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Extract from Part Nine: Stimulants

Wild Forest Coffee - Harenna, Ethiopia

All of the coffee grown around the world can be traced back to the wild forests in the highlands of southern Ethiopia. Scientists believe that knowing coffee’s past could be an important part of securing its future. The most important species for coffee drinkers – Arabica - is not only vulnerable to the effects of climate change but it’s under threat from a devastating disease called la roya.

The wild coffee trees in Ethiopia’s highland forests and in a small area of neighbouring South Sudan are the main storehouse of genetic diversity for Arabica (just as the wild trees around the Tian Shan in Kazakhstan are the gene pool for the apple). At its simplest, these forests are split into two main regions, east and west of the Great Rift Valley. In the west are the Wellega, Illubabor, Tepi, Bench Maji, Kaffa and Jimma-Limu coffee areas, and in the east, across the Rift, are Sidamo, Bale and Harar. In each of these areas, and in each of the forests, are genetically distinct populations of Arabica. Each area has a unique flavour profile, or even range of profiles. Coffee has an ‘origin’, in the same way the term ‘terroir’ is used for wine, to identify the difference between one vineyard and another. Each of the distinct populations of wild coffee trees has evolved and adapted to its own environment over hundreds of thousands of years. This diversity explains why, in the west in the Agaro region, in the Jimma-Limu zone, coffee may be sweet and subtle, with notes of citrus, tropical flowers and stone fruit (such as peach), whereas coffee from the Bale Mountains is usually fruity and floral but with added notes of vanilla and spice. Each of these coffee areas is also home to different communities.

One of the lesser-known wild coffee forests (and one of the hardest to reach) is Harenna, 250 miles south-east of Addis Ababa, set within the Bale Mountains which has some of the highest peaks in East Africa. This is a biodiversity hotspot; thousands of plant species can be found here, along with endangered punk-haired Bale monkeys, lions and the rare Ethiopian wolf. Much of the mountain forest here has been so inaccessible that this biodiversity remained largely undocumented until the end of the twentieth century. Harenna is dwarfed by the Bale Mountain massif, which has peaks of over 4,000 metres, and even in the dense forest where the coffee grows (at 1,500 to 1,800 metres) there’s often a cloud of mist above the high canopy. Harenna might appear to be completely given over to nature but within the coffee forest are villages, hamlets and single smallholdings. The forest is currently home to around 3,000 people, and for most of them coffee is their life. Their livelihoods depend on gathering beans from trees that can be completely wild or semi-wild (tending them makes harvesting easier). The wildest coffee grows on wiry branches of tall, spindly trees; the red, cherry-like fruits are picked and tossed into long, cylindrical straw baskets draped over shoulders. Some of the wild coffee is sold on to traders, but much of it stays in the forest.

…But just as we’re realising the value of the coffee genetics in the Ethiopian highlands, the wild coffee trees are under threat.

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