A biologist and an anthropologist sat down to talk about coffee, and the conversation spread out in ever larger circles from its starting point under a palm tree: the popular Anfilo Ethiopian coffee tent at the Grand Lake Farmers Market, where customers “come in, sit down, chat, and move on.” (Spoiler: there is no “to go” coffee in this story.) Slow coffee creates community. Rather than talking about roasting methods and aroma (I’m a clueless tea drinker, and the merits of Ethiopian coffee have been well documented elsewhere), Anfilo co-founder Ambessaw Assegued and I discussed the long-term futility of trying to stem the global flow of people and commodities; the delicate ecosystems of California’s redwoods and Ethiopia’s forest coffee bushes; the vast distance between “fair trade” and farmers in a state-owned economy; the biological short-sightedness of seed banks; and the transformation of coffee forests into cultivated khat plantations serving customers who prefer to chew themselves into a state of euphoria rather than sip java to get a mild buzz.
Like so many of us, Assegued has been thinking a lot about migration lately: the migration of people, of course, like himself and the thousands of other Ethiopian immigrants and refugees in and around Oakland, but also the transnational movement of the “humble migrant bean” that has been the focus of his attention for years and years. He regards this moment in time as an opportunity to recognize that “nothing stays the same.” In the early 17th century, Murad IV, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, banned coffee in Istanbul; offenders were reputedly executed mid-sip. In 1773, the Boston Tea Party declared drinking coffee the patriotic duty of Americans. Policies, laws, and embargos come and go, and yet coffee has migrated all around the world, Assegued explains, “unhindered by the edicts of empires that have come and gone.” That this is also a commentary on current threats to human migration is clear. Although Assegued feels his own community in Oakland is not a target of the current administration’s immigration policies, it is a “moment of awareness” that should concern everyone.
The forests of Ethiopia’s southwestern and southeastern highlands are the indigenous habitat of 5,000 different kinds of coffee plant, including the now-ubiquitous Coffea arabica. Although this plant is now cultivated all over the world, Ambessaw only buys and roasts beans from wild plants and is, therefore, deeply concerned about preserving their delicate environment in his homeland. The plants may be convinced to grow elsewhere, he says, but they only truly thrive in their native biome with its particular soil, weather, moisture, birds, and animals. He asks me to compare the feeble redwood trees transplanted to England by awed Victorians with those of the magnificent forests of the Pacific Coast. People don’t need biologists like him, he points out, to determine if an environment is healthy; as living creatures we can sense whether an ecosystem is thriving or not. “Variation is life,” Assegued states simply, whether we are talking about forests or human communities. To preserve genetic diversity, native habitats need to be preserved; it’s not a long-term solution to tuck seeds away in banks if the conditions they need to survive no longer exist.
Assugued, who has been professionally involved in habitat restoration in many of California’s watersheds, explains that Ethiopia’s wild coffee forests are simultaneously threatened by multiple forces. In the name of progress, well-intended foreign development agencies with high-tech solutions and heavy machinery are digging culverts and building roads that cause erosion. In an economic system in which the government owns the land, set prices, and controls wholesale distribution, Ethiopian coffee farmers have little incentive to implement proper horticulture by cultivating, weeding, or pruning the bushes properly to promote productivity. The beans that cost 50 cents a pound at the edge of the forest are worth $20 here, but that value is not added until the moment the sacks arrive at the Port of Oakland. “Fair trade” schemes only work when the land is privately owned, which, although possible in principle in Ethiopia’s forests, is so complicated to make happen that even someone as determined as Assegued has pretty much given up trying. A person with a lot of money, like Bill Gates, he says, needs to come in and buy vast areas and create a preserve or private heritage site.
Time is of the essence. Farmers, with the silent approval of the Ethiopian government, are actively replacing forest coffee with khat. Like coca leaves in South America, Catha edulis has been grown and chewed as a legal amphetamine-like stimulant in the Horn of Africa and Arabian Peninsula for centuries. Therefore, it is a valuable cash crop on the local market, as well as a lucrative foreign exchange source. For all of these reasons, wild coffee—along with the places that nourish it and the traditions that are nourished by it—is, essentially, endangered.
We pause on that somber note. We have talked so long that Anfilo Coffee (wife Dagmawit Tesfaye’s café at 35 Grand) has grown dark – it’s long after hours and the door is locked. Just visible in the shadows is a large sepia portrait of Assegued’s grandfather, one of the first people to commercially cultivate wild Arabica coffee plants in Harar, in the eastern highlands of Ethiopia. His efforts undoubtedly contributed to the global migration and fame of the East African bean, a cause his grandson continues to mindfully promote in the shadow of the Grand Lake Theater and Highway 580, in our lucky little corner of the world.