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Bitter Grounds: Climate Change Brews Trouble for Laos’ Coffee Heartbeat

Source: Vientiane Times

In Laos, the Bolaven Plateau has a distinctive profile and is renowned for its invigorating climate and breathtaking waterfalls.  Beyond its natural splendor, it’s recognized as the heart of Lao coffee production, where fertile volcanic soil yields beans favored by connoisseurs worldwide.

This confluence of agricultural significance and captivating beauty positions the Bolaven Plateau as a treasure of the country.

However, for the ethnic communities that call this plateau home, this time of year presents a looming threat to their traditional way of life. Changing weather patterns and land degradation cast a shadow over their livelihoods.

“After the harvest in February, the rains were scarce,” laments Pheuy Thavisak, a 33-year-old coffee farmer in Lao Ngam’s Lao Nga village, Saravan province. “I fear next year’s harvest will fall even shorter—too little rain.” Pheuy, surrounded by coffee plantations since birth, inherited a love for the land. But this love is tinged with worry; her livelihood has become increasingly precarious.

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Pheuy was born into a coffee-farming family and worked in the field all her life. She loves this line of work and is confident she can keep her family’s coffee business going for the rest of her days.

She attended primary school but didn’t complete all the grades because her parents didn’t think it was beneficial for girls to get an education. Tradition dictates that their future lies at home, tending to children rather than classrooms. Yet, Pheuy, who is now married and has two children, hopes their futures will be brighter.
Drought conditions threaten to slash Pheuy’s coffee harvest from 2.2 tonnes per hectare last year to just 1.5 tonnes this year, significantly reducing her family income.

The threat is not unique to Pheuy. A chilling report from The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations  (FAO) reveals how fickle weather patterns significantly hurt Lao’s agriculture. Unpredictable droughts and floods ruin production and leave farmers reeling, unable to predict or plan for the seasons.

Lao Nga village, nestled within the Lao Ngam district of Saravan province, is a tapestry of diverse ethnic groups. Each community boasts its unique language, housing style, and way of life, adding to the region’s rich cultural mosaic.

The Bolaven Plateau, especially the Saravan province with its shared border with Vietnam, is a vital agricultural hub, similar to its neighboring provinces, Champassak and Xekong. Despite celebrating Arabica coffee here, the air is heavy with the aroma of decline.

The Lao Coffee Association’s chief officer, Mr Sivisay, reported a decline in coffee exports from the Bolaven Plateau. Last year, growers exported 24,707 tonnes of coffee, generating approximately US$59,530,405 in revenue. This represents a decrease from previous years: 24,985 tonnes in 2022, 30 tonnes in 2021, and 35 tonnes in 2020.

“Exports of Plateau coffee have plummeted,” confirms Sivisay. “Drought, extreme heat, disease they ravage the plants. Farmers look to crops like cassava quicker harvests, higher profits.” This switch isn’t without cost, as forests fall indiscriminately to make way for cassava fields.

Despite its reputation as a prime coffee region, the Bolaven Plateau faces dwindling yields, sparking alarm among growers. This year’s harvest dropped to half last year’s volume.

In an attempt to counter declining coffee production, people are turning to use chemical fertilizers.

Head of the Santiphab Coffee Group, Mr Khamtun Seevongsa, explained that Lao Nga village comprises 227 families who rely heavily on coffee cultivation. These families farm a combined area of approximately 800 hectares for their primary income. He acknowledged the growing use of chemical fertilizers among villagers in an attempt to increase yields.

Despite recognizing the risks, villagers remain ill-equipped with knowledge of personal safety when using insecticides and other chemicals.

But thanks to the European Union-funded SOLAR Project (Advancing Social Protection and Labour Rights and Entitlements in the Coffee and Tea Sectors of Laos), which is implemented by the International Labour Organisation and Oxfam, the coffee growing communities are being trained in safety and health in workplaces, social security, and even collective bargaining with buyers and employers.

This helps farmers learn how to protect themselves from hazardous chemicals, insects, and snakes on the farms, and use old machinery safely, and know how to access social security cash benefits if they get ill.

The collective bargaining training allows them to learn group management and negotiation skills.

Villagers have also attended training sessions on gender equality, disability, and social inclusion, which have helped them understand how they can help each other, both with farming and household chores.

Laos is a patriarchal society where men are typically expected to be the primary breadwinners and decision-makers within the family.

Deeply ingrained gender roles, especially among the Hmong and Khmu communities, remain a tenacious obstacle. The concept of gender equality is unfamiliar and may encounter resistance. Mrs Vansy, Director of Women Mobilising for Development, knows changing mindsets takes more than just talking.

“Persuading these people to attend a gender workshop is 20 times harder than getting others because they don’t see it as necessary. So we approach them by framing the workshop as a session on crop cultivation methods that will help alleviate their poverty,” she said.

“Simply talking and trying to explain gender equality does not get the concept across, but we find that using the Gender Action Learning System (GALS) helps their understanding. This system does not aim to explain or force them to accept gender equality, but rather engages them in drawing activities that prompt them to solve any problem by their own idea and provide answers regarding family issues and ways to overcome poverty,” Mrs. Vansy said. The workshops have yielded tangible results. Some men in these remote villages are shifting long-held mindsets and behaviors. Women were once solely responsible for household responsibilities, but now they share them. This newfound balance gives women much-needed time for rest and respite, previously monopolized by men for leisure and socializing.

It does not end there, female participation in meetings, seminars, and workshops has surged, giving women a platform to voice ideas and solutions. “The impact extends beyond the community,” said Mrs Vansy. “Our team members have honed their gender-related skills, positively influencing both their professional and personal lives.

Pheuy proves that this works. Once burdened by all household responsibilities, her husband now shares the load. They plan finances together, and mutual decision-making is their new normal.

Her husband now helps with housework and spends less time drinking with friends.

“We also now have a better understanding of financial planning and managing our living expenses, as well as coordinating our work schedules. With more time for each other, we can make decisions together about our daily activities,” Mrs Pheuy said with a touch of pride in her voice.

“My husband started to have trust in me; more and more, he lets me make the decisions. Sometimes it feels like I’m the head of this family!” she said it with a big smile.

The Bolaven Plateau is Laos in miniature stunning beauty, stark challenges, and resilience at its core. The world may still enjoy its coffee, but the struggles of those who cultivate it often go unnoticed. Their future and that of this unique region hold both promise and uncertainty.