Environmental, social and economic sustainability in Lao coffee


Authors: Andrew Bartlett, Khamkone Nanthepha, Thongxay Yindalath and Jane Carter

General - 2024

ISSUE No.: 62


Language: English


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Laos has experienced an emergence of coffee cultivation as Loa farmers, many of them women, have been cultivating coffee in the understorey of natural forests. This form of agroforestry produces high-quality specialty coffee, earning farmers a significant income while preserving biodiversity. Farmers’ adoption of agroforestry, in place of traditional shifting agriculture has been supported by initiatives like the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) project, which establishes agroforestry learning centres and mini-processing centres, in collaboration with companies such as the MX Coffee Company and the Comma Coffee Company. Developments in coffee cultivation have been on the rise in the last three decades in Keoset, a community in Khoun District, where failed development projects were later revived by SDC and improved upon with market-oriented initiatives. The project has assisted in establishing coffee nurseries, providing training, and establishing partnerships with private companies for processing and marketing and as a result, farmers have advanced from selling unprocessed cherries to selling parchment (semi-processed beans), earning them a higher income. Farmers selling green beans are also collecting a premium price from roasting companies and exporters. The ability to generate an income from coffee cultivation is significant, because 90% of the farmers engaged in coffee cultivation are women, who are now able to depend on an independently earned income, granting them a greater voice in household decision-making.

Climate change poses potential risk to the future of coffee production, but the protection offered by forests largely shields coffee crops from storms and changes in temperature. The forests' maintenance of biodiversity also protects the predators of pests and disease, ensuring no chemical methods are needed for pest control, including against the coffee cherry borer (Hypothenemus hampei). A variety of challenges remain for which there are recommended responses. Challenges of institutional and legal context require capacity building within the government; world price fluctuations necessitate that farmers practice a mixed farming system to not rely solely on coffee; geographical limitations promote a focus on specialty-grade coffee; and competition from other cash crops requires awareness of the environmental risks associated with other crops and stricter zoning and regulation over different production systems. It is worth heeding these recommendations, as agroforestry coffee systems enhance livelihoods, empower women, promote environmental sustainability and demonstrate resilience to climate change, making it a potential model for countries facing similar challenges in similar agroecological zones.  

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