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Ask the Conservationist

February 2012: Coffee, Forests and Poverty—What's the Connection?

You drink coffee, or you know someone who does, pretty much every day. But do you know many people who earn their living growing coffee?

In Vietnam's Central Highlands, coffee plantations are a leading cause of deforestation, but also a leading source of income for local people. One conscientious resident wants to know, how can his people earn a living and reduce their impact on the environment?

Read the answer from one of the Conservancy’s experts on poverty and conservation below, and don’t forget to send us your questions on any conservation subject for one of the Conservancy's 550 staff scientists. (Note: We regret that we can only answer one or two questions each month and that we cannot answer the others offline.)

Mull Vang, of Dalat, Vietnam, writes:

Most of my people depend on agricultural activity—land for growing coffee. But it is a threat to forest preservation in our national park. We solve this by contracting with locals to protect the forest. Are there any other solutions to create jobs for those who really want to get out of poverty and not depend on the land?

Craig Leisher, senior advisor on poverty and conservation for The Nature Conservancy, replies:

Chúc mừng năm mới! I worked on environmental issues in Vietnam from 1997-2003 and loved my time there.

As I recall, Vietnam is the world’s lowest-cost producer of coffee beans, and the Central Highlands where you live is the center for coffee cultivation. Expanding coffee fields are going to be a long-term issue.

One way you can make the best of it environmentally is by creating incentives for farmers to leave native trees in their coffee fields. Shade-grown coffee is easier on the environment. It requires less fertilizer, less pesticide and provides habitat for many local plants and animals. Coffee certification programs, such as the one led by the Rainforest Alliance, provide higher prices to farmers growing more environmentally friendly coffee.

For rural people who want to get out of poverty and keep their forests intact, one proven way is with community-based timber enterprises. Timber is harvested at levels that ensure the ecological integrity of the forest, while the income generated from the timber sales contributes to local poverty reduction.

A recent study by the Conservancy's Conservation and Poverty Reduction project—in partnership with University of Cambridge and IIED—found that community-based timber enterprises were one of the few forestry approaches with evidence of both poverty reduction and biodiversity conservation.

The Center for People and Forests (RECOFTC) in Vietnam is an excellent regional resource to help you establish community-based forestry activities.

Thanks for writing in with your question!


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