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Coffee promotion sparks controversy, protest

Following Facebook and website posts by Ethiopian Airlines and the Ethiopian Coffee and Tea Development Authority, Kaffa Zone of the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR) has staged a consecutive three-day long demonstration protesting the alleged denial of Kaffa’s historic right as the origin of coffee by two institutions. The message by these institutions was directed towards participants of the “International Coffee Event in Ethiopia–Land of Origins.”

In its post on its website for the participants, before editing it, Ethiopian Airlines stated, “Join us on December 4-5, 2018 as coffee lovers from all over the world come to the beginning of it all- where humankind has been enjoying a great cup of coffee for centuries! Coffee producers, roasters, exporters, researchers, writers will gather at the UN Conference Center followed by a coffee safari to Kaffa-the region that brought this magical bean to YOU!”

Same as this one, Ethiopian posted on its Facebook page saying, “Attending the International Coffee Event in Ethiopia-Land of Origins? Once the conference wraps up, do not miss a trip to the Kaffa region, the original birthplace of coffee! Don’t miss the once in a lifetime experience ….”

 In a message intended to address the same participants, the Ethiopian Coffee and Tea Development Authority stated before editing its post saying, “Attending the International Coffee Event in Ethiopia -Land of Origins? Once the conference wraps up, don’t miss a trip to Jimma zone, the original birthplace of coffee! Don’t miss the once in a lifetime experience ….”

After editing their posts, both institutions invited the participants to not miss a visit to Ethiopia.

Following these contradicting messages from the two government institutions organizing the same event, residents of Kaffa Zone staged a demonstration in the zonal capital Bonga and in all of the woredas in the zone, one of the organizers of the demonstration told The Reporter. The zonal administration head, Masresha Belachew, also reinforced this statement.

“First the posts stated that Kaffa is the origin of Coffee only to be changed into to Jimma later on. As this was an issue unresolved over the years, the people marched to the streets to denounce it,” said Minwuyelet Melaku, one of the Organizers of the demonstration. During the days of the demonstrations, all government and private institutions remained closed and many have joined the demonstrators in Bonga. Others who could not come staged their own protests in their localities.

“This is a history the people won’t negotiate on,” he added.

Although the edited posts by the Coffee and Tea Development Authority stated that the visit will be conducted in coffee growing areas in Oromia and Southern regions, the demonstrators said that they wanted the recognition as the origin of coffee. One of the placard at the demonstration read, “Kaffa is not only a coffee grower but also the origin of coffee itself.”

Concerning this public outrage, the zonal head of Tourism and Government Communications Department wrote a letter to the Prime Minister stating that “the intention of Coffee and Tea Development Authority is to create clashes among societies and called for the issue to be resolved soon.”

“There is no harm both on property and people apart from closure of roads in all directions,” Masresha said. “It is not right to close federal roads and the questions should be presented and get replies in a peaceful manner.”

Another pushing factor for the demonstration is the delay in operating the National Coffee Museum in Kaffa Zone, Bonga town which was built as one of the projects during the Ethiopian Millennium celebration, according to Masresha. No government organ has been vocal towards the idleness of the Museum.

“One of the factors delaying the operation of the Museum is the issue with the origin of coffee. No governmental body has said anything regarding this. Hence, we will work towards getting an answer to this question,” he added.

The museum was built in Bonga for 27 million birr after getting an approval of construction by the Millennium Celebration National Committee. “The decision to build the museum was scientific,” says Hassan Said (PhD), member of the Committee and a scholar teaching Philology (the study of language in oral and written historical sources) at Addis Ababa University. He is also preparing a book on Ethiopian Coffee History. Hassan argues that, while we are back at square one, others who have no relation with coffee are benefiting from coffee.

He raises the example of Turkey which registered its coffee ceremony as an intangible heritage with the UNESCO. The United Arab Emirates has done the same.

Apart from his reproach regarding the arguments which made us lose the benefits, Hassan is firm on Kaffa being the origin of coffee as there are archaeological, sociological and anthropological evidences proving the claim.

He mentioned an archaeological dig conducted in 2010 by Elisabeth Hildebrand, Joséphine Lesur and Steven Brandt. They found five coffee beans that date back to 1750 years before present which is unmatched on the globe. One bean in Dubai and another in Chile were found dated to the 16th century.

The research that Hassan mentions is titled, “The Holocene Archaeology of Southwest Ethiopia: New Insights from the Kaffa Archaeological Project” which points out the claims he raised.

The plan at the beginning was not only to build a coffee museum in Bonga, but also in all places growing coffee. Because of the disagreement on the origins of coffee, this has not yet been successful.

On the other side, people from Jimma Zone, Choche claim to be the origins of coffee which is narrated through the story of Khaldis–the goat herder who learnt about the special beans after observing his herd which got stimulated by eating the coffee leaves. Howevere, the same narration goes for the finding of coffee in Kaffa Zone: Mankira locality. But Hassan prefers to focus on the scientific findings.

Yet again, there are other commentators who argue Jimma’s claim might have originated from the previous organization of the country during which Jimma was the seat of the Kaffa Administrative Region.