Dipika Chawla, our New York-based online communities coordinator, shares stories from her recent trip to meet with coffee farmers in the Central Highlands region of Vietnam.
As my plane descended into Buon Ma Thuot, the capital of Dak Lak province, I peered down at the rectangular plots of coffee plants stretching neat and green across the fertile landscape. Three flights and two days after leaving New York City, I’d finally landed in Vietnam’s “capital of coffee,” known for decades as the heart of Vietnam’s flourishing coffee industry.
Accompanying me was Pham Tuong Vinh, Vietnam country coordinator for the Rainforest Alliance’s sustainable landscapes team. During the car ride from the airport to our hotel, Vinh pointed out the multitude of cafés populating every street. Though the average consumer in the West may not immediately associate Vietnam with coffee, this Southeast Asian nation boasts a vibrant coffee culture and is actually the second largest coffee exporter in the world. It is also the number one exporter of Robusta coffee, a variety that is cheaper to produce, more disease-resistant and stronger in flavor and caffeine content than the Arabica variety favored by most Western coffee drinkers.
Such a huge share of the world’s coffee production means that positive changes made in Vietnam resonate globally—making the Rainforest Alliance’s work here tremendously significant. Over a meal of curried chicken and fried rice with fish sauce, I got the chance to speak with Vinh about the Rainforest Alliance’s efforts to transform Vietnam’s coffee industry. “The national government wants 20 percent of Robusta coffee production to be certified as sustainable by 2016,” she said. “There are already five companies in Vietnam that own Rainforest Alliance CertifiedTM coffee farms, and we expect that number to grow.”
One of the Rainforest Alliance’s most important collaborations in Vietnam is with NESCAFÉ, Nestlé’s line of instant coffee and one of the largest coffee brands in the world. For more than a decade, NESCAFÉ and the Rainforest Alliance have worked together on coffee farms to define advanced farm management practices and improve the livelihoods of farmers. The Rainforest Alliance’s experienced agricultural specialists are working alongside Nestlé’s agronomists, the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) and 4C (Common Code for the Coffee Community) to combine traditional farmer wisdom with modern science to give farmers new tools and techniques so that they can succeed in their quest for sustainability.
In addition to working with coffee growers, the Rainforest Alliance is also promoting sustainable practices on tea farms that cover more than 328,000 acres (133,000 hectares) of land in Vietnam. In 2011, Vinh oversaw the training of 40 smallholders from tea estates in the north as well as the first certification of a Vietnamese tea company, Phu Ben. Our agriculture team aims to have 30,000 metric tons of tea grown on certified farms by 2015.The Rainforest Alliance has also adapted the SAN Standard to encompass the production of spices, including pepper. Vietnam, along with India, Indonesia and Madagascar, has been chosen as a location to implement the first phase of this project. The standard addresses a number of widespread problems in the pepper farming industry, including soil and water conservation, protection of workers, responsible waste management and the prohibition of dangerous pesticides and genetically modified organisms. In March 2012, the Rainforest Alliance completed an adaptation of these guidelines for pepper farming in Vietnam.
While we are making progress, transforming the agricultural sector in Vietnam is not without its challenges. According to Vinh, it has been difficult to change attitudes toward agrochemical use. “Farmers traditionally use a lot of chemicals in their fertilizer and for pest and weed control,” she said. “They even use paraquat, which is known to cause serious neurological damage.”
As most of Vietnam’s coffee is produced on small family farms between two and three acres (one and two hectares) in size, much of the field work is done by family members. Consequently, issues involving worker health hit, quite literally, close to home. As part of the Rainforest Alliance training program, Vinh educates farmers about the dangers of certain chemicals and trains them to use safer techniques, such as applying a combination of less harmful agrochemicals and organic compost as fertilizer, employing Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques instead of resorting to heavy pesticide use, and partially or fully replacing herbicides with hand and machine weeding. (The Sustainable Agriculture Network standards allow for some limited, rigorously controlled agrochemicals and strictly prohibit all chemicals listed on the Dirty Dozen list of the Pesticide Action Network North America as well as those banned by the USDA and the European Food and Drug Administration.) Farmers must keep a log of all purchases and applications of permitted chemicals, and the Rainforest Alliance provides ongoing training and assistance to help farmers continue to reduce their use of agrochemicals.
Vinh recalled a conversation with one particular tea farmer, about a year after she had been trained by the Rainforest Alliance. “She told me that she’s so happy with how clean her farm is now that they are properly dealing with waste,” said Vinh. “She said people have taken notice of how beautiful her farm looks with all of the shade trees and lack of waste. She’s also happy that her family’s health is being protected, as they’ve stopped using SAN-prohibited pesticides and learned how to use personal protective equipment while using chemicals.”
Although the Rainforest Alliance has only been working in Vietnam for a few years, nearly 50,000 acres (20,000 hectares) of its farmland have already been certified. “We are very young in Vietnam,” Pham said, “But I think step by step, we are contributing to changing the landscape of the agricultural sector.”