Gorongosa Coffee is changing the lives of farmers and the ecosystem for the better.
by Piotr Naskrecki, Half-Earth Chair
Dr. Piotr Naskrecki is the Half-Earth Project’s inaugural Half-Earth Chair. Piotr is an entomologist, conservation biologist, author, and photographer, based at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. He currently directs the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Laboratory at Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique where he trains a new cadre of Mozambican biologists and conservationists, and helps rebuild the park, which suffered during the recent civil war in that country.
Formed by Pre-Cambrian rocks that predate the breakup of the ancient supercontinent Gondwana, Mount Gorongosa stands unique in the landscape of central Mozambique. Reaching the elevation of 1,863 m and isolated from the nearest formations of similar altitude by over 100 km (Chimanimani Mts.), the mountain is home to one of the southernmost relict tropical evergreen forests on the continent. Incorporated into Gorongosa National Park in 2011, this unique ecosystem is one of the last remnants of the pan-African rainforest that covered most of the continent before a major climatic change of the late Miocene led to its fragmentation, and an expansion of much drier savanna habitats across southern and East Africa. Although the evergreen forest of Mt. Gorongosa represents the less humid type of tropical rainforest, it nonetheless receives over 2,000 mm of rain annually, enough to sustain a rich flora of epiphytes and other humidity-dependent organisms. While some trees briefly lose their leaves during the dry season, the forest between 900 and 1,600 m is mostly evergreen. Above it, the habitat changes abruptly into montane grassland dominated by grasses and sedges, punctuated with stands of beautiful “Bird-of-Paradise” Sterlitzia flowers.
The humid environment of Mt. Gorongosa is a unique island of rainforest biodiversity among dry savannas of central Mozambique.
Despite the fact that little biological exploration of the mountain has been done in the last few decades, we know that Mt. Gorongosa forest is made up of over 800 species of plants. They provide a refuge for many threatened organisms, such as the Giant fruit bat (Lissonycteris goliath)(VU), Swynnerton’s Robin (Swynnertonia swynnertoni)(VU), and Gorongosa pygmy chameleon (Rhampholeon gorongosae)(EN). Many species living there are found nowhere else in the world and the list of Mt. Gorongosa endemics includes birds, mammals, reptiles, many invertebrates, and plants. The mountain even has its own endemic genus, the aptly named Gorongosa carri, a katydid with a pure-tone, ultrasonic song. There are many more rare and endemic species on the mountain slopes, but their existence hangs in the balance.
Gorongosa Pygmy Chameleon (Rhampholeon gorongosae), an endangered animal found only in the rainforest of the mountain.
In the late 1960s, ecologist Kenneth Tinley, whose work has been fundamental to the understanding of Gorongosa landscapes, witnessed a picture of Mount Gorongosa where “[…] forest occurs as an unbroken cover from near the base to the summits.” This, sadly, is no longer true. In the decades that followed the Mozambican civil war of 1975-1992, unchecked extraction of wood and slash-and-burn agriculture have led to the loss of forest coverage on a massive scale. Over a third of the forest is now gone and, even more worryingly, the remaining patches are highly fragmented. This, in turn, changes the microclimate of the forest, making it drier and more susceptible to fire. What is happening to the multitudes of unique animals and plants as their habitat disappears is not too difficult to imagine.
It would be very unfair to place the blame for these loses on the communities living around the mountain. Years of conflict that has simmered in the region almost to this day, the lack of basic infrastructure, and isolation from centers of commerce and education have forced the people of Mt. Gorongosa to resort to the most basic sustenance and eke out a living on nutrient poor soils, typical of tropical rainforests, with no access to animal protein other than an occasional forest rat or a bird caught in a primitive trap. Until very recently, the situation of people living on the mountain, and that of the mountain itself, was dire, quickly spiraling towards a social and ecological catastrophe. Something needed to be done.
Norina Vicente, an entomologist working at the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Laboratory in Gorongosa, studies ant communities associated with shade-grown coffee plants.
The same climatic and geological conditions that make the slopes of Mt. Gorongosa a poor choice for planting of corn and beans, the typical Mozambican staples, just happen to create the perfect environment for another crop – coffee. Mozambique has no tradition of growing coffee and thus when the idea was first introduced to the farming communities on the mountain, it was met with a healthy dose of skepticism. But the concept was brilliant – coffee is a cash crop that could quickly generate badly needed income to the local farmers, and make them abandon unsustainable and unprofitable slash-and-burn practices. Even more importantly, coffee would be farmed using the shade-grown system, in which coffee is planted in the shade of native trees. If successful, Gorongosa National Park would solve two problems with one action – the standard of living of communities around the park would improve dramatically, while at the same time the forest lost in the last decades will finally have a chance to regenerate.
Five years on and the picture is clear. Over 500 farmers on Mt. Gorongosa grow coffee beans and reap the benefits of a significantly increased income. Of those, a hundred farmers are women, who with their empowerment and economic independence set a new community standard in a typically male-dominated society. So far, the farmers have planted 300,000 coffee plants in areas that had previously been destroyed by slash-and-burn and more are being placed in the ground every day. Simultaneously, for every few coffee bushes, a native rainforest tree is planted alongside them, quickly leading to the formation of plant communities that turn a depauperate wasteland into forest-like refugia for local biodiversity. Through the process of direct planting and natural regrowth, facilitated by birds and bats that carry seeds from the surviving rainforest patches on the mountain, over 100,000 native trees now grow where there once was nothing. And those trees really make a difference for Gorongosa biodiversity. Research conducted by Mozambican students who participate in the Gorongosa BioEd program has shown that the older the coffee plantation, the greater the number of native forest bird species that visit it, bringing more seeds and creating a positive feedback loop that accelerates forest recovery.
Shade-grown coffee plantations on Mt. Gorongosa provide refuge to many native organisms that have lost their original home in the forest.
Conservation success stories are rare, more so now than ever before. And yet, the Gorongosa coffee project, and the unprecedented restoration of the park itself, clearly show that it is possible to stop and reverse the runaway ecological devastation that is sweeping the globe. It shows that this can be done while benefiting local communities and increasing stability in previously volatile regions.
Perhaps, in 15-20 years, another ecologist will stand at the base of Mt. Gorongosa and marvel at the uninterrupted carpet of the rainforest canopy, full of life and hidden wonders. That cup of Gorongosa coffee that you sip while reading these words might just make it possible.