The Return of Coffee to Laos

Coffee is being raised again in Laos, where it was being nurtured by the French before World War II. Devastation from wars and the resulting contamination ended the use of Laos’ hilly southern region, the Bolaven Plateau, for most farming. But a dream, exceptional natural conditions for coffee, and a return of peace have made Laos a place of “quiet rebirth”. The return of green coffee fields to the “wounded fields” of Laos symbolizes the healing of the nation and its reclamation following the ravages of war. Like its larger neighbor Vietnam, the fields of Laos witnessed more than their share of violence between World War II and the latter part of the twentieth century. There were some Robusta plants in the 70’s through 90’s, but the last twenty years have seen remarkable growth, so that now, one-third of the coffee beans grown are the better Arabica, and the quality is being called world class. This is partly due to the dreams of former residents who returned to the fields to try to complete what the French began. Coffee has become Laos’ most valuable agricultural export, though the small size of the country limits the output to a relatively small amount compared to Vietnam, the second biggest coffee exporter after Brazil. So the growers are concentrating on quality over quantity. "There's a kind of renaissance taking place where people are relearning how to make good quality coffee," said Ben Hyman, of Emerging Markets Consulting, following his assessment of last year’s crops. The plateau provides a high altitude and volcanic rich soil that are perfect for coffee. The only quality that’s uncertain is the rain. Also, some of the farmers need to improve technique, such as learning proper spacing and pruning. If the rains come and the bauxite miners stay away, Laos’ coffee industry will help to satisfy a growing demand for the brew in Asian countries. The coffee of Laos represents a story of reclamation and rejuvenation, showing that even violence-scarred land can be reclaimed into productive earth. Poor farmers are realizing the best years of production, and now that they see what can be achieved with more care in spacing, pruning and cultivating, they should continue to see better years ahead. That is, if they can just get the rain to cooperate - the farmer’s universal perennial concern.

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