Managing ecosystem services to reduce poverty and vulnerability in East African coffee landscapes
We proposed to develop a research programme which aimed to improve the way coffee systems in East Africa were managed now and under future climate change so that the income farmers receive was increased and rural livelihoods improved.
Using workshops and reviews of existing knowledge and data, and developing new research tools, we designed a programme of activities which brought together diverse skills from biological, economic, and social sciences so that we could properly understand how all the components of the system interact and affect each other.
By understanding how ecosystem services affect coffee production we developed knowledge to allow better management of these services so that livelihoods of farmers were improved. One part of this process was making sure that scientific findings were translated into forms which could be used to directly advise farmers on how to improve the management of coffee growing and also help decision makers develop new policies and support systems to help guide farmers at a wider scale.
Coffee underpins the livelihoods of millions of smallholder farmers worldwide. In East African countries, 60%-100% of coffee was smallholder grown and a major source of income for individual farmers. Coffee export earnings total over 1 billion US $ in the region and coffee was a key policy tool for governments to improve livelihoods and reduce poverty. For East African countries, such as Rwanda and Burundi, coffee forms >50% of export earnings. Even in larger economies, such as in Uganda, for example, it made up 10% of export earnings.
High dependency on one commodity increases vulnerability to fluctuating prices and other market risks (e.g. slumps in prices in the 1990s/early 2000s). As many smallholder coffee farmers were poor and unable to undertake capital investment or improve yields through inorganic inputs, they relied heavily on husbandry skills and ecosystem services (e.g. soil health, pollination, pest regulation) for crop production. Coffee not only depended on these services but provided important environmental services because of its strategic upland location, often neighbouring what forest remained in the region.
The key services included the control of soil and water movement at landscape and regional scales and, where trees were incorporated in coffee landscapes, connectivity of forest habitat. A number of trends were furthermore threatening coffee livelihoods. Global circulation models produced highly variable climate change predictions for Eastern Africa and coffee was sensitive to temperature and precipitation. National policies were promoting the use of non-shade hybrid coffee that was vigorous and produced higher yields than traditional coffee types, while the increasing use of monocropping (e.g. in Kenya it is 40% of production) further exposed farmers to weather or pest-induced income risks. Coffee originated in forests and yields under shade may have been lower but quality tended to be higher and the tree lifespan longer. Shaded coffee also provided important soil conservation and hydrological ecosystem services.
The use of monocrops increased run off and soil loss, thus reducing soil quality and yields. Farmers were trapped in a loop where soil quality continued to fall year-on-year and policies to improve livelihoods could actually make them worse off in the long-term. Previous work by the proposal team found that some of ecosystem services were not being fully exploited by farmers in coffee systems and so production, and the income generated from it, was below levels which could be achieved. Indeed, some simple management practices (eg managing fallow land appropriately) had been shown to enhance services like pollination to levels where they had a direct economic benefit to farmers.
As the region would be influenced by future climate and land use change it was important to understand how to optimally manage services then and in the future, and identify novel cropping systems for the future.