Yayu coffee forest of Ethiopia, rich in biodiversity threatened by new coal mining

Yayu coffee forest of Ethiopia, rich in biodiversity threatened by new coal mining

June 22 - 2022

Coffee Geography Magazine

Located 1,500 meters (4,900 feet) above sea level, Yayu’s coffee forest is one of the last and most significant ecosystems where genetically diverse varietals of Arabica coffee grow wild. Due to the global interest in preserving the Yayu coffee gene pool, it was designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2010. 

The forest covers the massive deposit of coal, estimated to be enough to meet Ethiopia’s domestic coal demand for 40 years. Around the turn of the century, the massive coal deposit was found in the area, generating huge interest from the government and mining companies.

According to the unpublished 2007 report by a Chinese-based consultancy, China National Complete Plant Import and Export Corporation, it is estimated the availability of 230 million metric tons of coal in a 5,000-hectare (12,400-acre) area in and around the forest. 

 The coal industry in Ethiopia is relatively young, with exploration efforts dating back to the 1940s. Deposits are estimated to amount to 600 million tons identified nationwide. Small-scale coal producers cover 55% of the national coal demand, which goes mostly to cement production; Ethiopia doesn’t currently have industrial-scale coal-mining projects. 

It is the center of origin for the most popular coffee in the world, Coffea arabica. The forest is the largest and most important forest in the world for the conservation of the wild coffee populations. The area plays a key role in the conservation of natural and cultural landscapes. Currently, two projects funded by the German Federal Agency for Conservation and German Federal Ministry of Education and Research are being implemented in the proposed biosphere reserve: Conservation and use of the wild populations of Coffea arabica in the rainforests of Ethiopia and Public awareness and environmental education project.

The first attempt to mine coal in Yayu came in 2012, when a state-owned military-industrial conglomerate launched a massive project in the biosphere’s buffer zone to extract coal and manufacture urea, a key component in fertilizer production. 

Mired in scandal, the project was shut down in 2017, but not before carving a hole in the forest and damaging its biodiversity. Due to the shortage of foreign currency reserves, the government has now announced plans to replace coal imports with domestic production. 

In January 2022, it granted large-scale coal-mining licenses to eight companies nationwide, with the aim of reaching an aggregate annual production capacity of 4.2 million metric tons of coal within 10 years. The initial project lay in the buffer zone of the biosphere reserve, where some human activity is allowed. But it was later expanded into the reserve’s core, where it was strictly off-limits.