Coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world after crude oil, and Vietnam is the world’s second-largest producer of coffee. Coffee trees were first introduced to Vietnam by the French in 1857. They were planted and maintained by the ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands for generations. Because of the favorable climate and fertile soils, these regions are known as the production hub for coffee in Vietnam. Severe impacts of climate change in recent years, particularly rising temperatures and irregular rain patterns, have caused these regions to become less suitable for growing coffee. Conditions are projected to worsen in the foreseeable future [1
The objective of this case study is to examine sustainable coffee farming as a means of mitigating the increasing impacts of climate change on coffee production. Sustainable coffee allows future generations of farmers to continue producing coffee. Sustainability means environmental, social, and economic sustainability [2
]. The research site for this paper is in Lăng Cú village, in the Gung Ré commune of Di Linh district, Lâm Đồng province of the Central Highlands of Vietnam. The K’Ho ethnic minority are the largest group among the ethnic minorities in the district. The K’Ho farmers in the province have been growing coffee for many generations since the French introduced the coffee trees in this region. Initially, they produced coffee using traditional farming practices without chemicals. However, the government began subsidizing crops and chemical fertilizers to help farmers develop the agricultural sector in the early 1990s. Coffee was established as a means of poverty reduction. Farmers in the region, including the K’Ho community, switched to using large quantities of chemical fertilizers and pesticides for the past thirty years resulting in high productivity. Within a few years, the coffee industry exploded. However, after three decades of high yields, the region has begun facing many issues such as a dependency on chemicals, increased erosion, and decreased productivity.
In recent years, the K’Ho farmers want to revert back to organic farming, recognizing the negative impacts of chemicals. Particularly, the K’Ho Nộp farmers in Lăng Cú village are noticing the devastating long-term effects of agrochemicals, but have had some initial success exploring the potential benefits of traditional farming methods. Agrochemicals produce short-term results including greater coffee yields; but have many long-term negative effects [3
]. The most obvious one is the introduction of artificial and unrecognized components into the soil and ecosystem. The application of inorganic fertilizers (NPK)—nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K) often inhibits the soil’s natural ability to replenish its nutrients, leading to infertile land. Over time, chemical use across the farm makes each individual coffee tree weaker and less stable. This also increases susceptibility to disease compared to organic coffee trees that have not been chemically treated. The negative consequences of fertilizers will probably be worsened by climate change since it is projected to induce higher temperatures and precipitation levels, further impacting coffee tree growth.
Coffee, like many crops, thrives in a relatively small window of ideal conditions. Coffea canphora
or Robusta coffee, the coffee varietal grown in lower elevation regions like that of Di Linh district, requires temperature ranges of 20–30 °C and appropriate timing of rains to support the development of flowers, but little to no rain during blooms to avoid damaging the coffee cherries [4
]. Scientists from the World Coffee Research Organization [5
] have determined a range of climatic conditions that would qualify an area as no longer suitable for coffee production and found the main causal factor to be the average temperature during the hottest month. Currently, 25% of coffee growing areas reach temperatures higher than 30 °C during the hottest months; and, that is projected to increase to 79% by 2050. Additionally, 54% of areas are projected to reach even hotter maximum temperatures up to 32 °C by 2050 [5
]. Therefore, a majority of coffee farms are projected to experience higher averages of maximum temperature levels, which will have major implications for the health of coffee trees in the future.
Accordingly, many farmers and global organizations have been working to promote sustainable coffee production to increase the resilience of farms to changing conditions. This includes increasing the biodiversity of farms through intercropping, decreasing reliance on pesticides and fertilizers, increasing shade trees on farms, and introducing natural fungicides and insecticides to combat common pests. Intercropping, or the planting of several varieties of crops in a given area, improves land efficiency through the increased nutrient distribution and uptake, effective use of water resources, and increased soil stability [6
]. Decreasing reliance on pesticides and fertilizers allows the soil to balance its nutrients naturally and prevents the introduction of foreign chemicals into a given area, while simultaneously decreasing farmers’ input costs for production. Introducing shade trees to coffee farms decreases direct sunlight that can sometimes damage coffee trees; shade trees also decrease the wind distribution of pests such as coffee leaf rust. But, shade trees have also been shown to increase the prevalence of the coffee leaf rust since they provide humid environments with low light and moderate temperatures; promoting spore germination of the rust [7
]. Therefore, careful consideration of the condition of each farm is essential for establishing effective sustainable measures. Lastly, introducing natural fungicides and insecticides to combat pests, such as the white halo fungus, increases the natural biodiversity of farms and promotes healthy relationships and balances of species on the farm. Research has shown that several fungal species are hyper-parasites on coffee rust, including Lecanicillium lecanii
and at least 10 other fungal species [8
The paper is set out as follows: Section 2
provides background on Lâm Đồng province and the history of K’Ho ethnic minorities living in this region. Section 3
describes the research methodology and survey instruments. Section 4
provides the findings of the perceptions of sustainable coffee production of the K’Ho coffee farmers. Section 5
is the conclusion.
4. Data Analysis
In this case study, our statistical approach to analyze the data is similar to a previous study of a farm community in the central highlands of Ethiopia, which employed samples t-test and principal component analysis [19
]. We used a t-test to measure the significance of the difference between the mean scores of the male and female responses to the sustainable coffee indicators. Table 3
shows the results. Overall, male and female coffee farmers have relatively low mean scores across the three measures of sustainability and the t-test reveals that there is no statistically significant difference between the mean scores, with the exception of the “indicator inappropriate use of agrochemicals”. This reveals a high degree of gender equality in the K’Ho community. This is expected given the fact that matriarchal traditions have governed ethnic minority communities in central highlands of Vietnam for over a millennium and is deeply rooted in the K’Ho culture, creating a balance in gender roles in their villages, especially given that the surrounding Vietnamese culture is male dominated. The evidence of the continued matriarchal society in the region is the traditional K’Ho marriage rights, including land rights. Today, a young K’Ho woman continues to decide on her marriage: she chooses her man, marries him, and brings him back to her home. Her home is on her land, since land is passed down through the generations of K’Ho females. The villagers informed us these are two of the K’Ho traditions that have so far endured changes that have been occurring in their villages. These withstanding matriarchal traditions ensure a more gender balance in the K’Ho community.
The K’Ho farmers reported higher mean scores for social sustainability (female: 3.602; male: 3.585) followed by economic sustainability (female: 2.779; male: 2.866) and environmental sustainability (female: 2.181; male: 2.308). The farmers revealed that the social conditions in the village remain generally the same or better, the economic conditions are the same or worse, and the environmental conditions are getting worse compared to five years ago. The findings are consistent and supported by the socio-economic and environmental situations of the K’Ho described in previous section. Since the K’Ho Nộp migrated together and settled in Lăng Cú village years ago, they maintain a strong cohesive social bond under the administrative organizational structure, bòn, headed by an eighty-five-year-old village patriarch, kwang bòn. Customary laws guide family and community action and support the social organization and distribution of power within the community. Economically, the K’Ho Nộp indicated that their household status remains the same or worse than before, despite government efforts to improve their livelihoods. They attributed their lower economic condition mainly to coffee price volatility, rising living costs, and lack of market and product information. Environmentally, they attributed the worsening of the land mainly to climate change, deforestation, coffee pests and diseases, and degradation of water quality and supply.
A principal component analysis (PCA) was performed to reduce the 18 indicators of sustainability into a smaller set of components. We used PCA with Varimax rotation to produce five farmer factors with eigenvalues higher than one [20
]. The Kaiser–Meyer–Olkin (KMO) measure verified the goodness-of-fit of the variables for the analysis with a KMO equal to 0.47. Bartlett’s test for sphericity: approximate Chi-square = 266.27, df = 153, and p
-value = 0.000, indicated that the relations between variables were sufficiently large for PCA. These factors explained about 72% of the variance in farmers’ sustainable coffee indicators. Cronbach’s coefficient alpha was used to check for scale reliability. The alpha value above 0.5 is considered good reliability. Table 4
shows the results of PCA.
The first factor comprises three environmental sustainability indicators, two economic sustainability indicators, and two social sustainability indicators. This factor is related to a farmer’s perceptions of long-term issues relating to coffee production within the K’Ho Nộp community in Lăng Cú village. The PCA indicates that this factor explains most of the variance in farmers’ perceptions of sustainable coffee, which at 29% is higher than the other factors. Factor 1 has a reliability of 0.67. The environmental sustainability indicators are degradation of water quality and supply, inappropriate use of agrochemicals, and evolving coffee pests and diseases. The farmers we interviewed stated that water is a main issue facing the community. The community uses water for agriculture from the Kala hydroelectric dam that flows into the creeks surrounding the community. The local government dug two wells to provide drinking water for the village when they initially settled the area. Over time, the wells could not provide enough water for the growing village, thus many families had to dig their own well. The cost for each well (excluding the electric pump and generator) was around 15 million VND (equivalent to $650) to build, which required a loan from the bank to fund construction. At the flatland level, a shallow well is sufficient to provide clean water, but at a higher elevation on the hills they have to dig more expensive, deeper wells to reach water without aluminum contamination.
The farmers started using chemicals on their rice farms because the government provided them. For the coffee farms, farmers began applying chemicals after seeing other local farmers use them. The farmers claimed that they used chemical fertilizer because the soil is not fertile, but they have also attributed the lower soil quality to a history of chemical use. The quality of the land is worsening. The farmers we spoke with noted that over the years, coffee production in the region has drastically decreased. The farmers initially bought their spray pesticides from the local stores because they saw other farmers using them. They use chemical pesticides to treat borer (Hypothenemus hampei) and Roya fungus (Hemileia vastatrix), the two most common pests affecting coffee production worldwide. They also purchased pesticides from workshops hosted by organic pesticide companies that educate farmers on the negative effects of chemical pesticide use and benefits of organic pesticides. The farmers have occasionally used the white halo fungus (Cephalosporium lecanii) as a natural fungicide to fight off pests and diseases, which they noted sometimes works and sometimes does not. If the coffee trees grow well, they refrain from pesticide use.
The economic sustainability indicators are long term decreasing real coffee prices, rising living costs, and no living income. A long-term decrease in real coffee prices is a significant challenge for this small farm community. The K’Ho farmers in the village said they have a long-standing partnership with their green coffee buyers, who are also their chemical fertilizer suppliers. Those who cannot afford to purchase the fertilizers pay in green coffee beans at the end of the harvest season and receive payment in the amount of the difference between their green bean price and the amount of fertilizers they borrowed. They often get pressured from their buyers to lower the green bean prices and currently sell at 32,000 VND/kg (equivalent to $1.39). In the past, in order to make up for the low prices, many of the green bean bags would have an added layer of dirt on the top and bottom of each bag to increase weight to earn more income. This was especially prevalent when the green bean price dropped during the coffee crisis and the farmers felt they had no choice in order to make ends meet. Rising living costs and no living income also challenged this farm community. In some harvest seasons when the coffee prices dropped significantly, farmers did not earn enough living income and had to take out loans from their coffee buyers/fertilizer suppliers. Many farmers also had to take out loans from their coffee buyers to pay for wedding and funeral expenses.
The social sustainability indicators are food insecurity and malnutrition and poor access to education and healthcare. Food insecurity and malnutrition are pervasive in this farm community. During the rainy season, the farmers are able to grow about 30% of the food they consume on their farms. During the dry season they have to purchase almost all their food, including vegetables, from local markets. Almost every household has chickens that provide eggs and meats throughout the year. They also have other animals on their farms such as cows, goats, and pigs, but these are all mainly kept for their manure fertilizer. Some livestock are used for religious sacrifice rather than for daily consumption. For example, pig and goat meat is prepared at occasional minor festivals, replacing the traditional, more expensive offering of buffalo meat. For major festivals such as the harvest ceremony, the whole community prepares a buffalo in addition to other traditional foods for prayers and offerings. These traditional festivities have become a financial burden to some families. Similar to other K’Ho subgroups, the K’Ho Nộp community in Lăng Cú village still respects their traditions, but some traditional laws have gradually disappeared in their community and festivities are getting smaller.
In terms of access to education and healthcare, the majority of the K’Ho farmers are illiterate. Only about 3 or 4 individuals from the 100 families in the village are able to read and write in the K’Ho language. Most communication is thus by word of mouth, and many farmers agreed that they did not see a big need for written K’Ho language. When it comes to tracking information for their farms, many farmers can read and write some information in Vietnamese. Some children in the village are able to attend college. In order to pay tuition fees, families have to borrow money from the bank or other sources. Several families borrow from the local fertilizer suppliers in order to send their children to school.
Most traditional medical practices have been lost. Some minor illnesses are still treated with traditional knowledge such as eating guava leaves to decrease stomach aches, but the majority of illnesses are treated with modern medicine at the new community medical clinic in the village. In addition to general weakness complained by the farmers such as back pain and broken bones, they attributed their agrochemical health related problems to their work in the field: hypertension, respiratory tract, eye irritation and discomfort, that seems to hit the majority of the farmers around the age of 50 after many years of being exposed through skin contact and inhalation. Specifically, farmers who apply chemicals in their field attributed their growing physical weakness and increase in illnesses to the use of those chemicals. They noted that community members who had been sick the most frequently were the ones who had been working closely with chemicals on the coffee farms, which may increase the risks of developing various kinds of human cancers. After recognizing the increases in illnesses, the farmers decided to limit the amount of chemicals they use on the farms.
The second factor comprises three economic sustainability indicators and one environmental sustainability indicator. These indicators are related to the economic challenges of price volatility, aging coffee trees, and land tenure security, as well as issues with deforestation in this region. This factor explains 14% of the variance in farmers’ perceptions of sustainable coffee. Factor 2 has a reliability of 0.72. The farmers said they enjoyed growing coffee until recently, when both production and green bean prices have been low. Robusta coffee in Di Linh district is taking “too much work to grow for little pay”, noted one farmer. Commercialized Robusta beans in Di Linh district are low in quality, selling at about 20,000–35,000 VND/kg. The coffee buyers are Vietnamese in Di Linh town center, and they come directly to the village to buy coffee beans and collect money from selling fertilizers and pesticides. One farmer commented that only the Vietnamese would go door to door collecting money; the K’Ho in the village would not because everyone knows one another. In terms of aging coffee trees, the farmers said that despite the government support of replanting and replacing old coffee trees, their village has not benefitted from the program. Only a few, very poor households were supported by the local government. Most of the coffee trees are over 25 years old, which the farmers received from the government when they first resettled in the village. The farmers said that even with the initial 100 coffee trees and a couple of bags of fertilizer given to them, they have only recently finished paying off their debt. The older farmers stated that they do not want to replant or to switch to shade-grown coffee because they do not want to incur more debt or to take on new work. Many of the younger farmers are waiting to see the results from the regenerative farms in the village before making their decision.
Deforestation is another issue under factor 2. The destruction of the forests was caused by agricultural expansion in this region in the 1990s when the price of coffee soared and migrants began flooding into this region to grow coffee. One of the farmers in his mid-forties noticed that the Gung Ré commune is the site for frequent logging because of its geographic location surrounded by mountains. He has witnessed loggers (whether legal or illegal) cutting and transporting timbers from the forest protection areas in the mountains passing through the village. He also stated that the local people also collect wood in nearby forests for a number of reasons, including for use as fuel owing to rising coal prices.
The fourth factor comprises one social sustainability indicator—migration and young people leaving coffee farming, and one environmental sustainability indicator—loss of biodiversity. This factor explains 8% of the variance in farmers’ perceptions of sustainable coffee. Factor 4 has a reliability of 0.52. The older farmers reported that they do not see any issue with young people in the village leaving coffee farming. In fact, most children who leave the village to attend university return to the farm and rural life. Generally, K’Ho young adults simply do not enjoy living the city lifestyle. In addition, even with a college degree, they find it difficult to get a job in the city because they lack business connections. In Vietnam, networks and connections are highly valued; therefore, a lack of connection in the cities limits the mobility of the minority groups. We met one woman in her twenties who studied banking in college but could not find a banking job because she did not have the right connections, so she returned to the village. On the other hand, a farmer with a college degree in soil management volunteered to return back to the village despite having a good job in the city because he thought his skills would be more valuable to his community.
The loss of biodiversity because of many years of chemical fertilizer and pesticide use has threatened this farm community. The regenerative farming practices, along with the incorporation of shade trees, not only helps restore the soils, but also promotes higher biodiversity as shade trees provide habitat for diverse species.
The third factor comprises one environmental sustainability indicator and one economic sustainability indicator, including climate change and volatility, and lack of market and product information, respectively. This factor explains 13% of the variance in farmers’ perceptions of sustainable coffee. Cronbach’s alpha based on standardized items indicated that factor 3 is unreliable. The fifth factor comprises two social sustainability indicators—aging farmer communities and gender inequality, and one environmental sustainability indicator—soil erosion and degradation. This factor explains 7% of the variance in farmers’ perceptions of sustainable coffee. Cronbach’s alpha based on standardized items also indicates that factor 5 is unreliable.
This case study revealed the current perceptions of sustainable coffee production by the K’Ho Nộp ethnic minority in Gung Ré commune of Di Linh district. The principal component analysis (PCA) of the study’s tri-part sustainability survey—environmental, economic, and social-sustainability, produced five factors of which factors one, two, and four were reliable.
Factor one was based on the long-term issues farmers perceived with coffee production, including seven indicators, two economic, two social, and three environmental, such as rising living costs, decreased coffee prices, evolving pests and diseases, degradation of water supplies, and food insecurity. Farmers expressed their concern that the economic volatility and changing climate in the region were forcing them to produce in mass quantities. Farmers perceived this trend as a barrier to shifting toward sustainable production methods.
Factor two included four indicators, three economic and one environmental, that were based on the perceptions of economic uncertainty of production levels and land stability for future production. Farmers expressed their concern that the past thirty years of high pesticide and fertilizer use had caused irreversible damage to the land, forcing them to continue adding fertilizers to ensure their aging trees are able to continue producing cherries. Factor four emphasized the challenges that young people in the village currently experienced and their aspirations to find a sustainable solution to improve coffee value and quality, while preserving the ecological balance and biodiversity of their farm community for future generations.
Although women own the land and represent the farms in this matriarchal community, both men and women revealed similar perceptions of their current state of economic, environmental, and social sustainability, as well as noting similar perceived barriers limiting their transition to sustainable production methods. The only indicator significantly different between the male and female farmers was in regard to the inappropriate use of agrochemicals, which was perceived as being worse by women.
To summarize, this case study revealed that the economic instability of coffee farming in the Gung Ré commune of Di Linh district is limiting farmers’ ability to initiate a transition to sustainable coffee production. Fears of the changing climate conditions, increasing pest prevalence, volatility of coffee prices, and decreased farm productivity are all factors contributing to continued farmer use of pesticides and fertilizers. A few young farmers that returned to the village after attending agricultural college are investing in their farm transition to sustainable production methods. We anticipate their production in the next few years to yield higher economic stability and prosperity than their conventional farming neighbors and to act as a model for others to begin the transition. Increased economic support in this region through established coffee partnerships, subsidized farm equipment for improvement, or other means of promoting economic stability will allow farmers to successfully transition to more sustainable farming practices.
For further investigation as a larger part of this project, we are currently conducting a case study on regenerative farming practices in this village. Our initial analysis of soil samples taken from an experimental farm using regenerative practices and two conventional farms indicated that the soil of the regenerative farm, enriched with organic manure, is comparable to, or even superior to the soil samples on the conventional farms, enhanced by chemical fertilizers. In terms of biodiversity, the regenerative farm has a greater abundance of invertebrates and other species than both conventional farms. Economically, the regenerative farm generated higher net returns in the 2018–2019 harvest, despite producing less coffee. These are very encouraging findings that we plan to share with other farmers in the community.