As part of our comparative study of community-based enterprise among hill peoples in Vietnam, we’ll visit the K’Ho coffee collective in Dalat on the 2018 ANU Vietnam Field School.
“We are a socially responsible cooperative made up of K’Ho cil families living at the foot of Lang Biang Mountain. The K’Ho people, or ‘Montagnards’, are an ethnic minority native to the forests of the Vietnamese Central Highlands. They are renowned for their skilled hand weaving. The K’ho have also nurtured heirloom Arabica trees, hard to find in Vietnam, since the 1860s. Rolan Co Lieng and Josh Guikema founded K’Ho Coffee to preserve not only the unique K’Ho culture, but the ecology of the Central Highlands through sustainable coffee production.”
Coffee and Upland Peoples in Vietnam – Initial Notes
It seems that Arabica (Bourbon) and Robusta coffee trees were introduced into Vietnam by the French as early as the 1850s. What I’ve learnt to date suggests that the first coffee growers weren’t Vietnamese, but rather upland peoples such as the Rhade (Ede), K’ho and Ma. This is because these are the people who lived at the altitudes at which coffee grows! The French pursued a policy of limiting the upland migration of ethnic Vietnamese people, so it seems coffee was initially a minority affair. Rolan of K’ho Coffee tells me that there is a proud and long time association of her community with coffee cultivation. Indeed it’s a problem for her quality control that much coffee growing goes on in a “traditional” or “habitual” mode. She’s trying to educate farmers in her collective about more scientific cultivation.
Hickey notes in Windows on a War that the French began coffee cultivation in Darlac (Dak Lak) province in the 1920s and 30s. They hired Ede labourers on their estates, who began to cultivate their own trees on the side. By 1970 there were 326 registered highlanders with coffee estates, covering 521 hectares with a median estate size of one hectare. These planters cultivated both Arabica and Robusta, and had their own association. Chinese buyers from Cholon purchased their produce, which made its way onto the market in Saigon. Hickey remarks on the “impressive economic innovation” of highland peoples amidst the chaos of the American War (pp. 268, 269). K’ho Coffee is a contemporary example of this spirit of innovation, where independent business becomes a means for upland people to negotiate some autonomy within the coffee market.