Bridges Trade BioRes ReviewVolume 2Number 2 • May 2008

Safeguarding biodiversity in Ethiopia’s coffee forests: Opportunities and challenges related to intellectual property rights

Not only is coffee production in Ethiopia significant in economic, social and environmental terms for the country itself — it also has critical implications for the genetic diversity of one of the world’s most important commodities.

As attempts to protect and promote Ethiopian coffee develop, it is important to consider how these efforts can and should be structured to recognise and enhance the links to the protection of biodiversity and related traditional knowledge. This article provides a brief overview of the experiences in using intellectual property (IP) tools, such as trademarks and geographical indications (GIs), to maximise the sustainable development benefits of Ethiopian fine coffees. It focuses particularly on the opportunities and challenges for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.

Ethiopian coffee: Economic, social and environmental considerations

Ethiopia is considered the birthplace of coffee. Coffea arabica, the aromatic and mild species of coffee used to produce the highest quality – and priciest – blends originated in the highland rainforests of south-western Ethiopia. The country still retains a critical role as the genetic base of arabica coffee. Given the potential contribution to new varieties with increased yields, of higher quality and/ or with disease resistance, its genetic diversity has considerable value, not just from an environmental perspective but from an economic one as well.1

For Ethiopia itself, coffee has enormous economic, social and environmental significance. Coffee is an emblematic product for the country, making up around half of its exports. It represents an important part of Ethiopia’s foreign exchange earnings, tax income and gross domestic product.2 Coffee also directly supports the livelihoods of more than 25 percent of the population, and is at the centre of social and family life.3 Environmentally, the situation in Ethiopia is also unique, as coffee is still produced mainly in its natural habitat: 33 percent of Ethiopia’s coffee comes from forest or semi-forest areas in which local biodiversity, as well as traditional practices, are generally maintained.4

Despite its distinctiveness and reputation for excellence, Ethiopian coffee has been — as most coffees worldwide — traditionally sold as a commodity. In the past, sharp declines in the world price have thus reduced Ethiopia’s national income and severely affected its coffee farmers that are increasingly using the land for other monoculture crops. Due primarily to these changes in land use, at one point it was estimated that Ethiopian highland forests would disappear by 2015.5

The fact that commodity prices currently are on the rise may solve some of the economic and social concerns. However, higher prices do not necessarily provide incentives for the conservation of coffee forests and traditional practices. As long as Ethiopian coffee is undifferentiated in the market, higher incomes will do little to help counter the trend to maximise profits by manipulating coffee forests into quasi-industrial plantations with monospecific production, and introduced varieties and know-how.6

The demand for and potential of specialty coffee — certain coffees distinguished and prized for their quality and social or environmental characteristics — appears to be very significant in the global market place. This fact has increased interest in potential strategies to differentiate Ethiopian coffee in the global market. A number of terms used by the coffee trade on the basis of the districts where the coffee is grown, such as Harar, Sidamo, and Yirgacheffe, have become known to consumers over the past years for their unique flavour profiles. According to the Ethiopian Coffee Network, the reputation of these coffees is “the result of the hard work of generations of Ethiopian coffee farmers” and should be protected. IP protection, as explained below, could provide various valuable tools towards this end.

Potential and limits of trademarks and geographical indications

Distinctive signs, such as trademarks and GIs, identify products or services in relation to their origin, quality or other characteristics. By using these signs to protect the names of its coffees, Ethiopia would avoid unauthorised use by other producers, roasters or retailers. Distinctive signs would thus preserve the reputation and potentially enhance the market share of Ethiopian coffee. Trademarks or GIs would also allow the country to capture the potential premium price derived from the increased valuation of its coffee. Finally, insofar as they incorporate the link between Ethiopian coffee and the protection of biodiversity, these distinctive signs could play an important role in safeguarding the country’s coffee forests and related traditional knowledge.

Both trademarks and GIs would be able to perform these functions. Each distinctive sign has unique features, however. It is therefore worth considering the opportunities and challenges presented by the different tools and strategies in maximising sustainable development benefits derived from Ethiopian coffee. A number of ongoing initiatives in relation to the use of distinctive signs for Ethiopian coffee already provide valuable lessons in this regard.

Trademarks and certification marks

Trademarks distinguish the products of one enterprise from others. A certification mark is a particular type of trademark that — though owned by a particular enterprise or association — may be used by anybody who complies with certain standards. Certification marks are widely used to protect various labelling and certification schemes, including in relation to some types of coffee. Existing certification systems, such as Fair Trade or Bird Friendly standards, have been considered by some actors in Ethiopia as ways to promote compliance with important social and environmental principles. However, there has been some concern that they would not necessarily fulfil the goal of harnessing the reputation of Ethiopian coffee.

Surendra Kotecha, former Chief Advisor to the EU Coffee Improvement Programme in Ethiopia, has pioneered the notion of developing a new label for “Forest Arabica Coffee.”7 The label would be developed and implemented through a partnership of government, donors, coffee farmers, and private sector investors, and in cooperation with, for example, the Forest Stewardship Council or the Rainforest Alliance. By protecting the inherent link between Ethiopian coffee and highland forests, such a label would bring not only biodiversity benefits, but it would also dramatically increase the quality of Ethiopian coffee since compliance with the established guidelines would lead to improvements in growing and post-harvest practices.

When the Ethiopian government began considering IP protection for the names of its finest coffees, it did contemplate the use of certification marks. However, it deemed that certification marks would not provide the “more equitable leverage” it was pursuing with trading and retail companies. Indeed, as initial efforts to gain IP protection were closely linked to the unauthorised use of names by the global coffee giant Starbucks, the primary objective of the Ethiopian government seems to have been to gain control over the references to its coffees. As a result, Ethiopia’s efforts have focused on obtaining conventional, rather than certification, marks.

Consequently, questions have been raised over whether the initiative can achieve its objectives to provide benefits to all actors in the coffee trading chain, particularly farmers. The Ethiopian coffee initiative’s website explains, for example, that benefits will reach farmers as their incomes increase along with export revenues for Ethiopian coffee. Nevertheless, such equitable benefit-sharing cannot be assumed without proper requirements or guidelines. The lack of guidelines is equally problematic in relation to biodiversity and other sustainability criteria. There are also concerns that, with no clear, general and objective rules guiding the use of the trademark, the owner — in this case the Ethiopian government — would be able to exclude or discriminate between growers from the same region, for example. All these shortcomings could entail negative social and environmental effects.

Geographical indications

Another alternative would be to seek protection for the names of Ethiopia’s gourmet coffees as GIs. GIs generally identify a product as originating in a place and as having a series of particular characteristics derived from that place. Ethiopian coffee beans are identified and distinguished by their geographic origin. Sidamo coffee comes from various growing districts in Sidama, an area in southern Ethiopia. Coffee from Yirgacheffe, a small sub-region of Sidama, is considered exceptional due to the particular microclimate. In this regard, experts note that the cup quality of Ethiopian coffee derives not only from the genetic make-up of its beans, but also from local factors such as climate, soil type, shade conditions and traditional practices.

There is a clear trend towards distinguishing fine coffees by their specific origin in Ethiopia, or at least generally as Ethiopian coffee. Ethiopia is one of the members of the Eastern African Fine Coffees Association, which is highlighting origin as one of the central strategies for improving coffee quality. The EU Coffee Improvement Programme in Ethiopia works towards achieving a higher marketing value for quality coffee, differentiated by identified geographical growth areas. Another example is the Biodivalloc project, which is a French-funded initiative that is looking at GIs as tools to valorise nontimber forest products in Ethiopia, including spices, honey and coffee.

Certainly, GIs may be useful tools to avoid unfair competition, to increase revenues and to establish quality, social and environmental guidelines for coffee production in Ethiopia. Yet, the use of GIs also poses several challenges. The head of the Ethiopian IP Office, in explaining the choice to focus on trademarks, noted his concerns about the adequacy of GIs within the national reality: “Our coffee is grown on four million very small plots of land. Setting up a certification system would have been impracticable and too expensive.”8 Other experts agree on the difficulties of establishing product specifications, particularly in relation to biodiversityrelated criteria. Another potential problem is that, in the context of the WTO, countries are only obliged to protect GIs that are protected in their country of origin. Ethiopia – in the process of accession to the WTO – does not yet have national rules on GIs, although a Trademark Directive was issued in 1986.

Concluding remarks

On the basis of the experiences described above, it is clear that both trademarks and GIs have significant potential to protect the names used to depict Ethiopian fine coffees. Moreover, certification marks and GIs could play an important role in safeguarding and promoting the country’s biodiversity. Biodiversity benefits will not flow automatically. Without social and environmental guidelines, efforts to protect Ethiopian coffee are likely to meet with limited success. The imbalance between retail prices and farmers’ income would continue, and increased demand and market compliance might actually harm Ethiopia’s biodiversity, reinforcing the trend towards mono-specific forests and the loss of local varieties and knowledge.

It is only through supportive certification, specifications or guidelines that the increased trade in and revenue from coffee brought by trademarks and GIs can advance broader social and environmental goals and strategies in Ethiopia. Such guidelines may ensure transparency, as well as the participation of stakeholders — particularly coffee farmers — thereby resulting in tangible benefits. They also have the potential to promote sustainable and biodiversity-friendly production practices, and to place coffee valuation strategies in the context of national sustainable development goals.

María Julia Oliva is a Senior Programme Officer for the Trade, Natural Resources and Environment Programme at the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICTSD).9


1 Hein, L. and Gatzweiler, F. (2006). “The economic value of coffee (Coffea arabica) genetic resources”. Ecological Economics 60 (2006) 176-185.

2 Gole, T.W. et al (2002). “Human Impact on the Coffea arabica genepool in Ethiopia and the Need for its in situ Conservation” in Managing Plant Genetic Diversity. J.M.M. Engels, V. Ramanatha Rao. A.H.D. Brown and M.T. Jackson (eds.).

3 Roussel, B. and Verdeaux, F. (2007). “Natural Patrimony and Local Communities in Ethiopia: Advantages and Limitations of a System of Geographical Indications”. Africa 77 (1).

4 Gole et al, supra. In semi-forest areas, there is some manipulation of local biodiversity through the thinning of over-storey trees, removal of ground vegetation and enrichment of empty spaces. Home gardens and small-scale farms in which coffee is produced also maintain a high level of plant species diversity.

5 Tadesse, W.M. et al (2001). “Diversity of Traditional Coffee Production Systems in Ethiopia and their Contribution to the Conservation of Genetic Diversity”. Presented at the Deutscher Tropentag (Conference on International Agricultural Research for Development), Bonn, Germany.

6 François Verdeaux. Personal communication. April 3, 2008.

7 Kotecha, S. (2007). “Arabica’s Garden of Eden”. Café Europa - Voice of the Speciality Coffee Association of Europe, No. 31.

8 Getachew Mengistie, Director General of the Ethiopian Intellectual Property Office (EIPO), quoted in March, E. (2007). “Making the Origin Count: Two Coffees”. WIPO Magazine September 2007.

9 The author would like to thank Surendra Kotecha and François Verdeaux for their valuable input.