Coffee co-ops: a key part of rural agriculture development in Laos

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Laos is one of the few countries in the world able to boast about its high-quality coffee bean. The first coffee beans were brought into Laos by French colonists in 1900. After trial and error, the Bolaven Plateau, a high mountain area in southern Laos, was selected as the best coffee-growing area. Despite the plateau's status as the primary region for cultivating coffee in the country and accounting for 95% of the total output, vestiges of colonialism still plague these plantations. Farmers were forced to sign unfair contracts, and workers, especially women workers, faced issues of labor exploitation, slavery, and abuse. Remote areas in Laos, such as small and medium-sized coffee plantations on the Bolaven Plateau, bear most of the risks of the coffee industry. These farms are unable to obtain information about new technologies, practices, and market trends, making it difficult for them to improve production methods and compete with larger coffee producers in the region. Meanwhile, due to farmers having limited tools and techniques to grow coffee crops, this outdated planting method ultimately leads to deforestation and soil erosion in the region. In addition, the impact of climate change is affecting the coffee industry in Laos. The frequent changes in weather patterns such as drought and floods directly lead to a decrease in yield, a decrease in coffee bean quality, and an increase in pest and disease problems. Lao female coffee practitioners have been bearing the negative impact of these industry issues. Affected by the social and cultural environment, women can only engage in the most basic labor work in the coffee industry and cannot participate in higher-level transactions and sales processes. The long-term imbalance of rights further leads to the low status of women, who are unable to obtain benefits equal to their labor efforts. This thesis studies the challenges and problems faced by small and medium-sized coffee plantations (with agricultural production areas less than 50 hectares) in the Boravin Plateau. This study adopts a mixed approach to study the socio-economic and environmental factors that affect the sustainability and profitability of coffee cultivation in the region, as well as the employment status and risks of women in coffee plantations. Inspired by the 2019-2020 Sawyer Seminar “Interrogating the Plantationocene,” the thesis proposes an alternative model to the coffee farms of Laos - establish a female-oriented coffee planting cooperative to provide resource, market, and technical support for female farmers. The cooperation model also helps to strengthen the bargaining power of small-scale farmers, enabling them to negotiate better prices and establish more flexible and sustainable livelihoods for women. The paper concludes by discussing the potential benefits of establishing cooperatives, the challenges involved, and the practical steps required to successfully implement this method. Overall, this study aims to understand the current situation of coffee farmers in developing countries, as well as the challenges and opportunities faced by female practitioners in the industry, to gain a deeper understanding of how to develop coffee cultivation in a sustainable and sustainable environment, and to strengthen the economic independence and decision-making ability of women in the coffee industry.

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