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Improving smallholder livelihoods in the Central Highlands of Vietnam

New research seeks to enhance the sustainability of coffee and black pepper farming systems
Associate Professor Jeffrey Neilson reflects on fieldwork in Vietnam as part of a four-year project to improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers in the Central Highlands region.

The Central Highlands of Vietnam are now the world’s second largest producer of coffee (after Brazil) and the world’s largest producer of black pepper. This is remarkable for a country that only emerged as a global player in these crops during the 1990s, following the liberalisation of the rural economy.

The dramatic growth of these industries has been led by dynamic smallholders, many of whom have migrated to the region from other parts of Vietnam. Per hectare yields are some of the highest in the world.

But rapid expansion has come at an environmental and social cost. Much of the Central Highlands have now been cleared of their native forests; groundwater is being depleted for irrigation; and farmers tend to overuse synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. This has led to polluted waterways, soil acidification and loss of soil fertility, as well as increased incidence of soil-borne pests and diseases.

Long-term supply of coffee and pepper from the region may be affected by these highly intensive farming practices.

In response to these challenges, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) has funded a four-year, multi-partner project (2021-2024) that aims to improve the sustainability of coffee and black pepper farming systems in the Central Highlands region. The project, which I am part of, involves the University of Sydney working alongside the World Agroforestry Centre, Vietnam’s Institute of Policy and Strategy for Agriculture and Rural Development (IPSARD), Tay Nguyen University, and other partners. 

Coffee has been affected by global supply chain disruptions, and prices this year have doubled from pre-pandemic levels in 2019. This trading environment, along with the longer-term risk from climate change, is prompting key buyers to enforce even tighter control over supply chains.

Among a range of initiatives, the project aims to enhance smallholder livelihoods by developing strategies for safer pest and disease management, more efficient use of land and resources, and agri-food chains that equitably benefit farmers and the private sector. It is estimated that one million Vietnamese households grow coffee and pepper, which have contributed significantly to national poverty alleviation efforts.

The world’s major coffee companies, including Nestle, Jacobs Douwe Egberts and Lavazza, and pepper buyers such as McCormick, already consider the Highlands a strategically critical global source region, and have begun implementing sustainability programs to ensure ongoing supply. Coffee has been affected by global supply chain disruptions, and prices this year have doubled from pre-pandemic levels in 2019. This trading environment, along with the longer-term risk from climate change, is prompting key buyers to enforce even tighter control over supply chains.

The Highlands are also the ancestral homelands of several ethnic minorities, such as the Ede, Mnong and Jarai peoples, whose languages and cultural practices set them apart from the majority Kinh Vietnamese. Industry growth has attracted Kinh migrants to these fertile highlands and there is now far less land available for traditional land practices. Poverty rates and social indicators among ethnic minorities remain well below national averages, and intense competition is creating new winners and losers from the development process.

villagers in Dak Lak Province, Vietnam

Villagers being interviewed about their livelihoods in Dak Lak province.

My contribution to the larger ACIAR project seeks to understand how processes of agrarian change are affecting rural livelihood outcomes in the Central Highlands, and how these processes are impacting sustainability and the experience of poverty alleviation by different groups.

I am further examining the rise of ‘landscape approaches to sustainable sourcing’ which are currently under development by leading global firms and NGOs. Lead firms recognise that to achieve broader sustainability targets, they need to work more closely with local governments and community organisations in an attempt to manage competing economic and sustainability concerns. This marks a significant shift away from previous certification schemes (such as Rainforest Alliance) that focused only on those producers directly involved in the supply chain.

Landscape approaches, in contrast, are seeking to verify the sustainability of the entire production landscape. Such approaches remain highly experimental, however, and I am assessing the viability and effectiveness of these approaches in promoting enhanced environmental and social outcomes in Vietnam.

During fieldwork conducted in May 2022, our team carried out research in three of four case study villages in the Dak Lak and Dak Nong provinces, each of which were dominated by Ede, Mnong and Kinh communities. The project focuses on these provinces (along with a third, Gia Lai, which we didn’t visit this trip) as they are major production regions for coffee and pepper, and have also been identified by the Vietnamese government as requiring rural development attention. The specific villages are also enrolled in supply chain sustainability programs of large coffee and pepper companies. 

Photovoice activities in Dak Nong province

The work involved collecting individual life histories and collective village histories, gender mapping exercises, gender-oriented workshops, and focus groups to understand livelihood challenges. Trialling of ‘Photovoice’ research methods was also undertaken, enabling participants to use images to present and discuss issues. These research activities are developing a people-centred understanding of rural development processes that highlight what rural households themselves consider to be their most important opportunities and challenges.

Our research findings will be fed into key decision-making processes within the Vietnamese government, corporate policies and the agendas of development agencies, while contributing to an understanding of agrarian transition in late-industrialising countries. Ultimately, the project’s goal is to improve livelihoods in this diverse region where smallholder farmers are struggling, despite the sought-after commodities they produce.

By better understanding the livelihood strategies of rural households, and how these intersect with processes of agrarian change, the project will result in more effective development programs, including the improved implementation of landscape approaches to sustainability. 

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