Madagascar has a breathtaking array of wildlife. Over 90% of the island’s reptiles, approximately 89% of its plants, and around 92% of its mammals exist nowhere else on Earth.
Among these are various species of Coffea arabica – wild coffee plants. But deforestation puts most of this wild coffee at risk. And that could have a huge impact on your daily cup, even if it’s a single origin from Guatemala or Brazil. Read on to find out how.
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Montagne d’Ambre National Park, Madagascar. Credit: Nicole Motteux
Global Biodiversity At Risk
“The loss of a single hectare of forest in Madagascar can have a larger effect on global coffee biodiversity than anywhere else in the world.”
That bold statement comes from Dr Sarada Krishnan, a coffee geneticist at the Denver Botanic Gardens in Colorado. Her studies focus on conservation genetics of wild coffee in Madagascar.
Of all known wild coffee species, almost half are found only in Madagascar. But they aren’t commercially consumed. In fact, many have low or negligible amounts of caffeine. You might wonder why that matters to your daily brew made with beans from Colombia or Ethiopia. Well, Madagascar’s wild coffees plants have pest and disease tolerances, climate adaptations, and potential genetic value that could be important for sustained production of commercial coffee species.
The genetic resources in these wild coffee plants are important to the resilience of global coffee production. And as we tackle the growing impacts of climate change, as well as the persistent threats of coffee leaf rust and the berry borer beetle, this is more important than ever.
So it’s not an overstatement to say that deforestation in Madagascar is threatening your daily cup of coffee.
Anelluc Nugafy finds coffee growing wild, Montagne d’Ambre National Park, Madagascar. Credit: Nicole Motteux
Understanding The Spread of The Coffee Plant
But let’s take a step back and understand why there is such variety of wild coffee in Madagascar.
Based on genetic analysis, it’s likely that Coffea originated in West Africa (likely Lower Guinea) and spread eastwards, with the centre of genetic diversity for Arabica in the Ethiopian highlands.
Dr Aaron Davis is Head of Coffee Research at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in London. He has dedicated a lot of his research to discovering new coffee species and understanding their genetics and unique characteristics. He tells me how coffee has evolved and migrated.
“It’s now known that the Coffea species spread to Madagascar from the African mainland as a result of single dispersal event,” he says. “This means that one species came to Madagascar from the African continent, and then all the diversity now found in Coffea in Madagascar evolved from that one ancestral species.”
Pressed coffee collection, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Credit: Nicole Motteux
The wild coffee species that grow in northern Madagascar are genetically similar to Coffea species found on Grande Comore in the Comoros – a volcanic archipelago off the east coast of Africa, near Mozambique. Other species have spread from Madagascar to Mauritius and Reunion Island.
“From this, we have calculated the coffee dispersal occurred around 500,000 years ago, after the appearance of the volcanic island of Grande Comore,” says Aaron.
The spread of plants in this family is linked to primates, in particular the lemurs native to Madagascar. The animals eat whole coffee cherries without gnawing, so the seeds pass through their digestive system unharmed and are dispersed in new areas. Over thousands of years, the plants have adapted to Madagascar’s unique environment.
Coffee beans parcels at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Credit: Nicole Motteux
Deforestation & Environmental Destruction
While Madagascar is incredibly beautiful and one of the most biologically diverse countries in the world, it is also one of the poorest. Almost 80% of the population lives below the poverty line and the majority is dependent on subsistence farming.
This survival standard of living has an environmental impact. A huge amount of the country’s original forest has been lost in recent years. Global Forest Watch reports that from 2001 to 2017, Madagascar lost 3.27 Mha of tree cover, equivalent to a 19% decrease since 2000. The WWF states that less than 10% of Madagascar’s original forest cover exists today.
Fuelwood is the primary source of cooking fuel in Madagascar, followed by charcoal. Credit: Nicole Motteux
When grassland is burned for agriculture and trees cut for fuel, the sandy earth collapses and creates dramatic canyons. Sediment is then washed downhill during the rainy season, spoiling drinking water and blocking irrigation canals.
Population growth, environmental damage from zebu cattle overgrazing, and slash and burn agriculture all have an impact. The collection of and reliance on fuelwood and charcoal production are other relevant factors.
As Madagascar’s forests disappear, so do the wild coffee species and the ecosystems on which they rely. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species contains 14 critically endangered Coffea species, as well as 40 endangered, 22 vulnerable, and nine near threatened. Of these 85 coffee species, 47 are in Madagascar.
A Malagasy herdsman and his zebu cattle. Credit: Nicole Motteux
Coffee Conservation Efforts
Coffee has long been recognised as an important global commodity and there are formal efforts to preserve it.
In the 1960s, a French research organisation started to collect wild Madagascan coffee species for preservation and established the National Centre of Applied Research and Rural Development’s (FOFIFA) gene bank in Kianjavato. In 1974, the Malagasy government took over the project.
In the early 1980s, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and the Missouri Botanical Garden created a joint initiative to preserve coffee samples.
Dr Franck Rakotonasolo presses coffee samples at the Kianjavato Coffee Research Station. Credit: Dr Sarada Krishnan
“Dr Franck Rakotonasolo is the Malagasy coffee hero,” Aaron tells me, speaking about the biodiversity team leader of the Kew Madagascar Conservation Centre. “We have worked together since 1997. He taught me how to find wild coffees in Madagascar. During the course of 11 dedicated coffee hunts, we described 15 new and exciting species of Coffea from Madagascar.”
Aaron says that Franck’s dedication and his knowledge of coffee and the local landscape have been instrumental in finding and identifying wild coffee. Their collaboration has led to discoveries of coffee throughout Madagascar’s widely varied ecosystems, from lowland forests to high mountains. He tells me that they have recorded plants with varied features including supersized beans and hairy berries.
Kianjavato Ahmanson Field Station is a hub of research and community outreach projects in southeast Madagascar. The Kianjavato Coffee Research Station (FOFIFA) is here. This gene bank contains over 2,600 specimens of Madagascan coffee, which are used for local breeding and research programs. If environmental destruction continues, the collections held here may become the only representatives of some species.
Dr Franck Rakotonasolo collects plants in western Madagascar. Credit: Dr Aaron Davis, RBG Kew
Conservation At Risk
Knowing that there are samples stored in a gene bank may seem like an insurance policy against species loss. But if FOFIFA were to stop functioning due to lack of funding or lack of political will, it’s likely we could lose important genes that could confer drought tolerance or disease resistance.
And this is could very well happen. Tackling poverty takes precedence over funding for coffee conservation in Madagascar. Research and development is challenged by under-investment, poor research infrastructure, and inadequate human resources.
“The lack of secure gene bank funding is a worry for the broader coffee community,” says Sarada. “Coffea arabica is not a genetically diverse species and the wild populations of other Coffea species face real threats due to deforestation caused by the increase in grazing livestock, other forms of agriculture, human settlement, and the collection of fuelwood. Once the species is gone in the wild, it may be gone for good.”
Fortunately, FOFIFA has found external sources of funding. Over the last decade, the Japanese Ueshima Coffee Corporation has supported pioneering research and funded 90% of the gene bank, preserving this valuable resource.
A wild coffee sample, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Credit: Nicole Motteux
Coffee Conservation Is a Global Concern
It’s hard to confirm how many people depend on coffee for their livelihoods, but tens of millions of small producers throughout more than 80 producing countries survive by growing coffee. And the industry expands beyond that into a global trade.
“We fear that the erosion of coffee genetic diversity could reduce the resources needed to sustain the global coffee industry,” Sarada tells me. “Changing behaviours and driving conservation results can only come about through the efforts of many actors,” she says.
In 2017, World Coffee Research (WCR) in collaboration with the Global Crop Diversity Trust published the Global Coffee Strategy in an effort to ensure the conservation and use of coffee genetic resources. It calls for governments, research organisations, donors, and private companies both local and global to unite and draw on individual strengths to conserve Coffea genetic diversity.
Kianjavato Coffee Research Station Madagascar. Credit: Dr Sarada Krishnan
Saving the coffee industry starts with preserving Coffea’s genetic legacy – that is, preserving the forests where wild coffee grows, and supporting research and breeding programmes.
Aaron explains the work at FOFIFA to me. Working in partnership, researchers from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, WCR, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, and CIRAD undertake critically important coffee research.
They share knowledge and expertise on coffee diversity to support farmers. Together, they help to improve livelihoods by enhancing the agrobiodiversity of coffee and reinforcing forest conservation. Aaron tells me that they do this through demonstrations and on-site learning.
Young women sift and winnow grain in Ankarafantsika, Madagascar. Credit Nicole Motteux
Environmental Sustainability Means Social Sustainability
Although Madagascar has experienced economic growth in recent years, this has not impacted positively on the living conditions of the rural population. The majority of Madagascar’s population survives on subsistence agriculture and almost half of its households face food insecurity. In this context, it’s unrealistic to simply tell local people to stop using destructive agricultural practices.
The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, WCR, and other involved parties recognise the need to work together and with local communities in their efforts. This includes partnering with organisations including Conservation International, which works across 30 countries and support thousands of projects worldwide.
Sahondra Rajoelina is Director of Operations at Conservation International in Madagascar. She tells me “we strongly advocate for a sustainable coffee sector. Sustainable coffee is about integrating agricultural production, environmental conservation, and social goals. Addressing these issues needs to bring about a win-win for nature conservation and community livelihoods.
“Together with other partners, we take an active role to fulfil multiple commitments on different international conservation interventions to enhance local livelihoods and contribute to sustainable development, while at the same time conserving biodiversity and halting its loss and adverse impacts,” she says.
Ambongo coffee (Coffea ambongensis) in western Madagascar. Credit: Dr Aaron Davis, RBG, Kew
Preserving Madagascar’s wild coffee species is a complicated undertaking that is directly related to the country’s economic and political situation. But it’s an important part of preserving genetic diversity and protecting the future of both commercial coffee crops and wild ecosystems.
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Written with input by Lilani Goonesena and image editing by Angie Lázaro. With thanks to interpreter and guide Mr Harry Rakotosalam.
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