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Global Warming Threatens Coffee Collapse in Uganda

Alexis Okeowo in Nsangi, Uganda
for National Geographic News
July 24, 2007
 
Things are getting hot for coffee farmers in Uganda—a little too hot.

Growers say global warming is already cutting into coffee harvests, the country's biggest export.

And a new report warns that even a slight increase in temperature could wipe out Uganda's entire coffee crop, which brings in more than half of the East African country's revenue.

"Climate change has affected coffee production already," said Philip Gitao, executive director of the East African Fine Coffees Association.

The crop has had less time to mature because rain is falling at the wrong times, affecting coffee quality, Gitao said. And there have been more droughts in the past two to three years than ever before.

"If the coffee beans face a lot of sunshine and less rain, the beans will be smaller and in lower yields," Ronald Buule, a central Ugandan coffee farmer, said as he stood at a coffee plot bordered by lush plants, muddy hills, and an orange dirt road.

"We are worried about the temperature, but we have limited resources," he added, as he examined his crops under a dense thicket of banana leaves.

Potential Disaster

Things might not get better anytime soon.

A rise in average temperatures of just 3.6°F (2°C) would make most of Uganda unsuitable for coffee, according to the Ugandan report on climate change released this spring.

That's a figure at the low end of global estimates.

The United Nations panel on climate change, for instance, predicted in January that world temperatures will rise by between 2.5 and 10°F (1.4 and 5.8°C) on average by the end of the century, primarily as a result of human activities such as burning fossil fuels.

(Read more UN predictions about how global warming will affect the globe.)

And "there is no real doubt that global temperatures will rise between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees [C]," said Philip Gwage, Uganda's deputy commissioner of meteorology.

Certain conditions are required for coffee growth, including cool temperatures and enough water, he pointed out. The average temperature in Uganda's coffee-growing area now is about 77°F (25°C).

If the temperature rises, only a few highland areas in Uganda could continue to grow coffee, Gwage added.

Although Uganda may also receive more rainfall from surface evaporation off east Africa's lakes, the increased precipitation could be erratic and not fall during the growing season.

Robusta, the main variety of coffee grown, would "essentially disappear," he said. Coffee-growing areas would be reduced to less than a tenth of their current size.

Neighboring coffee producers such as Kenya and Tanzania would also be affected, the Ugandan report predicts.

Fighting the Fire

To help prevent against the adverse effects of global warming, farmers are already adopting new growing strategies for coffee, a seasonal crop that thrives during Uganda's rainy, cool period between December and February.

The primary concern, farmers say, is ensuring the premium quality of Uganda's coffee—especially the reputation of the country's organic brands.

Farmers are growing trees densely to create cool shade for the coffee. They are also mulching—or covering soil with grass to hold onto water—and digging long terraces in the ground to retain rainfall.

But these efforts are not without obstacles.

George Kiryowa, a coffee farmer for 20 years, has been trying to implement the practices on his farm. But "the people have destroyed all the trees for timber," he said.

And because he can't afford extra labor, "these days we just use our hands, and the process is slow."

Kiroywa added that he now grows other crops such as cocoa—the plant source of chocolate—as a safety measure in case the changing environment does harm the coffee.

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