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How coffee saves a unique Mozambican forest

From a distance, Mount Gorongosa looks pockmarked.

The slopes of this Mozambican landmark were once covered in verdant rainforest.

Now they are marked by deep holes – the result of a clearcut that exposed the soil and dried it out, leaving only shrubs and grasses.

But in recent years, the forest has grown back, thanks to a once-foreign crop: coffee.

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As Juliasse Samuel Sabao walks around the plantation, some 1,000 meters above sea level, he points out the progress that is evident.

One side of the track looks like a desert. On the other, a dense forest is home to carefully arranged coffee trees.

“Before it was completely empty. Today you see the result.

“Coffee needs shade to grow, so for every coffee plant we also plant a tree,” he said.

Sabao, who works for Gorongosa National Park, fled to Zimbabwe to escape the civil war in Mozambique. There, he discovers the culture of coffee.

He brought this knowledge back with him to help restore the mountain, which had been largely cut off from the world for decades.

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Legacy of War

Mozambique fought a bloody war to free itself from Portugal, but after independence in 1975, a civil war ravaged the country until 1992.

A smaller conflict then erupted in 2013, ending with a peace treaty in 2019.

During the conflicts, Renamo rebels who used the mountain range as a base and stronghold in times of war, exploited the park’s natural resources on the brink of environmental collapse.

Pedro Muagara, a trained agronomist and director of the park, had planted a few seedlings, until the conflict shattered his coffee dreams.

As the war dragged on into its final years, the beleaguered rebels camped out on the mountain slopes with their families. They cleared the forest to grow crops to survive.

Now he’s back, teaching communities new ways to farm.

“These people depended on subsistence farming because they couldn’t afford machinery like tractors. This turned them into farming nomads,” he said.

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“So they were clearing a few areas, and then the deforestation was taking the nutrients out of the soil. The land was running out, and when that happened, they were going to clear another plot.”

The peace treaty did not solve the problems of mountain communities.

“They didn’t have the training or the means to switch from shifting cultivation to conservation agriculture,” Muagara said.

“We had to explain to them that when they lose a tree, they lose their livelihood with it.”

save trees

Coffee plants take several years to become productive, so the program also includes food crops so that communities can still support themselves.

The World Bank says Gorongosa now has some 300,000 coffee plants along with 400,000 cashew trees, 400 beehives and 300 new jobs.

Gorongosa coffee is exported around the world, with the profits being reinvested in the plantation.

The revival of the forest mirrors the wider revival of Gorongosa, as a 20-year partnership was formed in 2008 between Mozambique and American philanthropist Greg Carr’s foundation.

The World Bank has hailed the partnership as a model, which has benefited some 200,000 people in the region.

The program also aligns with the government’s goal to improve agriculture and go beyond commodity exports, said Celso Correia, Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development.

“One of the biggest challenges in the agricultural sector is the lack of mechanization and the need for technology transfers,” he said.

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“The priority is to mobilize resources, but also to improve mobility, by developing infrastructure and transport, in order to improve the value chain.”

With the war in Ukraine, “commodity price inflation is also affecting Mozambique. We need to ease that pressure…increase production, (and) be self-sufficient,” he said.

“We cannot depend on international projects”.

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