Vietnam: Social and environmental impacts from export-oriented coffee production

25 May

Vietnam’s coffee boom resulted in large-scale clearing of forests.

By Chris Lang. Published in WRM Bulletin 46, May 2001.

The Vietnamese government faces a problem. For the last decade it has actively promoted coffee growing. As a result, hundreds of thousands of lowland Vietnamese people have moved to the central highlands to grow coffee. With coffee prices on the world market crashing, farmers are losing out. Meanwhile, the indigenous people living in the central highlands are becoming increasingly concerned about the loss of their forests and fallows to coffee plantations.

Vietnam produces more robusta coffee for export than any other country in the world. Vietnam also sells its coffee at the world’s lowest prices, leading to accusations from other coffee producing countries that Vietnam’s cheap coffee is one of the reasons for the downturn in world coffee prices. Another reason is the overproduction of coffee worldwide, to which Vietnam has also contributed.

Doan Trieu Nhan, chairman of the Vietnam Coffee and Cocoa Association (Vicofa) told the World Coffee Conference in London, recently that, “Vietnamese coffee growers have expanded their plantations in a spontaneous way without complying with government guidelines and plans. Robusta coffee is grown everywhere possible.” His statement is somewhat disingenuous, however. For years the Vietnamese government has encouraged people from Mekong delta in the south and the Red River delta in the north to move to the central highlands, partly to relieve population pressure in the deltas, but also effectively to colonise the highlands. Coffee growing is one of the migrants main sources of income.

In 1994, world coffee prices reached a ten-year high and by the following year coffee was Vietnam’s second highest export earner. The government’s promotion of coffee growing appeared to be working, and resulted in government calls for a doubling of the area of coffee plantations. By 1999, Vietnam was the world’s third largest coffee exporter after Brazil and Colombia. According to Vicofa, more than 400,000 hectares are now under coffee plantations, 300,000 hectares of which are mature enough for commercial harvesting. In the next few years Vietnam’s coffee production will increase even more.

Virtually all Vietnam’s coffee is exported, with only four per cent of production consumed domestically. The main export markets for Vietnamese coffee are Germany and the US.

More than 400,000 people have poured into Dac Lac province since 1996, many ending up growing coffee. With the fall in world coffee prices, thousands of coffee farmers’ livelihoods are threatened, and the government has stepped in – at times to subsidise coffee exports and at other times to suspend the export of coffee, on the grounds that the world price is too low.

Coffee farmers have cleared more than 74,000 hectares of forest in Dac Lac province alone. Water extracted from rivers to irrigate coffee plantations has created water shortages for other users, and some rivers have dried up for part of the year. Soil erosion has become a problem, as the soil is completely exposed for the first few years until the coffee bushes grow.

The people living in the central highlands, many of them belonging to indigenous groups such as Jarai, Bahnar and Ede have seen their forests and fallows converted to coffee plantations. In February this year, thousands of people took part in two weeks of protests in Dak Lak and neighbouring Gia Lai provinces against encroachment of their land by lowland Vietnamese. A key reason for the protests was the government’s role in converting people’s land into coffee plantations.

Instead of resulting in government efforts to address the people’s concerns however, the protests triggered a major crackdown by the authorities. Meanwhile, in an attempt to appease the whims of the world coffee market, the Vietnamese government has promised in the next few years to “erase” any coffee plantations that are outside “planned areas”.

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