Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Vietnam coffee - A better future is percolating for Vietnam's coffee

Ripe coffee cherries ready for picking on a Rainforest Alliance certified farm in Vietnam/Veronique Mistiaen

I recently went to the central highlands region of Vietnam to look at the terrible environmental cost the country is paying for its spectacular coffee growth over the past two decades. Now the country is trying to undo the damages and put itself on a more sustainable path.

Here is my story, published in the Guardian yesterday.

 A better future is percolating for Vietnam's coffee

 The spectacular growth of coffee in Vietnam came at a terrible environmental cost. Now conservation groups are working with food multinationals to ensure quality and sustainable production
MDG : Sustainable coffee in Vietnam
A coffee picker from the ethnic minority EdĂȘ. Photograph: Veronique Mistiaen
The velvety coffee slowly dripping from the filter into my glass is bitter and dark. But once mixed with the sweet, silky condensed milk at the bottom, it turns into a rich chocolaty brew. It is a fitting metaphor for the story of coffee in Vietnam.

French colonists introduced coffee here in 1857. The central highlands region – known as Buon Ma Thuot – proved a perfect area for growing robusta beans. But a century later, the Vietnam war devastated the country and coffee production was severely disrupted.

After the long war, the government, supported by development agencies, launched a vast coffee-growing programme in the region to help put the country on the road to recovery. Its success has been astonishing.

In just two decades, Vietnam went from the scorched earth of Agent Orange to become the second coffee exporter in the world after Brazil, and the number one for robusta – one of the two main coffee species, often used in instant coffee. (Arabica, the other main variety, is grown at a higher altitude and comprises about 75% of world production).

This spectacular comeback has been a huge boon to the economy – coffee is Vietnam's key export, generating an income of more than $1.5bn. In total, the coffee sector represents 3% of national GDP, providing a livelihood for around 2.6 million people – 600,000 of them farmers and many from minority ethnic groups. Only 5% to 7% of the total production is used for domestic consumption; the rest is exported, mostly to the US and Europe.

But the coffee miracle has come at a terrible cost. In the 1990s, when coffee price was high, entire forests were razed to make space for more coffee, grown as a monoculture with heavy use of agrochemicals and over-irrigation. While the acreage under coffee expanded rapidly, the development of training and processing infrastructure could not keep up.

The proliferation of poorly managed coffee farms (coffee in Vietnam is mostly grown on small family-run farms of two to five acres), where beans were cultivated with little regard for the environment, resulted in a glut of low quality beans that drove export prices down, contributing to the global collapse of coffee prices in the 2000s. It has also caused widespread pollution, soil and water degradation, habitat destruction and loss of biodiversity in one of the most biologically diverse countries in south-east Asia.

Coffee pickers with their harvest after a long day of work/Veronique Mistiaen

 Aside from the catastrophic impact on the environment and the quality of its beans, coffee in Vietnam is now facing new challenges, such as adaptation to climate change, a younger generation not wanting to be farmers and a global market changing from oversupply with record low prices to supply shortage with high prices (and as China and India are developing a taste for coffee, the demand is likely to skyrocket).

These issues are so critical that, for the first time, the government, farmers, traders and global food giants see the need to develop sustainable practices. They are working with social and conservation groups such as the Rainforest Alliance, the 4C Association and the Fairtrade Foundation to find ways to make coffee farming more productive, while reducing the cost on the environment.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Measuring women's empowerment

Rina Begum, who participated in one of the SHOUHARDO women's empowerment programs in Bangladesh. Once prohibited from leaving her home without a male escort, Rina blossomed into a member of three school committees and the leader of an EKATA group that, among other things, stopped four child marriages.  EKATA groups are women's self-help groups formed as part of the SHOUHARDO project/ Credit: Akram Ali/CARE)

 I’ve read many inspiring stories about mothers’ achievements around Mother’s Day (celebrated last Sunday in the UK), but one particularly caught my attention. It is a story about the measurable impact of empowering women.

Many NGOs have shown the transformative ripple effects of women’s empowerment, but a recent report by the Institute of Development Studies actually measured it. 

In the poorest villages of Bangladesh, economists and nutrition experts were shocked at the results of a program designed to fight malnutrition and poverty among more than 2 million of the country’s poorest people.

Funded by USAID and implemented by CARE, the $126 million SHOUHARDO ("friendship" in Bangla) project included a wide array of interventions, from child feeding and sustainable agriculture to sanitation and climate change adaptation. But researchers discovered that another force had actually produced the greatest independent impact. The game-changer? Women’s empowerment.

Efforts to combat deeply entrenched disparities between women and men had reduced stunting (a measure of child malnutrition) even more than giving women and their children regular rations of wheat, vegetable oil and yellow split peas. 

These gender-equality efforts included promoting female entrepreneurship and supporting self-help groups where women could address taboo topics like early marriage, dowry and violence against women. Once reluctant to leave their homes, the women of SHOUHARDO started travelling to markets to buy and sell goods. Detailed surveys revealed that their influence over household decisions — from the use of savings to what foods to buy — increased too. At the same time, their children were growing healthier — and taller. This was empowerment you could measure with a yard stick.

This is a poster hanging in the room where Rina's EKATA group meets. It describes key elements of an empowered woman. The phrases, translated roughly from Bangla, include "able to speak anywhere with courage" and "participates in the general election process."/Credit: Akram Ali/CARE

“Women who participated in the empowerment interventions were getting better antenatal care, eating more nutritious food and getting more rest during pregnancy. They and their children also had better diets,” says Lisa Smith, a senior economist at TANGO International, the firm hired to evaluate the project.

The report’s results underscore why CARE and other NGOs believe that “greater gender equality is the key to fighting poverty, hunger and injustice around the world,” says Dr. Helene Gayle, CARE president and CEO.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Join Women on the Bridge - International Women's Day

Only a few days until International Women’s Day on Thursday 8th March…  And how better to celebrate that bright day than by joining thousands of women standing for peace and equality on bridges all over the world?

Last year, I joined hundreds of women (and men and children) over the Millennium Bridge in London and loved it. We were all together, marching, chanting, waving banners, and it was heartwarming and fun. But the best part was knowing that all over the world, women and men were meeting on bridges just like us - some braving danger to do so, like women in Afghanistan and Iraq.  All of us across continents, standing for peace, standing  in solidarity with women survivors of war. 

The Join me on the Bridge campaign, organized by Women for Women International, is now in its third year. It started as a gathering of Rwandan and Congolese women on the bridge connecting their two countries, but soon sparked a huge global movement. Join me on the Bridge is now the biggest women's rights campaign in the world! Last year, over 75,000 people joined together on 464 bridges in 70 countries. 

 "This is a simple action of solidarity, which gives us faith and hope...bridges blur borders, and without borders we are all one," says Vanessa Arelle, who last year managed to gather more than 30 women on the bridge in the notoriously dangerous Ciudad Juarez in North Mexico.

 To find a list of events near you, click here. You can also organize your own Join me on the Bridge event (there is help on the website). 

In London, the march starts at 10:30am on the south side of the Millennium Bridge with face painting and banner making, and will culminate at 12:30pm with speeches, stalls and entertainment at the Royal Festival Hall. For more information, click here. 

Join me there!