By Tsegaye Tadesse
BEDENO, Ethiopia, Feb 17 (Reuters) - Meyomuna Hassan Ali recalls with nostalgia the days when she and her family collected a rich coffee harvest from their farm in eastern Ethiopia.
"There were terraces planted with sorghum and maize, coffee bushes bearing white berries that turned red and streams that poured down the mountains,'' she said, gazing at the drought-stricken landscape that surrounds her today.
With one of her nine children at her side, 60-year-old Meyomuna harks back to a time in Bedeno in the Hararghe region when rain filled wells to the brim, nourishing the crop of Harar coffee -- one of the world's best quality beans.
"In the valleys below, sheep and goats, oxen and cows grazed on the rich pasture,'' she said. "But a drought which has kept coming back to Bedeno for the last three years destroyed everything. We are now virtual beggars surviving on handouts.''
Meyomuna's words reflect the feelings of households across Bedeno province, a coffee-growing heartland that is among the areas worst hit by a drought expected to render 11 million Ethiopians dependent on food aid this year, according to U.N. officials.
In Bedeno, farmers are not only suffering from hunger, they are watching their precious coffee plants whither and die. Deprived of that income, families are fighting for survival.
LAKE AND INCOME DRIES UP
The severity of the drought afflicting up to three million people in Hararghe is revealed starkly at Lake Adele, 30 km (20 miles) from the historic city of Harar, famous for its fields of qat -- a stimulant prized across the region.
The 100-hectare (250-acre) lake has dried up, leaving an empty expanse of red dust.
Up to 1,000 farming households who depended on Adele's waters have left the area in search of better prospects elsewhere, according to the few farmers who have stayed.
The drought has dealt a double blow to coffee farmers -- damaging the quality as well as the quantity of production.
The Harar speciality grade has suffered more than most coffees by Ethiopia's drought, with its output expected to fall by 40 percent in the 2002/3 crop year.
Harar accounts for between five and seven percent of Ethiopia's coffee output, and the beans can earn up to $49 million annually.
But coffee officials say the damage done to the product by the drought means the cooperative cannot even sell at a profit. The Harar beans fetch $0.14 per kg (2.2 lb) in the local city of Dire Dawa, compared to a purchase price of $0.18 per kg last month.
"The price has gone down drastically,'' Tadesse Tesfa, of the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union (OCFCU), told Reuters.
The drop in quality is so bad the cooperative has not even managed to sell all its beans. It sold just 102 tonnes of 240 tonnes it brought last year from its 525 members.
The cooperative paid a dividend of 4,461 birr ($534) to all members last year, but this year there will be no dividend because the farmers have no coffee to offer, Tadesse said.
In an attempt to improve income, the cooperative bypasses middlemen who take a large cut of the profits, selling the coffee as organic varieties direct to international markets.
OCFCU head Tadesse Meskela hopes to mount a campaign to raise consumer awareness of the plight of the coffee growers.
"Our campaign will have to target the coffee consumers in the Western world. While they pay a high price for the speciality or gourmet coffee, those who produce it are trapped in poverty,'' he said.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
- For more humanitarian news and analysis, please visit https://www.trust.org/alertnet