The coffee fields of Mount Gorongosa grew out of Idaho philanthropist Greg Carr’s hope — hope to improve the lives of the people and wildlife that surround the park through the government and its partners.
In June, more than 180 local residents harvested high-quality Arabica beans from the slopes of the 6,112-foot granite massif that rises out of the park’s forests and savannas into the clouds that feed its lush rainforest. Below in Vila Gorongosa, another 85 people worked in the factory that processes the coffee beans for export sales.
The coffee project is one of many development programs Gorongosa operates to lift up the lives of the 150,000 Mozambicans who live around Gorongosa National Park, which has gone through a breathtaking restoration of its wild animals in the wake of a 16-year civil war. The Gorongosa Restoration Project began in 2004 as a partnership between Mozambique and Carr’s foundation. Carr is originally from Idaho Falls but now makes his home in Sun Valley.
The Gorongosa Project has built schools, clinics and a tourism business that puts residents to work. It also enrolls 2,000 girls from 12 to 16 years old in an innovative program aimed at empowering them to further their education. The project has overcome a resumption of the war and one of the worst cyclones to hit central Mozambique in history.
The reduction in poaching along with reintroductions of predators like wild dogs and large mammals, including elephants, wildebeests and water buffalo, has restored the park to some of the glory it had before the war. Back then, the park attracted film stars and the rich and famous from around the world to safari.
The project has been extended for another 25 years. But its ultimate success will be decided by how well it helps some of the lowest income people in the world advance and how well it keeps Mount Gorongosa healthy.
The mountain’s rainforests capture the cloud’s moisture that fill the rivers to nourish the surrounding area. It also is important spiritually to the indigenous people who live on and around it. As the base of the armed opposition, it remains a driving force of Mozambique politics.
Empowering girls clubs in Mozambique
The effects of that war can be seen everywhere. A schoolhouse, with its roof blown off and walls falling down, sits at the turnoff to the village of Nhanbita. We went to the village to see one of the girls clubs in action. When we arrived, a dozen girls sang and danced to welcome us dressed in clothes ranging from tattered T-shirts and shorts to long colorful skirts.
Larissa Sousa, Gorongosa’s head of girls education, explained the girls are chosen from the most vulnerable families. They meet before school to learn about opportunities beyond subsistence farming, hygiene, human rights, conservation and literacy.
“It is said when you educate the woman, you educate the nation because she makes sure you will educate her own kids,” Sousa said.
The girls also are given a time to play, something many can’t do because of the burden of chores and duties they have in their society, Sousa said. Many would otherwise marry and have children early under pressure from their fathers who would give them to a husband for gifts.
The program also has “promoters,” young men and women in the village who are trained to help the girls and give them more opportunity. Older married women in the community with influence, called madrinhas or godmothers, also are recruited to counsel the families to keep their girls in school.
Many of the residents of the buffer zone never visit the park. They have no idea about conservation and the connection between the animals and the new jobs that have been created in tourism, education, health and park management. Part of the program introduces the girls to this unknown world.
“We bring them to the park and show them all the careers they can aspire to,” Sousa said.
We drove up a steep, greasy single track in the rain to examine the coffee project and climb down to the spectacular Murombodzi Falls.
We were being watched by the sparkling eyes of the smiling residents we passed and by those who helped us when we got stuck in the mud. But unseen were RENAMO (Resistência Nacional Moçambicana) rebels, armed opponents of the government who went back to war in 2013, angry the peace terms that ended the 16-year-old civil war weren’t realized.
“They know you’re here,” said Matt Jordan, associate director of Gorongosa’s ag program.
Gorongosa has remained neutral in the conflict between RENAMO and the ruling party FRELIMO, (Frente de Libertação de Moçambique) Jordan said, a young American who previously served in the Peace Corps in Mozambique and oversees the coffee project.
But even before the conflict reignited in 2013, many residents of the mountain were skeptical about the Gorongosa Project and its addition to the park in 2010. The park’s scientists said protection of the rainforest, which catches 79 inches of rain annually, was pivotal to restoring and preserving the entire 2.5 million acre ecosystem, including the 900,000-acre park.
Farmers would use primitive slash and burn agriculture to grow mostly maize on its slopes. When the soil was exhausted, they would move up the mountain and start again. Pedro Maugura, then the project’s forester and now Gorongosa’s warden, discovered wild coffee on the mountain and suggested farmers instead grow coffee, which grows in the shade of native trees and coexists with the rainforest.
Gorongosa hired Quentin Haartoff, who had set up coffee businesses in other African countries after he was driven from his native Zimbabwe farm by government troops. He developed the pilot project at the same time the civil war came back to the mountain.
Coffee peacemaking in the rainforest
The civil war that began in 1977 and lasted until 1992 killed hundreds of thousands of people in often gruesome violence. Much of the fighting took place in and around Gorongosa, which killed off most of the large mammals and left the human community even worse off than before. The two parties made peace and held elections after 1992, which FRELIMO repeatedly won amid charges of voter fraud.
The peace broke down in 2012, and RENAMO leader Afonso Dhlakama moved back to the mountain and set up a headquarters and training center. In 2013, the conflict began with deadly attacks on government forces, forcing Gorongosa employees to flee the park. A ceasefire was reached in 2014, but it fell through and continued conflict forced Gorongosa to close the park to tourism in 2015.
The coffee pilot project went forward despite the conflict. Coffee trees were planted in 2015 that would take four years to provide beans. They were planted below the optimum elevation because RENAMO told them to stay out of their territory.
Many farmers rejected the idea of planting coffee due to the uncertainty of the conflict and distrust, Jordan said. In 2016, federal groups rolled up the mountain with tanks, destroying most of the houses and crops on the upper slopes.
The mostly RENAMO supporters were forced to run with their families and hide in the bush for weeks and months, Jordan said.
“Every single person here, that was their story,” he said.
The coffee team continued planting trees and caring for the trees right up to the time the troops arrived and told them they had to leave.
“It was very dangerous,” Jordan said. “There was a lot of things that happened, very bad things that happened to people.”
The mountain was closed by the troops until May 2017, when a new cease-fire was negotiated. The Gorongosa team went up immediately to see the homes and crops were gone. But what about the coffee?
“The coffee was invisible because the grass had grown, but we didn’t lose a single plant that year,” Jordan said.
That became a turning point in the effort to get the farmers on board. They held a meeting later that summer.
“Hundreds of people came from all over these areas where we had not talked to a soul,” Jordan said. “They all came and said they wanted to be part of the project.”
Creating a peace park in Gorongosa
Talks continue between RENAMO and FRELIMO to try to forge a final peace agreement that would disarm and demobilize the rebels and reintegrate them into society. Gorongosa would help find jobs for the ex-combatants, Carr said.
The idea that Gorongosa could serve as a “Peace Park” by reintegrating the RENAMO fighters into society goes back to the early days of the partnership. RENAMO’s former leader Dhlakama died in 2018 of natural causes. Its current leader, Ossufo Momade, went into hiding, presumably on the mountain.
A new agreement could be signed between Momade and Mozambique President and FRELIMO leader Filipe Nyusi as early as August.
Jordan said they regularly meet with RENAMO leaders, in a spirit of civility, community and respect. He described how the current relationship sits in the words of a RENAMO commander:
‘“You can do coffee, just stay out of the forest,”’ Jordan quoted him.
But Jordan hopes when a peace treaty is signed, the coffee project and other agroforestry projects that produce pineapples, bananas and other fruit in between the coffee trees will help integrate the former fighters into society.
Tourism also can contribute as people become guides and porters to show off the mountain’s wonders, Jordan said.
“We think people on this mountain can make a living for themselves,” he said.
Rainforest coffee in Boise
Boise residents will be able to buy Gorongosa Rainforest Coffee at Zoo Boise. Carr also has purchased property in the Wood River Valley for a Gorongosa Coffee house, Jordan said. The peace talks themselves have led to a promising potential market.
Mirko Manzoni, the Swiss ambassador to Mozambique who is moderating the peace talks, introduced Jordan to officials at Nespresso, which is expected to sell the coffee worldwide.
The park hopes to buy beans from 1,000 families and eventually triple the growers to provide a living for 2,500 families. Most of these farmers are growing within the boundaries of the expanded national park on the lands they have had in their families for generations.
Carr said adding the mountain to the park was not to push the indigenous people off but to improve farming practices and stop gold mining after destructive prospecting had started.
“We are not against the indigenous people,” Carr said. “They are protecting the mountain like we are.”
“They are our partners.”
Editor’s note: The Carr Foundation helped fund some of Rocky Barker’s expenses to travel to Mozambique to tell this story.