Internationally respected scientists have warned that farmers in the region face particular pressures with growing cash crops - vital for many to supplement subsistence food crops - as a result of global warming in the next few decades, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) warned on Thursday, 8 November.
Speaking at the latest round of climate negotiations in Morocco, UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer said that if the scientific forecasts of climate change proved sound, farmers in Uganda would face serious problems growing coffee, one of the country's key export crops, and that many traditional tea-growing areas in Kenya would become unsuitable for production.
In order to survive, poor tea and coffee farmers in East Africa would have to clear forests - an important, and steadily declining natural resource - in higher, cooler areas, causing environmental damage which, in turn, could lead to increased poverty, hunger and ill-health.
This follows warnings that important tropical food crops - including rice, maize and wheat - may have difficulty setting seed in the face of rising global temperatures.
The environmental lobby group Greenpeace also warned last week that Mt Kilimanjaro, northeastern Tanzania, could lose its entire icecap by 2015 - a serious threat to the major water supply of some 5 percent of Tanzanians, the livelihoods of up to one million people, and a habitat which supports at least 1,800 species of flowering plants and 35 of mammals.
Map of Kenya - Source: IRIN
The warning on cash crops in Uganda and Kenya was based on information from GRID Arendal, a UNEP and government of Norway collaborative centre with renowned expertise in scientific mapping, which warned that the findings for East Africa were also relevant for the Caribbean, Latin America and Asia, where tea and coffee are also economically important crops.
Map of Uganda - Source: IRIN
In Uganda, the total area suitable for growing the Robusta variety of coffee would be "dramatically reduced" by an average temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius, according to Svien Tveitdal of GRID Arendal. [for further details, see http://www.unep.org/Documents/Default.asp?DocumentID=225&ArticleID=2952]
According to his organisation's predictions, "only higher areas -the Ruwenzoris, southwestern Uganda and Mt Elgon - would remain, as the rest would become too hot to grow coffee", he added.
The overall areas suitable for tea-cropping would not be reduced in Kenya, but plantations around Mt Kenya and the Aberdare mountains [in the central Rift Valley] would lie outside the tea-growing temperature range, according to Tveitdal.
"In those areas, the tea belt will move upwards, where there are forests today, which indicates another potential future conflict," he said.
There would also be a loss or shrinkage of tea-growing areas to the east and northeast of Kisumu, in western Kenya, according to GRID Arendal's model.
Such disruption of these vital crops could be very serious for poor farmers - even more so if the current trend of declining commodity prices were to continue, Toepfer warned.
Tea and coffee exports account for over US $500 million of Kenya's estimated $675 million in agricultural exports each year, according to UNEP.
In Uganda, tea and coffee production accounts for some $422 million in agricultural export earnings annually, from estimated earnings for the agricultural sector in the region of $434 million, it added.
Uganda has already been hit hard by a slump in foreign exchange earnings from coffee, as international prices have fallen to their lowest level in 26 years.
The combination of resource depletion and population growth places the sustainability of development at risk in many of the poorest countries (which include Tanzania and Uganda), according to the World Bank's annual environmental review, Environment Matters, on 25 October.
Some developing countries were losing up to 4-8 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) because of a loss of productivity and natural capital due to environmental degradation, according to the report. That loss was also without the anticipated impacts of climate change, which threatened to undermined long-term development, it said. - see
The reduction of poverty was critical to secure a sustainable future, and that environmental sustainability was intrinsic to poverty reduction, according to the review.
Without enhanced measures for fighting climate change, and their implementation as a matter of urgency, poor farmers in East Africa "face declining yields and incomes in the traditional coffee- and tea-growing areas, pushing them into more biting poverty", according to UNEP.