Publication Date



Open access

Embargo Period


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


Geography (Arts and Sciences)

Date of Defense


First Committee Member

Douglas O. Fuller

Second Committee Member

Juan Miguel Kanai

Third Committee Member

Gail Hollander


This thesis analyzes relationships between global coffee prices, international development schemes, local trading and credit systems, and landscape dynamics in the Bolaven Plateau region of southern Laos. The region is a complex and rapidly changing resource space serving principally as the productive, socio-ecological base of the Lao coffee commodity chain. Fieldwork conducted there in 2009 entailed in-depth interviews and quasi-survey semi-structured interviews. These latter interviews yielded a database of 503 detailed loan/debt histories for 192 coffee smallholder households between 1987 and 2008. These data reveal a socio-economically exploitative cycle of coffee production, chronic indebtedness, and poverty at the base of the chain. This cycle is shown to have evolved as part of the legacy of the rural credit component of an otherwise highly successful coffee chain development project implemented by the World Bank, and concurrent with the most recent articulation of the global coffee crisis. This cycle serves to maintain a particular set of labor-capital relations which impede the advancement of visions for an alternative, more socio-economically and environmentally equitable Lao coffee commodity chain. Land change detection with Landsat TM, ETM+, and ASTER satellite imagery quantifies the pattern and extent of land-use/land-cover change in the region between 1989 and 2008. These data reveal a sustained conversion of forested to agricultural lands, among other notable landscape changes. These environmental transformations correspond primarily to the workings of the Lao coffee chain, as conditioned by the chain’s socio-economic relations. They also reflect the formation of other, new commodity chains in the resource space. The development of these chains also undermines the pursuit of an alternative Lao coffee network. The geographic configuration of the Bolaven Plateau region therefore constrains the potentialities of the Lao coffee commodity chain, while, reciprocally, the structure of the chain constrains the lands and livelihoods of those bound to it.


Bolaven Plateau; coffee; commodity chains; land-use/land-cover change; Laos; rural credit