

Yayu’s coffee forest is one of the last and most significant ecosystems where arabica coffee grows wild. Due to global interest in preserving the Yayu coffee gene pool and other native plants, animals, and birds, it was named a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2010.

Farmers believe they coexist with the forest. Nuradin says, “We exclusively sow coffee seeds from the forest and don’t use inorganic fertilizers.”

Yayu inhabitants have maintained traditional coffee management for generations, conserving the forest’s wild arabica coffee’s genetic variety. Nuradin: “Wild coffee is life.” “We guard it like our kids.” We make sure wild coffee trees thrive in the forest by eliminating invasive species that hinder their growth and planting broad-leaved trees that block too much sun.

Recent interest in the forest’s understory threatens to change this way of life. A significant coal deposit was discovered in the area about 1900, attracting government and mining interest.

An undisclosed 2007 analysis by China National Complete Plant Import and Export Corporation estimates 230 million metric tons of coal in and around the forest. This would last Ethiopia 40 years.

In 2012, a state-owned military-industrial conglomerate began mining coal in Yayu’s buffer zone to make urea, a critical fertilizer ingredient. The project was shut down in 2017 amid scandal, but not before destroying the forest’s biodiversity.

New economic policies have put Yayu’s coal deposits back in the national spotlight, and farmers like Nuradin dread a coal-mining renaissance.

Forest and coffee coexist in Yayu buffer zone. Yayu’s coffee forest is one of the last environments where arabica coffee grows wild. Emily Garthwaite/BCF/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).
“Irresponsible” Impact assessment
Exploration for Ethiopia’s coal began in the 1940s. National deposits total 600 million tons. Ethiopia doesn’t have industrial-scale coal-mining projects; small-scale coal producers cover 55% of national coal consumption.

Faced with dwindling foreign currency reserves, the government aims to replace coal imports with domestic manufacturing. In January 2022, it gave eight businesses large-scale coal-mining permits with the goal of producing 4.2 million metric tons of coal annually within 10 years. Oromia Mining S.C. was granted a 502-hectare concession in Yayu district.

The project seems familiar despite the new running company.

After discovering coal in Yayu, the Ethiopian government sought foreign specialists to evaluate its viability and environmental impact, says researcher and consultant Kassahun Kelifa Suleman. “These firms believed the environmental damage would be severe and advised against the project.”

The state hired a local consultant that produced its own environmental impact analysis (EIA) report and mitigation plan, Kassahun adds. His research has explored the environmental and social repercussions of mining in Yayu.

Metal & Engineering Corporation (METEC, now Ethio Engineering Group) won the project. The design proposed for two urea, one diammonium phosphate (DAP), a coal mine, and a chemical plant. Using 9.2 million tons of local coal, it would produce 300,000 tons of urea.

At $500 million, it was the second-biggest project in Ethiopia after the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

METEC began operating with a defective EIA, notes Zerihun Woldu Tesema of Addis Ababa University’s Department of Plant Biology and Biodiversity Management.

“I attended the study’s public discussion.” Zerihun claims the study lacked a sufficient mitigation plan and was not serious.

Zerihun believes underground mining, which entails digging tunnels to intercept coal seams, isn’t suitable for Yayu and could cause collapse and catastrophic damage. METEC used the EIA despite our objections.

Yayu inhabitants have maintained traditional coffee management for generations, conserving the forest’s wild arabica coffee’s genetic variety.
Yayu inhabitants have maintained traditional coffee management for generations, conserving the forest’s wild arabica coffee’s genetic variety. Flickr/Ninara (CC BY 2.0).
Death and guards
In the biosphere reserve’s buffer zone, human activity was allowed. Kassahun says in a 2017 article on mining in Ethiopia that it was later expanded towards the reserve’s center. Former METEC’s coal mining in Yayu degraded wild arabica coffee, deep forest, and biodiversity spanning hundreds of hectares.

Yayu is home to more than 450 vascular plants, 50 animals, 200 birds, and 20 amphibians, including De Brazza’s monkey and the guereza (Colobus guereza).

Loss of habitat and displacement of local residents have hurt thousands of forest-dependent households, Kassahun said.

He continues, “The militaristic METEC had armed military troops watch the forest, and farmers couldn’t pick coffee beans.” Early mining caused substantial topsoil loss. Habitat loss and pollution resulted. The removed soil was dumped into waterways, causing them to dry up.

Tilahun Semu, field operation manager of German NGO Hanns R. Neumann Stiftung, said METEC operations caused “vast harm” to the forest and community.

Nuradin, a smallholder farmer, remembers the forest’s annihilation. As holes were bored underground, decades-old trees dried up. Some areas are sinking, he says.

Nuradin says farmers who lost land weren’t properly compensated and didn’t know what to do with the money.

“We’ve always been farmers.” We’re used to it. People didn’t know how to spend their settlement money when farmlands were removed, he says.

“Many wasted [compensation] in two years. Nuradin says two people committed suicide after losing everything.

Yayu coffee grower.

Coffee producers warn a transition to mining will affect their community, the local economy, and the environment. Flickr/Biodiversity Challenge Funds/Alan Schaller (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).
Yayu’s construction ended in 2017. METEC was mining and exporting raw coal, contrary to the project’s declared purpose of utilising the coal for the domestic chemical and fertilizer industries.

Mining never ended. In 2018, the Oromia state administration gave mining rights to unemployed local teenagers.

Locals allege these teenagers worked in METEC’s trenches and used their equipment. The coal was sold to regional authorities, according to Tilahun.

Oromia Mining S.C., a government-owned company, has been granted mining rights. Oromia Mining S.C. and the Ministry of Mines inked an agreement in January 2022 to produce 50 tons of cleansed coal per hour by December 2022.

Youth enterprises that have been working the mine since METEC departed will continue, selling coal to Oromia Mining S.C., which will equip them with machinery, wash the coal, and market it.

“They’re utilizing the same holes METEC drilled,” Nuradin says, raising concerns about new forest damage.

Concerns remain about miners’ and the community’s health. Local youths mine without protective gear. Tilahun explains, “When they emerge from the holes, they look like coal.”

Demeke Fantaw Tegegne, a Wolkite University instructor, says coal production harms water and air quality and worker health. “Black lung disease results in shortness of breath and puts workers at risk for emphysema, bronchitis, and fibrosis,” he added. Black lung is growing among coal miners. Coal mining pollution is connected to chronic sickness in coal mining towns.

Zerihun says, “No mining operation has zero environmental impact.” Economic needs and environmental sustainability must be balanced.

Ethiopia’s Ministry of Mines did not respond to Mongabay’s requests for comment, and Oromia S.C. could not be reached. Mongabay’s emails to UNESCO Ethiopia went unanswered.

Yayu coffee nursery with forest in background.
Yayu coffee nursery with forest in background. Emily Garthwaite/BCF/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).
‘Dirty industry’ growth potential
On paper, Ethiopia’s environmental laws and policies require an EIA before issuing large-scale mining rights.

Mining enterprises must submit an EIA report identifying and evaluating any positive or negative impacts of a planned mining operation. Plans must include steps to eliminate, minimize, or mitigate negative impacts, accident contingency plans, and self-auditing and monitoring procedures during implementation and operation.

The Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change reviews the report and weighs negative and positive impacts to approve, modify, or deny the proposal.

Mongabay saw Oromia Mining S.C.’s latest EIA report but was only allowed to evaluate its mitigation plan.

Zerihun adds one method to judge an EIA study’s validity is by looking at its mitigation plan, if the corporation invests in repairing the area, and the activities and cash provided for it.

Oromia Mining S.C. estimates the cost of environmental management, monitoring, and capacity building at 370,000 birr ($7,155), or 0.14 percent of the project’s overall expenditure.

Zerihun says it’s useless.

“Adaptation costs millions. Zerihun believes mitigation plan expenditures shouldn’t be less than 5% of the overall. “This number is useless for mitigation.”

Concerned NGOs, conservationists, and smallholder coffee producers fear the worst in a country where the state has a history of focusing on development without consideration to the environment.

Oromia Mining S.C.’s project isn’t the only one nearby. The government’s 10-year development strategy through 2030 includes mining. The plan aims for strengthening exploration and production in the mining sector to boost foreign exchange revenue. The Oromia regional government is pushing small-scale coal mining in addition to the massive federal concessions in Yayu and neighboring regions. Nearly 50 investors have won permission to mine coal in 49 Oromia quarries.

Kassahun: “Coal is nasty.” Social, economic, and environmental impacts are huge. Loss of habitat, soil erosion, pollution, and acid mine drainage will rise if mining operations are expanded without effective mitigation.

Farmers say coal mining will transform their society and economy. They argue coal is a short-term aim that doesn’t buy sustainability.

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