Are you here to plant trees or help people?
How Gorongosa National Park is using agriculture to protect biodiversity and lift people out of poverty
Imagine trying to convince a group of poor farmers who don’t know you to plant a crop that they’ve never heard of, has no nutritional value, and takes three years to start producing. After sampling the crop, the farmers find it bitter and kind of burned. Adding to this challenge — this area is the heart of the rebel movement that has been fighting with the government for decades and fighting was still ongoing. Simply surviving is difficult for people there. This was the challenging situation that the team from Gorongosa National Park faced as they tried to bring shade-grown coffee to Mount Gorongosa.
The scars of the decades long civil war and ongoing conflict are all around and in Gorongosa National Park and are always right under the surface. After returning from my visit to Mount Gorongosa where I saw new coffee farms, a nursery, the Park’s small research farm, and the coffee processing factory (all having received GEF support), I stopped in the park gift shop to get some Gorongosa coffee. I started talking with the woman working there and asked my standard questions — Where are you from? How did you come to start working at the park? What kind of job were you doing before? How does this compare?
She started talking about her old job in sales in a nearby city where she needed to drive between the cities and towns in the area. During that time, the ongoing conflict meant that it was only safe to drive as part of military escorted convoys. Her boss, who lived in the city, brushed off these security concerns and told her to go. So, she matter-of-factly told me, while trying to avoid an attack by the rebel fighters, she crashed her car off the side of the road. Thankfully, she wasn’t too badly injured, but she was done with that job and found the position at the park. Two years later, her cheek is still a bit swollen from where it slammed into the steering wheel.
The conflict pervades most everything and shapes lives in big and small ways. Gabriela, a smart and warm young woman training to be one of the first female safari guides in Mozambique, told me that despite being a good student at a good high school, she didn’t go to university because of the conflict. But she eventually landed an internship with the park’s science program. Park staff recognized her personality would make her a great guide and offered her the opportunity to begin guide training. She plans to save for university while working as a guide. Without the park and its significant resources, Gabriela might have been one of the many, many uncounted small casualties of conflict — where potential goes unfulfilled and people lose the opportunity to lift themselves, their families and their communities out of poverty.
But back to Mount Gorongosa and the people who suffered the most simply because they happened to live by the rebel headquarters. Many of the fighters come from elsewhere, but in the most recent conflict flare-up, the government burned everyone’s homes and farms on the mountain. I could still see the white Red Cross tents where people still lived two years later. Mount Gorongosa is vital to the larger Gorongosa National Park even though they are not connected on a map. The mountain is the source of the water for the flood plain — if the mountain doesn’t have trees, the flood plain will dry up. Beyond this, the elevation of the mountain has maintained relicts of rainforest that were much wider spread in different eras when the climate was different. Today, only small patches of this rainforest remain and they are typically home to many unique species. While the conflict prevented scientists from accessing the mountain, they have begun returning to the site for research. Last year, a previously unknown gecko species was described and currently scientists think they’ve found a few new species of bats. This is only the beginning of many more discoveries that await the scientists who are finally able to explore this place unknown to science.
The Gorongosa Park team looked up at that mountain and knew just how important it is for biodiversity and the park — they could also see the forest being converted to farm land as people worked their way up the mountain. The people living on the mountain are the poorest of the poor and the unluckiest of the unlucky — losing children, homes and crops to the conflict and lacking schools and medical clinics. People in this area mostly farm subsistence corn and other crops. They farm a patch of their land for a couple of years and when they use up the soil fertility, they move to a different place and start over. These practices, known as shifting cultivation, can be sustainable if the populations are low enough to give the land sufficient time to recuperate and traditional knowledge is maintained. However, with growing populations people were moving higher up into the mountain’s forests.
Knowing the importance of the mountain for biodiversity as well as the long-term health of the park, Pedro Muagura (now Park Warden) needed a plan to reforest. During a quiet period in the conflict, he started visiting the area to get to know people and try to convince them to plant trees. They had a few different ideas — trees for timber and charcoal and maybe coffee since it seemed to be the right elevation and conditions for the crop. No one was growing coffee in Mozambique even though Arabica coffee is a high value crop that needs the shade of larger trees. But, the communities were suspicious, and they didn’t gain much traction. Who were these people showing up in nice cars and trying to get them to plant trees?
I wish I could tell you that they simply convinced them through conversation, but it took tragedy. Two boys were digging up a land mine to sell as scrap metal when it exploded. Pedro happened to be visiting at the time of the accident and used his Land Cruiser (likely the only car less than an hour away) to rush the gravely injured brothers down the mountain — at least as much as you could rush on the heavily rutted dirt road — and another couple of hours to the hospital. Remarkably, one of the boys survived. Pedro arranged for a funeral for his brother. Park staff brought the surviving brother several times on many hours trips to visit the doctor for needed follow-up appointments.
In the face of such heartbreaking loss, the boys’ mother and a small group of women in the community approached Pedro. They had seen the unexpected caring of the park staff and realized that maybe these people weren’t trying to plant trees or help people, but that they were trying to plant trees and help people. With these women’s trust and support, the park staff were able to establish the coffee tree nursery.
But, it was still not smooth sailing from there. Fighting between the rebels and the government picked up again. It wasn’t safe for park staff to visit the mountain and especially not the nursery that had the baby coffee plants that were, hopefully, the key to reforesting the mountain and providing a path out of grinding poverty. When I visited the park during that time, the coffee team thought they might be starting over but mostly focused on the brutality of the fighting and concern for the people on the mountain.
These women, having seen years of fighting, were not willing to give up. They hiked up the mountain road at night to water the coffee seedlings and experimental coffee farm despite the risk. And so, because of their courage and determination, the coffee farm and those precious seedlings survived. The coffee also survived the government’s systematic burning of homes and farms in an unsuccessful attempt to break the rebels. While I heard different explanations for why, people on the mountain also took notice that the coffee survived the fires.
As fighting died down, park staff returned to the mountain to see those distinctive shiny dark green leaves of healthy coffee plants. They proceeded to find farmers willing to try with this weird crop — a survivor like them. Park staff taught farmers to care for this prima donna shrub that needed a lot of careful attention. To provide the farmers with a living while waiting on the coffee, they also provided training and seedlings of vegetables like carrots, kale, and peppers. Some of the farmers quickly found ways to improve the techniques they were taught, such as using old plastic bottles to irrigate. Even before the first real harvest, other communities from other parts of the mountain have come to park staff wanting to be part of this program.
The coffee team estimates that farmers will see their incomes increase 10 times through growing coffee, and they can still grow food crops alongside. The GEF also supported establishing a small coffee processing factory in the nearby town. This factory will provide jobs for some of the people who want to move to town and allow the park and the farmers to cut out the middlemen and receive higher revenues. GEF support also helped the park with the nursery and experimental farm where they are working with researchers from Mozambican, Brazilian, and Portuguese universities to test different planting and care strategies for the coffee so they can grow productive and healthy coffee and protect biodiversity.
Back at the park restaurant, I had a delicious cup of coffee knowing the courage and persistence that went into growing that coffee and the promise that it holds.
Updated: You may be aware that a devastating cyclone hit central Mozambique in March 2019. Cyclone Idai was one of the worst tropical storms on record to affect the Southern Hemisphere. Gorongosa and the communities that surround it experienced record flooding and many already poor people lost everything. The Gorongosa team immediately turned their efforts to helping their community. Gorongosa’s helicopter dropped off food to people living on their roofs in remote flooded communities while the rangers carried food to others. The coffee factory, a well-built building in town, became the staging area where park staff like Gabriela (the guide in training) received food shipments and packaged them to be distributed. As of June 7th, Gorongosa National Park has delivered 394 metric tons of food rations to 79,000 people, 2.5 tons of maize seeds, and 3,175 mosquito nets. You can support the ongoing relief and recovery needs here.
Photos: Jen Guyton.