Every month, Ethiopian coffee farmer Zelalem Tadesse makes the long and arduous journey to court to fight for the return of the land he inherited from his father.
For years, the 46-year-old father of three has cultivated a small patch of land deep in Ethiopia’s southwestern forests. Recently, a nearby commercial coffee farm expanded, taking his land.
Mr. Tadesse has no formal title deed to the land. Although Ethiopia recognizes some customary rights to forest access, these are often ignored in practice by local authorities and investors.
He frequently travels to the nearby town of Jimma and, more recently, to the capital Addis Ababa, to fight for his land. He says, “When I go to get my land back, it’s very expensive.… But my life totally depends on this land.”
He and his neighbours in Chira, a small highland town, depend on coffee production. But, they complain, their livelihoods are being squeezed by commercial investors in the region’s ancient forests.
Many rural people have been protesting land expropriations and unfair compensation since 2014. In response, the government imposed a state of emergency and eventually a new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, this April.
Mr. Tadesse’s friend, Tilahun Mamo, is taking a local coffee investor to court for unfairly expropriating his land. He says, “It has been a problem for seven years now. I asked for compensation, but they laughed at me. There has been no compensation at all.”
He says the coffee company promised employment, road access, electricity, and a health centre, but none of that has happened.
In Ethiopia, all land, including forests, are formally owned by the state. This makes it easier to dispossess farmers.
Ethiopia is Africa’s largest coffee producer and the bean contributes to the livelihoods of more than a quarter of the country’s population. Competition for scarce land is often intense in Ethiopia’s southwestern forests.
This area is thought to be coffee’s birthplace. But over the past four decades, one-third of the region’s forest cover has been lost to large-scale clearance or smaller-scale encroachment by farmers.
Commercial coffee farmers range in size and can be vulnerable themselves. Tola Gemechu Ango from Stockholm University studied coffee production in the region. He said that 1,500 hectares of forest in Gera district has been transferred to private companies, but at least three had closed or failed to export coffee. Only 13 farmers have received compensation.
Mr. Tola says: “Forest land is more vulnerable than farmland, at least in this landscape. Farmers feel more insecure because they think the government can take over the forest at any time, with little compensation.”
Some coffee investors have been working with local communities, compensating farmers for their land or bringing electricity and health centres to the area.
Experts are advocating alternative approaches, including participatory forest management, which gives associations of local farmers the right to continue making a living from the forest while helping to stem deforestation.
Mulugeta Lemeneh is the head of Ethiopia programs at Farm Africa, an international NGO. He says, “It’s easy to simply blame the investors. But for a poor country like Ethiopia, there is not much alternative to using our natural resources. What we need is responsible investment.”
This story is adapted from an article titled “Competition over land squeezes Ethiopia’s coffee farmers,” which was originally published by Thomson Reuters Foundation. To read the full story, go to: http://news.trust.org/item/20180906105959-3ptnm/ 
Photo: Arabica coffee in Ethiopia’s southwestern forests. Credit: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Tom Gardner