Ethiopia, Coffee, Politics, Protest

Ethiopia, Coffee, Politics, Protest

The conflict developing in Ethiopia has been but a footnote in the papers, recently marked by a horrific stampede at a political rally and the declaration of a 6 month national "state of emergency" on October 10 2016. Beyond the specific interest in the wonderful coffees we source from Ethiopia, there's a broader concern here. How can we enjoy a coffee when there is conflict behind the production of the crop?

The dramatic militarized situation has been long in the making, and as a visitor to Ethiopia I cannot pretend to understand all of the history and it's complexities. While Ethiopia has a booming economy and evidence of many development projects can be seen all over the capital of Addis Ababa, development in the faraway rural areas in much more modest. While Addis boasts a new light rail line, rural regions are lucky to have their roads re-graded or potholes fixed. Development seems intricately linked to the interests of investors. Powerful foreign investment comes from Saudi Arabia (mainly by billionare Mohammed al-Amoudi) and, to a much greater extent in recent years, China. Nigeria and India invest extensively in projects here, as well as a host of others including wealthy Ethiopians from the global diaspora.

Large tracks of prime arable land are dedicated to projects by these foreign investor groups, and some feel the land grants are giveaways without fair compensation benefiting local populations, aside from some job creation. In fact, student demonstrations around the country have centered around this issue; what is seen as a government land-grab. This was evidenced by the move to annex lands surrounding Addis Ababa into the domain of the capital, and event that escalating protest activities.

A root cause is the fact that Ethiopia is a confederation of many old kingdoms which represented the various ethnic groups of the region, united under one Empire until 1974, yet it has been dominated by one group. The Tigray minority makes up only 7% of the population but by some estimates controls over 70% of the economy, and over 95% of top military/security positions of power. While the constitution is designed for power-sharing and autonomy for the ethnic zones of the country, this is not the de facto situation. The coalition in power since 1991 includes 4 parties representing different ethnicities (including the Oromo and Amhara) but it is said the TPLF (Tigray) party possesses all the influence. And it seems the other parties in the ruling group lack legitimacy amongst their own people who are on the protest lines, as they are seen as impotent to enact the agendas of those they represent.

Local protest sign - Lake Merritt, OaklandLocal protest sign - Lake Merritt, Oakland

Oromo and Amhara peoples constitute over 70% of the Ethiopian population, but travel through these areas is quite different than the developed urban centers. It's more than just an urban-rural divide, and in fact when there are tensions in the country, or a key meeting is held in Addis, I have experienced an intentional shut-down of the internet in the rural areas I have been traveling. This type of heavy-handed, autocratic control is typical of Ethiopia, where telecommunications and other critical industries are state controlled (which means Tigray-controlled).

The coffee industry in the country expresses such a divide. We focus almost entirely on coffee areas farmer by the Oromo people. That's not surprising as they are by far the dominant group in the Western areas and the South where we source our coffee. There are many smaller ethnic groups that farm coffee that we buy as well, the Sidama people, Harare, Welayta, Kafina, Guji, (and others which are subgroups of the Oromo or Sidama). But the trade in Addis is not conducted by these people, but by a more elite clique, those with connections secure needed bank financing. I don't claim to understand the nuances here, but there are deep levels of corruption in Ethiopia with corresponding deep levels of mistrust. While evidence of development is all around, it seems focused to benefit urban elites. While educational opportunities have expanded, those with degrees find they lack political connections to land appropriate jobs. While Ethiopia takes in enormous levels of food aid and other funds from donor groups, it also ropes off valuable land for food farming to connected locals or foreign firms.

All of this is why the crossed arm symbol of protest by Feyisa Lilesa at the Olympics was such a charged gesture. What we hope to see is a meaningful dialogue open up between the government and protestors, but for now, travel in Ethiopia is a greater risk, and ultimately the farmers will suffer under the limitations imposed by the state of heightened security. What will it take to defuse this tense situation?