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Vietnamese coffee and the plight of the montagnards.

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

- George Santayana

"La plus ca change, la plus c'est la meme chose [The more things change, the more they stay the same]."

- French proverb

Everyone knows that Vietnam's phenomenal growth in coffee production has had a major impact on world markets. What is not so well known is that the coffee grown in the Vietnamese Central Highlands carries with it a huge toll in human lives and environmental degradation. It all comes down to land. The indigenous Montagnards, whose ancestors farmed the fertile highlands for centuries; have been reduced to starving on inadequate plots of land and working for slave wages on large coffee farms owned by the government or Vietnamese immigrants.

All too frequently over the centuries, coffee has not been kind to indigenous peoples. When the Dutch began to grow coffee in Java, Ceylon, and elsewhere in the East Indies during the late 17th century, they enslaved the native population, forcing them to tend the coffee trees. Little had changed by the early 1800s, when Dutch civil servant Eduard Douwes Dekker served in Java. He ultimately quit in protest to write the novel Max Havelaar, using the pen-name Multatuli. Dekker wrote:

Strangers came from the West who made themselves lords of his [the native's] land, forcing him to grow coffee for pathetic wages. Famine? In rich, fertile, blessed Java - famine? Yes, reader. Only a few years ago, whole districts died of starvation. Mothers offered their children for sale to obtain food.

In the Caribbean, the indigenous population was quickly killed off or died of diseases introduced by Europeans, so African slaves were transported to work on the coffee and sugar plantations. By 1790, the French were growing half the world's coffee on the island of San Domingo (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic), but a slave revolt the following year destroyed the plantations. In Brazil, the Portuguese imported African slaves to labor on the coffee plantations until 1888, when slavery was finally abolished.

The Mayans and other natives of Central America were never officially enslaved by the Spanish-Americans, but they were dispossessed of their land and forced to work on coffee plantations in Guatemala, Et Salvador, and elsewhere in the late 19th century under repressive military regimes. We are still dealing with the legacy of this underside of coffee with its unfair and unequal treatment of laborers. On the whole, things are much better nowadays, though economic inequities are still built into the system. The Fair Trade Coffee movement - named after Max Havelaar in the Netherlands - arose as a result, although it is an incomplete solution that does not help workers on larger plantations.

Today, history is repeating itself in Vietnam, as the indigenous mountain tribes of the Central Highlands - known collectively as the Montagnards, a name applied to them by the French - have lost their land and their livelihoods, in large measure because of coffee. It is time we learned the lessons of the past and acted to prevent yet another near-genocide from taking place in relation to coffee. As I wrote in Uncommon Grounds, "The fault lies not with the tree or the way it is grown, but with how those who labor to nurture and harvest it are treated."


Just as Europeans lumped together the Navajo, Iroquois, Cherokee and other native Americans and called them "Indians," there are many different Montagnard peoples - the Ede (Rhade), Jarai, Bahnar, Stieng, Koho, and Mnong, among others - each with their own customs and speaking two different language groups. It appears that in the mists of time, they came from Malayo-Polynesia and MonKhmer roots, respectively. Nonetheless, their customs are quite similar in many ways. For centuries, they practiced a form of rotating "swidden" agriculture in their isolated mountain lands, allowing plots to lie fallow for years in order to restore fertility. Many lived communally in thatched-roof long houses in extended families. The Malaya-Polynesian groups were matrilineal societies, where women inherited property. They wore loincloths, hunted with cross-bows, and believed that spirits inhabited streams, trees, and land. Thus they held nature sacred and made animal sacrifices to ensure good .crops and to avoid catastrophe. The y were (and are) essentially a gentle people with a resilient, independent spirit. Though they traded with lowlanders, they kept mostly to themselves.

In 1857 French missionaries planted the first coffee in Vietnam, and as the French colonized Indochina, a few coffee planters established plantations in the Central Highlands or nearby. In 1893, for instance, when Dr. Alexandre Yersin led an expedition into the highlands, he found several French coffee plantations in the area of Tri An, just north of Saigon, in the foothills of the Central Highlands. In 1904, a planter named Felix Polin established a coffee estate in Khe Sanh, on the northern fringes of the Central Highlands, and soon established a reputation for producing the finest coffee in Indochina. (Note: This is the same area where the Deutsche Gesellschafr fur Technische Zusammenarbeit, Kraft Foods Germany, Sara Lee/Douwe Egberts, and the Tan Lam Pepper Company are growing Arabica).

Coffee cultivation was encouraged and expanded during the late 1920s and 1930s. Leopold Sabatier, the French head of the Darlac (now called Dak Lak) province, encouraged Montagnards in a paternalistic manner, attempting to protect them from French business interests and Vietnamese from the lowlands. While the Montagnards were subject to a "corvee" (forced labor) of 10 days per year, otherwise they were treated relatively well. On Jan. 1, 1926, Sabatier presided over a gathering of highland chiefs who swore allegiance to the French, with a traditional buffalo sacrifice. In his speech, Sabarier urged the chiefs never to sell their land and to plant coffee trees, which would make them rich.

Sabatier was replaced four months later, and the Central Highlands was opened to colonists for the first time, which alarmed the Montagnards. By 1930, towns such as Dalat, Ban Me Thuot, and Kontum were thriving, and much rainforest had been replaced by neat rows of coffee, tea, and rubber plants. Darlac province grew 1,000 hectares of coffee, some grown by Montagnards on their own lands. Then the worldwide Depression reduced the price of coffee for over a decade.

With the French colonization, the isolation of the Montagnards dwindled, bringing them into more contact not only with the French, but with the lowland Vietnamese, who had always regarded the highlanders as a backward, inferior ethnic group, frequently referring to them as moi (savages). In 1937 many discontented Montagnards came to believe in the "Python God," whose new religion promised a golden age in which all outsiders, including the French and Vietnamese, would depart. Believers refused to perform corvee.


After 1954, when the French were finally driven out of Vietnam, things got much worse for the Montagnards. In the Republic of Vietnam, they were outraged to be labeled "ethnic minorities in their own mountains, and in 1957 the Land Development Program began resettling large numbers of Vietnamese in the highlands. In the 1 960s the Montagnards found themselves caught between the communist forces of North Vietnam and the Saigon government, increasingly sustained by American troops. Wanting only to be left alone, they found themselves in the midst of some of the fiercest battles of the Vietnam War, subject to a massive bombing and defoliation campaign.

Somehow, coffee cultivation continued in this melee, although with difficulty. When American anthropologist Gerald Hickey visited Khe Sanh in May 1964, French coffee pioneer Felix Polin had just been killed by North Vietnamese communist forces, and his son Philippe sent his wife and children to live on the coast. A few months later, frustrated Montagnards formed FULRO (Front Unifie de Lutte des Races Opprimees, or United Struggle Front for the Oppressed Races), a militant group that took over five U.S. Special Forces camps in the Central Highlands, objecting to the "systematic genocidal policy" of the "expansionist Vietnamese."

Forced to choose, the Montagnards eventually sided with the Americans and South Vietnam, and they proved to be resourceful, courageous soldiers who formed strong bonds with the Green Berets who trained them. Meanwhile, village life continued, with coffee trees growing near many Montagnard homes. By 1970 there were 326 registered Montagnard coffee planters in Dak Lak province, totaling 531 hectares. Some grew several hectares, while others less than one, with the median size being one hectare. These planters had their own coffee association, one of whose officers was a FLJLRO leader. They sold their Robusta and Arabica beans to Chinese middlemen who took the coffee to the market in Saigon.

The war forced the Montagnard tribes to band together with an ethnonationalist identity. In 1971, seeking a common name distinct from the French "Montagnard" label, they first called themselves Ede Ga, which derived from the Ede's version of Adam and Eve, named Y-De and H'-Ga. This was shortened to Dega, a term many Monragnards continue to apply to themselves collectively.


In 1975, U. S. troops pulled out of Vietnam, the North overran the South, and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRVN) represented a reunited country. Despite previous war-time communist promises of Montagnard autonomy, the post-1975 period has been disastrous for the indigenous highlanders. Members of FULRO or those who worked with U. S. Special Forces were sent to "re-education camps" that were essentially concentration camps. Some were buried in underground cages for weeks at a time. In 1986, several hundred FULRO members and their families, who had escaped to Thailand, were relocated to North Carolina as refugees, followed in 1992 by the remains of the demoralized troops. By that time, in the early 1990s, the situation of the Montagnards remaining in the Central Highlands had worsened. The official government policy towards the highlanders was to force them to stop their rotational swidden farming and reduce them to one small plot of land. At the same time, the New Economic Zones Program of the 1980s had encouraged the migration of lowland Vietnamese to state-owned farms and cooperatives in the highlands, intended to solve problems of landlessness, overpopulation, and unemployment in crowded coastal areas. In addition, former North Vietnamese soldiers just moved in and cleared any unoccupied land.

The Vietnamese programs sounded good on paper. In 1992 the "Regreening of the Barren Hills Program" commenced, to reforest denuded areas (blamed on. Montagnard rotational farming), followed by a 1998 "Five Million Hectare Reforestation Program." Much of this "reforestation" involved planting coffee trees, almost all of them Robusta. It is unclear exactly how the phenomenal growth in Vietnamese coffee cultivation was funded, since no one now wishes to take responsibility for it. It appears to have been a combination of money from the Vietnamese agricultural bank, the World Bank, French, German, and Swiss governmental agencies, and programs sponsored by Nestle, Kraft, Sara Lee, and several coffee trading firms. At any rate, the Vietnamese government encouraged coffee cultivation in the Central Highlands, where Vietnamese farmers planted more than a million acres of Robusta coffee trees during the last decade of the 20th century.

As everyone knows, this short-sighted policy contributed to the current world over-production of low-quality coffee and one of the worse and most prolonged bust cycles in coffee history. Vietnam went from a blip on the world coffee trade screen to the second largest coffee producer in the world by 2000, though it has now slipped back to an approximate tie with Colombia. This story is all too familiar to readers of this journal. But few articles about the coffee glut mention the fact that, as a result, the Montagnards have been dispossessed of most of their land.

Since 1999, when world coffee prices began to fall, the plight of all coffee growers has worsened, including the Vietnamese trying to make a living in the Central Highlands. But for the Montagnards, it is worst of all. Reduced to plots of a hectare or less, they were forced to rely on their small coffee crop for cash, since they no longer had enough land for subsistence farming. When the price plummeted, their livelihood disappeared. Many Montagnards were forced to work on state-owned coffee plantations, which account for 20% of the highland production, or on the more numerous farms owned by Vietnamese. At most, they earn $1 per day, but in these times, they often must work for the equivalent of 50 cents per day, sun-up to sun-down.


Caught off guard by the protest, the Vietnamese government sent in ranks and arrested protest leaders, sentencing many to 10 or more years of prison. Others were forced to denounce their religion while drinking goats' blood and alcohol. The Vietnamese government sealed off the Central Highlands from foreign reporters or human rights activists, including representatives of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), and they demanded that the Cambodians return Montagnards who had fled across the border to avoid reprisals. UNHCR representatives objected and helped to arrange for some Montagnards to fly to North Carolina, but others were sent back to face torture and imprisonment in Vietnam. Recently, both Cambodia and Vietnam have increased police presence at the border to prevent Montagnards from escaping.

In February 2001, Montagnard frustration came to a boil with peaceful protests throughout the Central Highlands, demanding a return of their land, freedom to practice their religion, no more coerced sterilizations, and equal opportunity for education and employment. Many of the Montagnards have become evangelical Protestant Christians, a type of "Dega Christianity" that the Vietnamese associate with rebellion and American influence. "In the year 2000," one Montagnard citizen petition submitted in February 2001 asserted, "the conflict over the land between the Viet people and the tribal people became more intense than ever.... Then the government also confiscated a large cemetery of ours so that they can make up a lake in order to provide water to the coffee and rubber plantation areas." By that time, the Montagnard population of the Central Highlands had been reduced from three million before the Vietnam War to less than 750,000, while the population the Vietnamese has almost tripled.

Relying in part on interviews with those in Cambodian camps and in the U.S., Human Rights Watch published a well-documented analysis called Repression of Montagnards in April 2002. It should be required reading for anyone concerned with coffee and human rights. One Montagnard told Human Rights Watch how the local authorities had confiscated and bulldozed his one-hectare plot in May 2001 in order to build a school on it, though he believes it was because he was a religious youth group leader. "The coffee was to support my life. When they plowed it, it was like they killed me. They plowed it all -- 500 coffee plants, one well, and 87 pepper plants."

Meanwhile, the Vietnamese government denies that there is any problem. "Human Rights are practiced in all political, economic, cultural and social life and are better and better guaranteed with the advancement of the country enriched by absorbing cultural quintessence of other nations in its intercourse with the world community," a statement on the Vietnamese Embassy web site asserts. "Those Americans having visited Vietnam saw with their own eyes that every Vietnamese enjoys a life made better and better with every passing day"

Since the Central Highlands are sealed off from most Americans, however, they are unlikely to "see with their own eyes." Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based activist organization that has led the fight to promote Fair Trade coffee, recently sponsored a "Reality Tour" to Vietnam, but that reality most certainly did nor include what is happening to the Montagnards.

One American journalist, Nicholas Stein of Fortune Magazine, did manage to get into the Central Highlands in August 2002 by ragging along with a coffee trader. He witnessed the failure of the supposed reforestation program, instead finding clear-cut, smoldering fields where rainforest used to be. He did not, however, focus on the Montagnards. "I did find that many Montagnards were working on Vietnamese coffee farms or growing it themselves," he says. "Some had done pretty well when prices were high. The major problem was that they lost land when it was kind of parceled out. I'm not sure the coffee crisis made it much worse for them, though; the Montagnards have been persecuted since forever."

An environmental consultant, who insists on anonymity to protect those who smuggled him into the Highlands in 2002, verifies that "the devastation is total. Due to the price drop, the farmers just walked off their lands, leaving the exposed soils to the torrential rain. Erosion, siltation, land slips, flash floods, and water shortage are the obvious results."

Anthropologist Gerald Hickey spent much of his career in the Central Highlands trying to help the Montagnards and has just published an autobiography called Window on a War, "I loved it when the Montagnards would come in with wild orchids to sell from the rainforest," he recalls wistfully. "It's all finished now. I don't want to go back ever."

Through a translator, I spoke to several Montagnards now living in North Carolina. One was Ekei Ede (not his real name, changed along with identifying details to protect his family in Vietnam), 33, who arrived in the United States in June 2002, leaving three sisters, four brothers, and his elderly parents behind. His brother is in jail, and one brother-in-law has escaped to the jungle, "because they are both Christians," Ede says. His family used to own three or four hectares in the village, where they grew coffee, rice, corn, and other crops. Now his family has a tiny plot, where they still grow some coffee. "It is our only cash crop, but the Vietnamese often steal it at night, when it is illegal for Dega people to go out."

Some of their Vietnamese neighbors were "nice people," he said, but others were not. "The majority do not like us. They call us 'moi.' In school, because we wore long loincloths, the Vietnamese children would say we had tails, like monkeys." I asked if he thought "genocide" was too strong a word. "The Vietnamese do not kill people in public, but they destroy us in many ways, quietly, in secret. They keep everyone in a village, not letting them go to farms, work in coffee, or go visit relatives, so finally, they die. Yes, I call it genocide. We die day by day, and no one knows it."

Ekei Ede says that he is glad to be in the U.S., where he is free to worship, as he wants. "I can do everything I want, nobody stops me. But I still think of my family back in Vietnam."

What do he and other Montagnards and their supporters want American coffee roasters and consumers to do? Stop buying and drinking coffee that contains Vietnamese beans, until the SRVN agrees to make substantive changes to help the Montagnards rather than persecuting and marginalizing them. Such a boycott idea has historical precedents. Boycotts or threats of them helped to topple dictator Idi Amin and to bring about a peace accord in El Salvador. But it would be difficult, since no coffee cans specifically say, "Contents: Vietnamese coffee beans," and since all of the mass market coffee companies purchase from Vietnam, making it difficult to single out one company's products.

Other possible solutions involve political action. The U.S. could threaten to rescind Vietnam's favored trade status unless they open the Central Highlands to United Nations human rights inspectors and institute meaningful programs to help the Montagnards. The major coffee companies could exert pressure on VICOFA (Vietnam Coffee and Cocoa Association) as well. There are good, sustainable coffee programs in Vietnam, such as the Tan Lam Pepper Company venture and where there are only a few Monragnards left. But could not Krafr and its partners use their influence there to bring about needed changes in other areas of Vietnam?

Meanwhile Ekei Ede works nights, from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., in a North Carolina paper factory, far from his former mountain home. The coffee is free.

Mark Pendergrast is the author of Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World. He interviewed many people for this article but wishes particularly to thank Kay Reibold, Rong Nay, Mike Benge, Gene Troskey, Robert Schwab, Nicholas Stein, and Gerald Hickey for their help. Background reading. Three books by Gerald Hickey: Sons of the Mountains (1982); Free in the Forest (1982); Window on a War (2003). Human Rights Watch, Repression of Montagnards (2002). Nicholas Stein, "Crisis in a Coffee Cup," Fortune, Dec. 9,2002.
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Author:Pendergrast, Mark
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Geographic Code:9VIET
Date:Jun 20, 2003
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