Growing Coffee for Sustainable Agriculture: Pangkhon Village in Chiang Rai


Besides providing an income to local farmers, promoting the cultivation of Arabica coffee is one of the solutions to forest degradation in highland areas of northern Thailand. The village of Pangkhon in Chiang Rai province has environmentally and economically transformed as part of an initiative to grow coffee, but there are still climate-related challenges to address.    

Teaser Image Caption
The Akha cultural shows as part of regional tourism in 2019 just before the pandemic. The Akha grows Arabica coffee in Northern Thailand.

In Thailand, coffee planting has been a part of forest conservation in the upper northern region for the past three decades. Arabica coffee requires high-altitude areas with high moisture and low temperature, ideally surrounded by big trees to protect coffee trees from direct sunlight. Although coffee is a plant that can change people's income and economic status in the community, coffee has also led to the expansion of conservation forest areas. Though widely supported as an agricultural practice by government agencies, royal development projects, and NGOs promoting environmental conservation in the Thai highlands, nevertheless, the sustainability of coffee cultivation and some limitations coffee farmers face should be considered.


Arabica coffee grown in the Chiang Rai area of northern Thailand.

Coffee cultivation in Thailand

Thailand is Southeast Asia's fourth-largest coffee-producing country, after Vietnam, Indonesia, and Lao PDR, respectively, according to the International Coffee Organization (ICO), which collects statistics on coffee cultivation and the import and export of coffee worldwide. However, the statistical overview of coffee planting for the 2019/20 season shows that Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand's coffee products have decreased by 34% (see Table 1)[i].

Coffee is an essential economic crop in Thailand. It generates approximately THB 5.5  billion (almost USD $157 million) per year for farmers in Thailand (Coffee Strategy 3). Moreover, the global coffee demand has increased steadily at about 1.65% per year. Therefore, Arabica coffee is a crop variety that government and private agencies promote to ethnic communities in the forested highlands, especially in the protected forests.[ii]

Chiang Rai province has the largest coffee-growing area in Thailand, with a total coffee plantation of 53,957 rai (8,633.12 hectares), divided into 53,655 rai (8,584.8 hectares) of Arabica coffee plantation and 302 rai (48.32 hectares) of Robusta coffee planting areas (see Table 2). Almost 99.5% of the coffee plantation areas in Chiang Rai are Arabica coffee production sites.[iii]

Image removed.Coffee production at Pangkhon village, Chiang Rai

Established under the royal initiative of Thailands Queen Sirikit (currently the Queen Mother) in 2002,  the Pangkhon Royal Initiative for Highland Area Development Centers mission is to promote the cultivation of vegetables, fruits, and Arabica coffee to solve the issue of forest degradation. Pangkhon village is located in the watershed forest of the Kok River, and the initiative promotes coffee cultivation by Akha and Mien ethnic farmers in this area of Mueang Chiang Rai district. This approach adopted by the Thai government allows the farmers to continue living in forest areas while also tackling forest degradation.


Pangkhon village in Chiang Rai, Thailand.


The Center found that income of farm households in Pangkhon village increased from about THB 5,000 (approx. USD $160.17) per year at the year of the establishment of the center in 2002 to THB 280,000 (approx. USD $ 8,969.47) per year in 2020 (see Table 3). Coffee has become a commercial crop that transforms the cash income of the community significantly.

In addition, coffee is the plant for conserving forest areas. In fact, in Pangkhon village, the data showed that the mission of the Center, especially the coffee production, has actually increased the forest area. The total area of the Pangkhon Royal Initiative for Highland Area Development Center is 17,240 rai (2,758.4 hectares). In 2002, when the center was established, the forest area was 10,500 rai (1,680 hectares). However, after the promotion of coffee production, the forest area increased to 14,500 rai (2,320 hectares) in 2012.

More interestingly, the forest area has increased to 17,144 rai (2,743.04 hectares) in 2020 (see Table 4). Therefore, during eighteen years of promoting coffee planting to conserve forest areas of the center, the forest area has increased by 6,644 rai (1,063.04 hectares).[iv]

According to interviews with Akha coffee farmers in Pangkhon[a], there are changes in the livelihoods of local farmers and the conservation consciousness of farmers by coffee production. Mr Kwan, a significant coffee business owner in the community, noted how local residents changed their practices and ways of thinking:

The [Royal Development]Center has encouraged the community to conserve the forest. So, nowadays, the villagers exert efforts to protect large trees in their coffee gardens and the surrounding forest.Coffee farmers have planted large trees in their coffee plots.They will not cut down the trees.Pangkhon village and its forest areas look green when compared with other villages in this sub-district.It has the most fertile forest in the area.Prior to the setting up of the Center, this area used to be occupied by rice fields, maize production plots, and shifting fruit gardens.After the forestry officers came to set up the Center, the area was transformed into coffee gardens.

Lowland people usually think that we, the hill tribe, destroy the forest areas or cut down trees. Today, it is we, the hill tribe brothers, who refrain from destroying the forest. We produce our coffee in the forest.”[v]  

Mr. Sorn, the headman of the village, discussed the change in the use of natural resources after coffee planting as follows:

Currently, people in the village do not cut trees even for firewood. We collect only unwanted coffee branches or fruit branches for firewood after we prune our gardens. Hunting wild animals is also prohibited. We buy pork, rice, and eggs from the grocery stores and grocery trucks to sell food products in the village. As for vegetables, we harvest those that we planted in our coffee gardens, such as chayote, lettuces, and scallions.”[vi]


Image removed.

Coffee plantation by agroforestry

The impact of climate change on coffee production

Arabica coffee is a crop that is very sensitive to the climate, and current climate change is leading to a decrease in volume. Thailand's coffee yields declined from 156 kg per rai (6.25) in the 2010/11 harvest season to 144 kg per rai (6.25) in 2014/15 (a 2.10% decrease) due to climate conditions, especially drought and high temperature during the flowering period of coffee.

According to this statistic, Thailand's coffee products decreased by about 3.5%, from 31,020 tons to 30,000 tons in the 2019/20 season (see Table 1). The problem of climate change leads to the loss of coffee production in Thailand, leading to infestations of plant diseases and pests such as coffee rust, anthracnose, root rot, and coffee berry borer beetles. Therefore coffee production fluctuates according to the climate.[vii]


Image removed.

Forest fires in the dry season.

In addition, the problem of coffee production due to climate change in Thailand did not lead to higher coffee prices for the farmers due to the free import of coffee products under free trade agreements in the region. Since 1 January 2010, the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) agreement led to the opening of free markets by reducing the import tariffs on coffee beans to 5% and exemption to 0% for instant coffee.[viii]

This has resulted in Thailand's coffee production being unable to compete with other coffee-producing countries in Southeast Asia, which have lower production costs. But from these limitations, the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives of Thailand initiated the coffee strategy in 2009 to develop value chains and production processing, to improve competitiveness.

The COVID-19 pandemic and challenges to coffee farmers

Since 2019 with the start of the global COVID-19 outbreak, coffee production and coffee markets globally and within Thailand have faced significant challenges. Although most of the coffee production can be sold, demand within the domestic consumer market has decreased.

For example, in the case of Pangkhon village, since 2018 farmers have organized the Pangkhon Coffee Festival to support community-based tourism in the coffee-growing community for tourists and visitors to taste the coffee of the community. Due to COVID-19, the event has been canceled for three consecutive years from 20202202, and the pandemic has been a great challenge to local farmers who grow coffee, especially ethnic farmers dependent on coffee as a commercial crop that generates the primary income for their households.


Pangkhon Village in Northern Thailand.

Image removed.

In the past three decades, coffee has been promoted in highlands and ethnic groups to address poverty reduction and reforestation by government agencies, the royal development project, and NGOs. For example, at Pangkhon village, the area has been promoting coffee plantations through royal initiatives since 2002. As a result, household incomes have significantly increased. Moreover, the local people also internalized conservation consciousness through coffee cultivation. Therefore the forest areas have been increased by coffee cultivation.  

However, coffee is a crop that sensitive to climate change. The Pangkhon village is an actual case showing the impact of climate change on coffee production. Droughts were the cause of wildfires, and sudden temperature changes resulted in the reduction of coffee products. Moreover, the epidemic of COVID-19 also has reduced the number of tourists and demand in the coffee market. Consequently, coffee farmers in Thailand face the uncertainty of coffee production in the context of climate change and insecurity in the livelihood under the pandemic. In addition, free trade agreements in the region also force Thailand to try hard to compete for coffee prices with neighboring coffee producer countries.

Therefore, local coffee farmers in Thailand are trying very hard to produce high-quality specialty coffee. Despite lower productivity but the price of coffee is higher than the regular coffee. Moreover, they try to attach their ethnic identity to their coffee products to present the uniqueness of their product in the coffee market. Therefore, coffee is not just a commercial crop that improves farmers' lives. We would see the adaptation efforts of ethnic farmers to overcome difficulties and limitations in everyday life under the cultivation of coffee.


Dr. Sawang Meesaeng is a lecturer in the International Development Program, School of Social Innovation at Mae Fah Luang University, Thailand.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of Heinrich Böll Stiftung


Additional data

Table 1: Coffee production in Southeast Asia (20172020)

Coffee Product by Country (tons) / Year





% change 201920

1. Vietnam






2. Indonesia






3. Lao PDR






4. Thailand






International Coffee Organization (Data as at May 2021)


Table 2: The three main Arabica coffee cultivation areas in Thailand by province (20182021)


Arabica Coffee Cultivation field

(Rai = 1,600 m2)





1. Chiang Rai





2. Chiang Mai





3. Mae Hong Son





Summary data adapted from the Agricultural Information Center, Office of Agricultural Economics of Thailand, 2022



Table 3: Average income of households in Pangkhon village per year


The Average income of Household per Year


5,000 baht

(US$ 160.17)


167,046 baht

(US$ 5,351.12)


280,000 baht

(US$  8,969.47)

Office of the Royal Development Projects Board, Thailand (2012, and 2020)[ix]

Table 4: Increasing forest areas


Total Area of 

Royal Development Center

Forest Area

Increasing Forest Area from 20022020


17,240 rai

(2,758.4 hectares)

10,500 rai

(1,680 hectares)



17,240 rai

(2,758.4 hectares)

14,500 rai

(2,320 hectares)

+4,000 rai

(640 hectares)


17,240 rai

(2,758.4 hectares)

17,144 rai

(2,743.04 hectares)

+6,644 rai

(1,063.04 hectares)

Office of the Royal Development Projects Board, Thailand (2012 and 2020)


[i] International Coffee Organization. (2021). Coffee production by exporting countries. Retrieved 8 June 2022 from

ii] Horticulture Research Institute. (2018). Coffee Strategy 2017-2021. [ยุทธศาสตร์กาแฟ ปี 2560-2564]. Retrieved 8 June 2022 fromยุทธศาสตร์กาแฟ-ปี-2560-2564.pdf

iii] Agricultural Information Center, Office of Agricultural Economics, Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives, Thailand. (2022). The Statistic of Thailands Main Agricultural Products. [ข้อมูลการผลิตสินค้าเกษตร ตารางแสดงรายละเอียดกาแฟ].  Retrieved 8 June 2022 fromตารางแสดงรายละเอียดกาแฟ/TH-TH

[iv] Daily News Newspapers Website. (2015). The Pangkhon Royal Initiative for Highland Area Development Center, Chiang Rai Province. [สถานีพัฒนาการเกษตรที่สูง เชียงราย]. Retrieved 27 June 2020 from

[v] Sawang Meesaeng. Environmentality and Cultural Identity Modification of the Akha in the Northern Thailand: Focusing on the Arabica Coffee Business and Sustainable Development. [Doctoral dissertation, Division of Educational Development and Cultural and Regional Studies, Graduate School for International Development and Cooperation, Hiroshima University, 2022].

[vi] Sawang Meesaeng. (2020). Ibid

[vii] Horticulture Research Institute. (2018). Ibid 

[viii] Department of Foreign Trade, Ministry of Commerce of Thailand. (2022). Annex 2 - Tariffs under the ASEAN Trade in Goods Agreement (ATIGA) in AHTN 2017 Thailand. [ตารางรายการสินค้าทีได้รับสิทธิภายใต้ ATIGA, ประเทศไทย] Retrieved 8 June 2022 from   

[ix] Office of the Royal Development Projects Board. (2020). Thai Post Newspapers. Pangkhon Village, Mueang District, Chiang Rai Province: Happy Livelihood When People and the Forest can coexist. September 30, 2020 [หนังสือพิมพ์ไทยโพสต์ ฉบับวันที่ 30 กันยายน 2563, บ้านปางขอน อำเภอเมือง จังหวัดเชียงราย วันนี้ราษฎรอยู่ดีมีสุข ภายใต้ความเกื้อกูลคนกับป่าอยู่ร่วมกันได้] Retrieved 10 June 2022 fromบ้านปางขอน-อำเภอเมือง-จังหวัดเชียงราย-วันนี้ราษฎรอยู่ดีมีสุข-ภายใต้ความเกื้อกูลคนกับป่าอยู่ร่วมกันได-v10456