If you’ve ever bought coffee labeled “Uganda” and wondered what life is like in that faraway place where the beans were grown, now’s your chance to see how climate change has affected the lives of Ugandan coffee farmers — through their own eyes.
Rising temperatures and prolonged drought can make coffee trees less productive and increase their exposure to pests and diseases. This is especially a problem in Uganda, where nearly all of the coffee is produced by small farmers who have little access to irrigation or other modern farming conveniences. Coffee is by far the country’s most valuable industry: It accounts for one-fifth of export revenue, and about 1 in 5 Ugandans rely on it for part or all of their income.
Yet climate change could slash the country’s coffee production in half by 2050 —a loss worth $1.2 billion, according to a 2015 economic analysis commissioned by the Ugandan government.
Because Uganda is a relatively small player in the global coffee market, disruptions there won’t necessarily affect the price of your morning joe in the U.S. But within the country, a disturbing new reality is taking root. To find out exactly how Uganda’s coffee farmers view their experience of climate change, I recently equipped a dozen of them with disposable cameras.
None of the farmers had ever used cameras, and the ones I gave them were pretty low-quality. But I was amazed by the more than 300 images that the farmers delivered. Many are candid, well-composed and achieve a level of intimacy that would be hard for an outsider to capture. You can access the full Flickr album here.
The photos show the struggles of everyday life for small family farmers who are facing drought on Mount Elgon, one of Uganda’s oldest and most prestigious coffee-producing regions. We see cows and chickens; children on their way to school; people bustling around water sources; and plenty of manual labor around the farm. That might all sound a bit mundane, until you realize the photos are really a window into the minds of a vulnerable population living on the front lines of climate change.
I set up this project in March with a group of coffee-focused agronomists at the Kampala offices of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), a nonprofit research organization. We found our 12 volunteers — six married couples spread across low, middle and high elevations of Mount Elgon. We gave each a quick briefing on how to operate the camera, then asked them to document the impacts of climate change. We left those parameters intentionally vague so the farmers would feel free to define “climate change” in their own terms.
A week later, we got the cameras back — and with them, an unfiltered glimpse into how the farmers understood their situation.
Among the intriguing images is a sort of still-life, shot on the farm of Sam Massa and his wife, Robinah Muzaki. They live in a mud-brick house in the mist-shrouded upper slopes of the mountain, surrounded by coffee trees that Massa’s great-grandfather planted more than 100 years ago. The photo shows artifacts from the farm that represent the effects of rising temperatures: leaves affected by fungal disease; a stem-borer beetle, which lays eggs inside coffee trees, causing branches to wither; a clutch of red coffee berries that Massa says “are not properly matured.”
“When you open the inside, there’s nothing,” he says.
Massa’s wife is fond of a picture she took of the family cow. She says that because drought had severely reduced the last coffee harvest, the family was desperately looking for other ways to raise cash. When she took the picture, she and Massa were considering selling the cow. By the time the pictures were developed, the cow was gone. (A calf, also seen in the image, is still on the farm.) So the picture became a memorial to something climate change had taken from the family.
“I had to sell that cow to pay the school fees for the kids,” she says. “If the yield of coffee had been good, I wouldn’t have needed to sell it.”
There were other revelations, things that people might not normally associate with climate change, but that are painfully obvious to those living in its harsh reality. Pictures of nondescript dusty roads show the challenges of transporting produce to market; photos of children in uniforms represent school fees, which is many families’ biggest cash expense — paid for by coffee.
“We are in poverty now,” says Michael Lullonde, whose wife, Lofisa, snapped the picture of a school seen on this page. “To take our children to school, or even get food, is very hard.”
Peter Magona, another of the photographers, says that despite the obvious change in climate, for him and other farmers on the remote Mount Elgon, there’s no other viable livelihood than coffee: “If you look around, you can see the environment has changed considerably. There’s no rain. The yield is very poor, and the income is very poor, due to this prolonged drought. But coffee is our cash crop, and we cannot drop it. We depend on it.”
There are many other stories hidden in the photos, too. Over the coming months, IITA scientist Onno Giller plans to finish interviewing the farmers about the images they took and compile the findings in a peer-reviewed research paper. In the meantime, Massa plans to use the prints of his photos as a teaching tool, to encourage his neighbors to take a second look at their own farms and see what they can do to climate-proof their practices.
Journalist Tim McDonnell spent three months reporting in Uganda as part of a Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellowship.