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Uganda's lucrative coffee threatened by climate change
NSANGI, Uganda, Feb 8 (AFP) Feb 08, 2008
The temperature is rising a little too quickly in Uganda -- and coffee farmers are getting worried. Growers say that global warming is damaging production of coffee, Uganda's biggest export.

Ask coffee farmer Emmanuel Kawesi, who has a "feeling" about the impending danger. "It's hotter now -- this is not usual," he says standing under a wide mango tree to escape the intense sun.

"Global warming will be very dangerous for my coffee," says the 33-year-old, explaining that more sunshine and less rain means coffee beans will shrivel and yields will decrease.

Today, coffee brings in over half of Uganda's revenue. A report released by Uganda's Department of Meteorology late last year, however, warned that just a slight increase in temperature could wipe out most of the country's coffee crop.

"Everyone is talking about global warming; coffee is our business," says Mariam Sekisanda, 27, as she pauses from picking ripe coffee beans on her expansive farm to sit under the shade of a thicket of lush banana trees.

Gesturing to nearby farms along an orange-dusted road flanked by dense greenery and steep hills, Sekisanda says her neighbours are flummoxed by the fluctuating weather.

"Climate change has affected coffee production already," says Philip Gitao, director of the Eastern Africa Fine Coffees Association.

Rains have been falling at unusual times, preventing the coffee crop from having enough time to mature.

Although Uganda may receive more rainfall from surface evaporation off east Africa's Great Lakes in coming years, the increased precipitation will likely be erratic.

Combined with the fact that there have been more droughts in the past two to three years than ever before, the level of coffee quality has dropped, Gitao says.

Global interest in fine Arabica coffee varieties found in Ugandan and other east African highlands has recently surged.

American coffee chain Starbucks has already started buying green coffee beans from Ugandan farms.

But the company may have to compete with a heating up climate.

A United Nations panel on climate change predicted in January that the world's temperatures will rise by between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees C on average by the end of the century, mainly as a result of human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels.

"A rise in two degrees would make most of Uganda unsuitable for coffee," says Philip Gwage, Ugandan deputy commissioner of meteorology. "There is no real doubt that global temperatures will rise."

Gwage says that certain conditions are required for coffee growth, including cool temperatures and enough water.

The average temperature in Uganda's coffee-growing area now is about 25 degrees C (77 degrees F). Robusta is the main variety of coffee grown, but it would "essentially disappear", according to the report.

Coffee-growing areas would be reduced to less than a tenth of their current size, and neighbouring coffee producers Kenya and Tanzania would also be affected.

To protect their coffee from global warming, Ugandan farmers are banking on a three-tiered strategy: growing more trees to create a cool shade for the coffee; mulching or covering soil with grass to hold on to water, and digging long terraces in the ground to retain rainfall.

But Sylvester Bukenya, who has spent 50 of his 69 years working as a farmer, is skeptical that he will able to mitigate the effects of climate change on his crops without extra help.

"The only assistance we get from the government is advice to plant more trees, but people are cutting them down for firewood and charcoal," Bukenya says, his backyard overgrown with thick, green plants and multi-colored fruits.

The Department of Meteorology's change specialist James Magezi-Akiiki says that the government is working hand-in-hand with farmers to give them information on what will likely happen to the climate in the next 30 to 50 years.

Coffee is seasonal in Uganda and thrives during the rainy, cool period, which usually lasts between November and February.

But Magezi-Akiiki warns that the coffee-growing season is set to fluctuate.

"What we are experiencing now is the effects of global warming increasing in both frequency and intensity."

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