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A conspiracy theory: some gullible farmers confuse clonal coffee with Covid-19

Covid clonal

MILAN – Ignorance about the causes of the Covid-19 pandemic has given rise in Uganda to conspiracy theories related to high-yielding clonal coffee that has been grown in the country for over 30 years bringing better productivity and incomes to farmers.

The confusion created around the pronunciation of the word “clonal” with “corona” (virus) has caused some gullible farmers to fear even going to their clonal coffee gardens, according to sources quoted by the Cornell Alliance for Science.

Reports emerged mid-March on social media from the Eastern region — a major robusta-grower — indicating that farmers had been misled to think that their clonal coffee was related to the virulent Covid-19 virus currently killing hundreds of thousands of people across the world.

This triggered fear and panic among some farmers, reports the source. Most farmers were obviously aware of the stupidity and the groundlessness of the theory.

Mzee Johnson Kato, chairman of Kamuli Citrus Farmers’ Association and a coffee farmer, confirmed he had heard of the misleading rumors but quickly condemned them, saying he has grown clonal coffee and knows it very well for its great values and benefits.

“I’ve heard of those rumors that must be originated by illiterate people in the neighborhood of Kamuli. I cannot disassociate myself with this very useful and highly-productive coffee variety I’ve grown for over two decades because some confusing elements have associated it with coronavirus that just emerged last year on the world scene,” Kato told the Alliance for Science.

He recalled that in the late 1980s, when clonal coffee was introduced by the late Dr. Israel Kibirige-Ssebunnya, the former state minister for agriculture who at that time was director of the Kawanda-based National Agricultural Research Laboratories Institute, false rumors circulated that clonal coffee trees wouldn’t last long because they lacked tap-roots.

“But I got my first clonal coffee in 1997 — 23 years now — and it still flourishes,” Kato said. “I have 15 acres which still exist. On top of fears that it wouldn’t last long, perpetrators of anti-science rumors also alleged that it would easily succumb to droughts. Today, all these have been proven as empty lies.”

He blamed widespread illiteracy and gullibility among farmers for creating fertile ground that allows the sowing and spreading of such negative campaigns. In the mid-1960s and mid-1980s, coffee and banana plantations were cut down and uprooted in several parts of Buganda as political activists of Kabaka Yekka (KY) clashed with those from the Democratic Party (DP). And when the UPC/Obote II Government was overthrown, plantations belonging to its ruthless local chairmen were also cut down.

Mzee Ntambi Mulijji, a prominent coffee farmer in the Mpigi District in central Uganda, said business rivalry is sometimes the source of the misleading rumors whereby one technology producer takes advantage of a bad prevailing circumstance, such as coronavirus and COVID-19, to associate a rival variety in order to malign it.

“We witnessed that kind of name-calling of a crop-technology to cause fear of it just like they’re calling clonal coffee as corona today,” he recalled. “I adopted clonal coffee in 1987 when it was fully developed from research that began in 1960s.”