On any given morning, when travelling through the areas surrounding the Virunga volcanoes, one may be forgiven for thinking that all is well in this beautiful countryside. In the distance the rolling hills are covered with lush green forests with clouds moving along the tree tops. Colourful birds and fascinating insects buzz and zoom with enthusiasm in the valleys below. Roadside stalls offer an abundance of fruits and vegetables. Women and men work diligently, spreading their onions, Irish potatoes and other crops out to dry on the patios in front of volcanic-stone houses. They slowly rake through the drying crops, drawing geometric patterns in the seeds with love and dedication.
But first impressions can be deceptive.
I remember taking a long tour through the region almost a decade ago, to get a better understanding of the agricultural systems and their interaction with the natural environment.
I stop often, to take in the view and talk to local farmers. At a small village on the edge of a mountainside the view is incredible. I can see for miles into the distance. The slopes behind the village rise steeply. It is the harvest season, and farmers are all drying coffee. Whole families venture into the surrounding areas, carrying their coffee back home on foot or motorcycles. They sort the beans and spread them on their tarpaulins. It looks as if the whole community is engaged in a seemingly tranquil endeavour.
As I walk through, several issues become apparent. First, it is obvious that the coffee that is being laid out is not of the best quality. Picking up a handful of samples, it is clear that many of the beans have been harvested too early. About half of the berries are green and unripe. The seeds inside are small: some berries are even empty. There seems to be little selective picking of red mature cherries in this village.
After talking to farmers, it soon became clear that they were desperate for an income. With the coffee almost ready to pick, they couldn’t wait any longer. They had bills to pay and were short of food. The alternative of waiting another week or two for the berries to ripen was simply not a possibility.
Much of the drying coffee also showed signs of mold. Farmers said that the insistent rain of the past weeks had slowed the drying process. With no alternative but to cover the berries with plastics when the rain falls, fungus had the time to spread. It had slowly damaged the beans, lowering its potential price in the market.
More issues kept cropping up as I walked through the fields. Not only were the coffee plants I saw unproductive, with very few berries on the branches, bushes were also being scorched by the tropical highlands sun. The farmers had removed most of the shade trees with the unfounded belief that this would speed up production. They had also removed any ground cover, thinking that other plants would compete with the coffee. The soil was being sterilised by the sunlight, and when it rained, the last fertile soils were being washed down into the valleys. After the rains, the valleys turned a deep red-brown, taking the precious nutrients down to the lake.
As I reached the top of the hill and looked around, the scale of the problem became more concerning. As far as the eye could see, the crops were in the same worrisome state. The once rich fields were slowly but surely turning into degraded infertile lands.
Thankfully, there was assistance coming. You may remember my professional history from some of the previous articles. Helped by USAID funding, we did manage to introduce better agricultural practices, stopping farmers’ downward spiral towards losing their prime source of income — their productive lands.
To increase productivity, better coffee husbandry techniques were introduced: proper pruning, rejuvenation of older bushes, removing of old and diseased growth were some of the first lessons that farmers learned. This was quickly followed by the introduction of shade trees and ground cover. Fast growing banana trees and nitrogen fixing Gliracidia trees were brought in. These now provide the needed shade, nutrients for the soil and even food for the farmers. Project beneficiaries were also encouraged to dig water pits next to their coffee bushes and fill these with organic mulch. This helped increase water infiltration and retention, while at the same time improving soil health.
Still, as my June story shows, it all eventually depends on finances. When the buyers and economies are unstable, as they are currently, rural people have no other choice but to resort to short-term solutions. This is where responsible tourism can step in and support forward-looking farmers — next month I will share with you the example of Peter, who is part of a “coffee experience”, a beneficial product for both farmers and inquisitive travellers.
featured photo by Jiro Ose