Decades after Jane Goodall began her pursuit to protect Tanzania's endangered chimpanzees, she has found a solution that was growing right beneath her nose.
International gourmands say the forests surrounding the famed chimpanzees grow some of the best coffee in Tanzania. At 1,400 meters above sea level, the region provides a cool enough climate for coffee beans of "giddy, honey-toned, floral sweetness as fresh but voluptuous as a tropical morning," according to Coffee Review.
Since the savory discovery about three years ago, U.S.-based coffee companies have helped improve and expand the region's bean production. As a result, coffee growers are receiving double compensation for their crop.
The additional income is encouraging greater community support for Goodall's efforts to conserve chimpanzee habitat, she says.
"This dream of chimps moving out to other areas, interacting with other chimps, is actually a reality now," Goodall said during a visit to Washington, D.C., earlier this month.
Within Gombe Stream National Park, the mountainous reserve alongside Lake Tanganyika where Goodall first studied ape behavior in the 1960s, about 100 chimpanzees continue to face the threats of habitat loss, poaching, and inbreeding. An estimated one-third of the population has been lost since Goodall's work began four decades ago.
While the park has remained largely protected, more than half of the chimpanzees' original habitat has been converted into farmland. The park's surrounding region has been widely deforested, eroding the landscape and leaving the area prone to heavy floods.
The Jane Goodall Institute responded with a variety of conservation measures beginning in 1994 to support the expanding human communities, which have grown nearly 5 percent annually, on average. The programs, financed by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), include microcredit loans for environmentally sustainable businesses, education scholarships, reproductive health services, erosion controls, and alternatives to cutting wood from the forest such as firewood nurseries and bee farms.
Critics told Goodall that her holistic approach would be too ambitious for a small organization. "We fortunately did not listen because it worked absolutely better than we could have believed," Goodall said. "All problems are related - poverty, increasing populations, lack of good sanitation....Did the [communities] care about conservation? Of course they did, but it was not a priority. They cared about health; they cared about their children."
Although the programs have helped convince local people to protect the reserve, the chimpanzees need additional space to prevent inbreeding, Goodall said. Her group is working with The Nature Conservancy and the region's farmers to preserve a 670-square-kilometer ecosystem network.
"The goal is not to get the Gombe chimps outside Gombe. We actually hope that is not going to happen very often because Gombe is a very secure place for them," said Lilian Pintea, the Institute's director of conservation science. Rather, he explained, the corridors are designed to connect separated chimpanzee communities and to allow them to venture outside the reserve in the event of food shortages.
While most farms would block the corridors, coffee can grow in the shade of the forest, and chimpanzees do not eat coffee beans. So, Goodall suggested at a 2006 specialty coffee roaster conference in Seattle, Washington, that the coffee companies check out the region's potential.
One year later, Vermont-based Green Mountain Coffee Roasters announced a partnership with the region's 2,700 small-scale farmers. Starbucks and a Whole Foods supplier have since made deals as well.
The Goodall Institute says the coffee income has helped the communities build schools and expand agricultural activities without deforesting the landscape. "Farmers realize that the reason they're getting higher prices is because of the conservation," said Alice Macharia, the group's East Africa program manager. "Green Mountain wouldn't be buying this coffee if it didn't have a good story."
Yet some farms have not agreed to set aside their land for the chimpanzee corridor, and researchers have not observed a measured increase in ape numbers.
But during a visit to the Gombe reserve two months ago, Goodall said she saw true signs of hope.
"I was able to look over the valley to see reforestation, such is the resiliency of nature," she said. "I can see this forest, the corridor I've been talking about. I had tears in my eyes. It was really beautiful."
Photo credit: USAID