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Coal mining threatens Ethiopia’s ancient coffee forest

A coffee seedling nursery at Yayu, with forest in background.

A coffee seedling nursery at Yayu, with forest in background. Image by Emily Garthwaite/Biodiversity Challenge Funds via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

  • The Yayu forest in southwestern Ethiopia is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and one of the world’s only remaining ecosystems in which genetically diverse varietals of arabica coffee grow wild.
  • The forest also sits atop a massive deposit of coal, estimated to be enough to meet Ethiopia’s domestic coal demand for 40 years.
  • With Ethiopia’s government looking to boost the country’s mining industry, a shuttered mining venture in the forest’s buffer zone is set to be revived.
  • Coffee farmers who have carefully managed and protected the forest for generations say a shift to mining will completely change their society, the local economy, and the environment.

Sitting high in the hills of southwestern Ethiopia, the thick green forest of Yayu is a haven of biodiversity where Nuradin Aliyi, a third-generation wild-coffee farmer, has lived his whole life intertwined with nature.

“I know every tree in the forest by name,” says the 62-year-old, who lives in the district, or woreda, of Yayu in the Oromia region. Like most of the 12,600 households in the district, Nuradin depends on the forest for survival. He harvests wild coffee beans from the forest and plants them on 4 hectares (10 acres) of farmland, harvesting some 6,000 kilograms per hectare, or about 5,400 pounds per acre, of coffee yearly.

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, as well as the other indigenous plants, animals and bird species the forest supports, it was designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2010.

Farmers say they live in harmony with the forest they depend on. “We only plant coffee seeds we collect from the forest, and we do not use any inorganic fertilizers,” Nuradin tells Mongabay by phone.

This form of traditional coffee management has been practiced for generations by the residents of Yayu, leading to the conservation of the genetic diversity of the forest’s wild arabica coffee. “Wild coffee is life here,” Nuradin says. “We protect it like our children. From cutting invasive trees around it that hamper its growth, to planting broad-leaved trees that shed it from too much light, we make sure wild coffee trees thrive in the forest.”

But in recent years, increasing interest in what lies underneath the forest threatens to overturn this way of life. Around the turn of the century, a massive coal deposit was found in the area, generating huge interest from the government and mining companies.

An unpublished 2007 report by a Chinese-based consultancy, China National Complete Plant Import and Export Corporation, estimates the availability of 230 million metric tons of coal in a 5,000-hectare (12,400-acre) area in and around the forest. This figure would be enough to satisfy Ethiopia’s demand for 40 years.

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.

Now, new economic policies have put Yayu’s coal reserves back in the national spotlight, and farmers like Nuradin say they fear what a coal-mining revival might bring.

Yayu buffer zone, where forest and coffee production coexist. Yayu’s coffee forest is one of the last and most significant ecosystems where genetically diverse varietals of arabica coffee grow wild. Image by Emily Garthwaite/Biodiversity Challenge Funds via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

‘Short-sighted, not serious’ environmental impact analysis 

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.

However, facing a dire shortage of foreign currency reserves, the government has 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. One of these companies is Oromia Mining S.C., which was granted mining rights to a 502-hectare (1,240-acre) concession in Yayu district.

Although the operating company is new, the project itself looks very familiar.

“Following the discovery of coal at Yayu, the Ethiopian government hired multiple foreign consultants to study the feasibility of coal mining in Yayu and assess its environmental impact,” says researcher and consultant Kassahun Kelifa Suleman. “All of these firms concluded that the damage to the environment would be immense and advised against commencing on the project.”

But the state forged ahead, hiring a local consultancy that came up with its own environmental impact analysis (EIA) report and mitigation plan, giving a green light for the project, says Kassahun, whose research has examined the environmental and social impacts of mining in Yayu.

The project was awarded to Metal & Engineering Corporation (METEC, now called Ethio Engineering Group), a state-owned military-industrial conglomerate. The plan called for the construction of two urea and one diammonium phosphate (DAP) fertilizer plants, a coal-mining plant, and a chemical manufacturing plant. It would produce 300,000 metric tons of urea, using 9.2 million metric tons of coal extracted from the area.

Construction began in 2012 with a project cost of $500 million, at the time the second-biggest project the country had seen, following only the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

Zerihun Woldu Tesema, a professor at Addis Ababa University’s Department of Plant Biology and Biodiversity Management, who reviewed the report of the EIA done at the time, says METEC entered into operations with a flawed EIA study.

“I took part in the public discussion where the study was reviewed. The study was short-sighted, lacked a proper mitigation plan, and was not serious,” Zerihun says.

“Moreover, the proposed type of mining, underground mining, that involves digging holes into the earth to intercept coal seams, was not fit for Yayu and could lead to collapse and irreparable damage,” Zerihun says. “Despite our concerns, METEC entered into operation using that EIA study.”

The traditional coffee management has been practiced for generations by the residents of Yayu, leading to the conservation of the genetic diversity of the forest’s wild arabica coffee. Image by Ninara via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Armed guards and dying trees 

The project lay initially 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, Kassahun notes in a 2017 paper on mining in Ethiopia. He found that coal mining in Yayu by the former METEC led to the deterioration of the wild arabica coffee, naturally thick forest, and biodiversity across hundreds of hectares in the area.

More than 450 vascular plants, 50 mammals, 200 birds and 20 amphibian species have made Yayu home, including De Brazza’s monkey (Cercopithecus neglectus) and the guereza (Colobus guereza).

“Habitat loss, coupled with the displacement of local communities, has led to the deterioration of the livelihoods of thousands of forest-dependent households,” Kassahun wrote in his study.

He adds that “the militarized METEC had armed military men guard the forest, and farmers were not even allowed to collect coffee beans. The very early mining operations led to the loss of massive amounts of topsoil. These resulted in a loss of habitat and pollution. In addition, the extracted soil was dumped on water grounds that led to their closure and dried up.”

Tilahun Semu, field operation manager at Hanns R. Neumann Stiftung, a German NGO that works to empower smallholder coffee farmers in more than a dozen countries worldwide, including Ethiopia, says the METEC operations caused “huge damage” to the forest and community.

Nuradin, the smallholder farmer, also recalls destruction of the forest he and his family depend on. “As holes were drilled underground, we saw that trees that were there for decades [were] drying up. In some parts of the area, we are also seeing the sinking of the land,” he says.

Farmers who lost land were not properly compensated, Nuradin says, and those who got paid didn’t know what to do with the money.

“Our community has been farmers our whole life. That’s the way of life we know. When the farmlands were taken away, people did not know how to allocate their compensation money,” he says.

“Many ended up wasting [the compensation payments] in two years. Even two people committed suicide after losing all their money,” Nuradin adds.

Coffee farmers who have carefully managed and protected the forest for generations say a shift to mining will completely change their society, the local economy, and the environment. Image by Alan Schaller/Biodiversity Challenge Funds via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

In 2017, construction at the Yayu complex was terminated. Construction had fallen far behind schedule, and reports to parliament indicated METEC was mining and exporting raw coal, going against the project’s stated goal of using the coal for the domestic chemical and fertilizer industry.

Mining, however, never really stopped. In 2018, the Oromia state government handed the mining rights to a collection of enterprises founded by unemployed local youths.

Local people say these youths worked in the pits dug by former operator METEC, and even used some of the equipment the company left behind. According to Tilahun, they then sold the coal to regional authorities.

Now, mining rights have been officially granted to Oromia Mining S.C., a development arm of Tumsa Endowment for the Development of Oromia, a conglomerate owned by the Oromia region government. In the January 2022 agreement signed between Oromia Mining S.C. and the Ministry of Mines, the company allocated 268.6 million birr ($5.2 million) to start producing 50 metric tons of washed coal per hour by December 2022.

According to the arrangement, the youth enterprises that have been operating the mine since METEC left the area will continue their operations, selling the coal to Oromia Mining S.C., which will supply them with machinery, wash the coal, and take it to the market.

“They are using the same holes that were drilled by METEC,” Nuradin says, raising concerns that ongoing damage to the forest will ramp up under the new management.

Another issue of concern is the health effects on both the miners and the broader community. The miners, who are young people from the area, enter these holes with no protective equipment. “When they come out from the holes, there is no difference between them and the coal they mine,” Tilahun says.

Coal extraction threatens water and air quality in addition to the health of workers, notes Demeke Fantaw Tegegne, a lecturer at Wolkite University, in a paper on the impacts of coal mining in Ethiopia. “Workers get black lung disease from breathing in coal dust — it results in shortness of breath and puts individuals at risk for emphysema, bronchitis, and fibrosis,” he wrote. “Surprisingly, black lung is now on the rise among coal miners. Beyond posing threats to workers’ safety, pollution from coal-mining is linked to chronic illness among residents in coal mining communities.”

Zerihun adds that “there is no mining operation that would have zero impact on the environment. It’s a matter of balancing between economic needs and environmental sustainability.”

Ethiopia’s Ministry of Mines did not reply to Mongabay’s requests for comment, while Oromia S.C., which has no online presence, could not be reached before this article’s publication. UNESCO Ethiopia also did not reply to Mongabay’s emails.

A coffee seedling nursery at Yayu, with forest in background. Image by Emily Garthwaite/Biodiversity Challenge Funds via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Growth potential for a ‘dirty industry’

On paper, Ethiopia’s environmental laws and policies put in place a rigorous environmental impact assessment process that must be conducted before the issuance of large-scale mining rights.

Mining entities are obliged to submit an EIA report that identifies and evaluates in advance any impact, positive or negative, that could result from the implementation of a proposed mining operation. Any plans must include measures to eliminate, minimize or mitigate negative impacts; contingency plans in case of an accident; and procedures for self-auditing and monitoring during implementation and operation.

Upon reviewing the report and weighing the balance of negative and positive impacts, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change can approve the project, require modifications, or deny it.

Mongabay saw a new and approved EIA report by Oromia Mining S.C., but was not allowed to examine its details except for the proposed mitigation plan.

“One way to assess the validity of an EIA study is by seeing its mitigation plan, whether or not the company invests in restoring the area, and seeing the actions and capital allocated for it,” Zerihun says.

In its EIA report, Oromia Mining S.C. gives its total budget for “estimated cost of environmental management, monitoring plan and capacity building” as 370,000 birr ($7,155) — a figure that amounts to project’s 0.14% of the total planned budget.

Zerihun says this amounts to nothing.

“Mitigation plans require millions. As a general rule mitigation plan costs should not be less than 5% of the total cost,” Zerihun says. “Nothing of serious mitigation measure can be done with this figure.”

In addition, in a country where the state has a history of focusing on development without regard to the environment, and where EIA studies are left on the shelves, concerned NGOs, conservationists and smallholder coffee producers say they fear the worst.

Oromia Mining S.C.’s project isn’t the only coal-mining operation in the region. The government has identified mining as one of the focus areas of the country’s 10-year development plan through 2030. The plan calls for capitalizing on the “unexploited growth potential” of the mining sector to raise foreign exchange revenue by increasing exploration and production. In addition to the large concessions granted by the federal government — covering more than 13,000 hectares (32,100 acres) in Yayu and adjacent districts — small-scale coal mining is being strongly pushed by the Oromia regional government. Nearly 50 investors have received permits to mine for coal in partnership with local enterprises in 49 quarry sites located in Oromia.

“Coal is a dirty industry,” Kassahun says. “Its social, economic, and environmental impact is immense. If mining operations are scaled without the proper mitigation, the problems that have already been seen — loss of habitat, soil erosion, pollution and acid mine drainage — will increase with it.”

Farmers speaking to Mongabay say coal mining will completely change their society and local economy. They don’t see a long-term gain, they say, but worry instead that coal is a short-term goal that doesn’t buy sustainability.

“I will never sell my land for the coal miners,” Nuradin says. “There is no future in it for me.”

Citations:

Suleman, K. K. (2017). Balancing coal mining and conservation in South-West Ethiopia. Retrieved from South African Institute of International Affairs website: https://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep29515

Tegegne, D. F. (2019). The resource potential of coal in Ethiopia. Preprint. doi:10.13140/RG.2.2.28475.16166

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