Reducing the bitterness of coffee from Vietnam’s Central Highlands
I love coffee in the morning, its taste, its aroma and the boost of energy it gives me to start the day. While enjoying a fresh brew some years ago, I began to think about what was behind my morning cup – where do the beans come from? What are the landscapes where they are produced like? And who are the people that harvest this coffee?
These are questions I continue to reflect on in my work. Over the last 10 years, I have supported efforts to reduce deforestation, much of which has been driven by the production of agricultural commodities, including coffee. In my current work, I focus on finding ways to support sustainable coffee production in Vietnam.
The world’s largest producer of robusta coffee
In recent decades, the Central Highlands region of Vietnam has become the world’s main production area of robusta coffee. Major companies like Nestle, Jacobs Douwe Egberts, Lavazza, Olam and Starbucks source from this region, bringing Vietnamese coffee to supermarket shelves and cafés around the world. Likewise, national coffee companies like VinaCafe and Trung Nguyen have arisen as a symbol of the coffee-culture in Vietnam.
The transformation of the Central Highlands into a coffee capital reminds me of Colombia, my home country. In Colombia, the famous Coffee Triangle landscape experienced a boom in the production of arabica coffee at the beginning of the 19th century owing to agricultural expansion policies. Currently, the region has become the symbol of the ‘Café de Colombia’ origin certification, which is recognised as one of the best coffees in the world.
I see many parallels between the coffee stories of the two countries, and the economic, social and environmental impacts associated with coffee cultivation. The environment in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, just like in my country, is suffering from the negative effects of unsustainable coffee production. Rapid expansion of coffee crops is driving deforestation. Coffee is also spreading to areas inappropriate for its cultivation because of unsuitable soils and limited access to water. As a result, coffee farmers deplete groundwater resources and use an excessive amount of chemicals and fertilisers.
Environmental issues are mixed up with socioeconomic challenges. Despite coffee being a valuable commodity, the region has not bore the fruits of increased coffee production and has one of the highest rural poverty rates in the country. Opportunities for minority groups to benefit from the coffee trade are limited, especially for women. Between the ’70s and the ’90s, the arrival of international companies and an accelerated immigration caused by national resettlement policies, including the establishment of new economic zones and the land-use reform or “Doi Moi”, led to the boom in the price of coffee. Since then, local communities and ethnic minorities have been largely marginalised, being unable to adapt their traditional practices to the economic development of the region, due to their limited formal education and lack of capacity to adapt to the new business requirements. This gives a bittersweet taste to coffee coming from the region.
How sustainability helps shift the paradigm
Instead of exacerbating the situation for farmers and the environment, I want my cup of coffee to contribute to addressing climate change, while leaving no one behind. But how can I sweeten up my morning cup of coffee and make it sustainable?
There is a common understanding that soil, water, forests and other natural resources are limited, and that our planet that is warming because of humans activities. Making the transition towards sustainability is therefore our duty. These efforts should involve the whole coffee supply chain – producers, traders and, of course, consumers. We all must ensure that our cup of coffee is sustainably produced. But what does than mean?
I like the definition of sustainability used by the United Nations, which includes three dimensions:
- An economic dimension, where everyone in the commodity supply chain must obtain a fair wage for their work and that profits are shared equitably
- A social dimension, with inclusive and ethical work, reasonable working hours, no child labour, and giving options to farmers for optimising their croplands
- An environmental dimension, where the exploitation of natural resources is done sustainably, biodiversity is protected and global warming kept below 1.5 ºC
Vietnam has an ambitious agenda for transitioning towards sustainability. Among other things, the country has committed to implement an ambitious national plan to address climate change as part of its nationally determined contribution (NDC) under the Paris Agreement and has committed to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Both incorporate sustainability as an inalienable principle and include several policies and measures in the agricultural and forest sectors aimed at curbing carbon emissions and reducing poverty.
Coffee certification – turning commitments to action?
International commitments are a good starting point, but how can we implement sustainability on the ground?
A first attempt has been through certification schemes that aim to improve the environmental and social impacts of coffee production by encouraging the use of organic fertilisers, the protection of forest and biodiversity, and fair labour practices. Certification schemes for coffee were first introduced in Vietnam more than 20 years ago. Some of these schemes, including Rainforest Alliance, Fairtrade, C.A.F.E or 4C, are active in the Central Highlands. In 2019 and 2020, Vietnam was reported to be the world’s top sustainable coffee producer (GCP, 2021) with more than 360,000 tons annually, which is almost double Brazil’s and triple Colombia’s production of certified coffee.
Despite the implementation of these schemes, certified coffee remains a fraction of overall production (around 1.75 million tons in 2020), and environmental, social and economic challenges persist in the Central Highlands. Among other things, most coffee growers cannot afford the costs of obtaining certification. The premiums offered for certified coffee do not compensate for the production costs associated with meeting the standards. In fact, the labour’s wage is usually not integrated into the certification schemes.
And finally, there are difficulties in implementing the traceability systems, which track coffee beans from the plantation to the final consumer. These systems are highly time consuming to set up. But they are also characterised by low monitoring and evaluation level of social and environmental issues, such as child labour, local communities’ inclusion and compliance with regulations on the use of pesticides and other chemicals.
Acting on sustainability at the right scale: the jurisdiction
Although certification initiatives have helped increase sustainable coffee production and allowed consumers to recognise sustainable products, they cannot address the deforestation that occurs at the margins or outside of certified concession areas or farms. Measuring sustainability performance at subnational jurisdiction level, rather than at farm or concession level, can help achieve impact at scale while ensuring the participation of smallholders and minorities. With this orientation, stakeholders from different sectors, positions, interests and needs, including local governments, civil society organisations and companies, can dialogue on sustainable coffee production.
With a jurisdictional approach, stakeholders can measure the sustainability in an entire administrative area (province, district or others). By working at the jurisdictional level, it is possible to safeguard forests, carbon and biodiversity across the landscape, not just at farm level. Such an approach also reduces costs for groups of farmers and for small and medium agribusinesses. It further provides a strong incentive for identifying and supporting collective, joint solutions, given that failure to reach or maintain the standard impacts all actors involved. This helps to transform entire landscapes towards sustainability.
At EFI, we are testing this new recipe to promote sustainable coffee in two districts of Vietnam’s Central Highlands. It is composed of few but powerful elements:
- Social inclusion at the jurisdiction level, using a multistakeholder platform with the leadership of the local government institutions, to allow representatives of the coffee supply chain, including local communities and ethnic minorities, that are in the jurisdiction to actively participate in the sustainable production of coffee.
- Environmental enhancement, which occurs when sustainable agriculture practices and land-use planning are in motion along the supply chain. These practices reduce water consumption, protect the forest and soil and increase the quality of the coffee in the jurisdiction.
- Economic benefits for the people in the jurisdiction. With an improved organisation of producers, more transparent and shortened supply chains and existing certifications, the coffee produced in the jurisdiction is more competitive and can comply with the evolving international market requirements, like those in the proposed EU regulation on deforestation-free commodities.
We are developing a system to measure, track and assess the sustainability of coffee production at the jurisdictional level, beyond farms. It includes the participation of all stakeholders along the supply chain, fostering collaboration and transparency, while working to protect the forest, water and soil in the jurisdiction and improve working conditions. At the end of the day, we aim to transition the entire coffee sector towards sustainablity.
That’s the cup of coffee that I want to smell and taste.