Ambitious coffee thieves in the Central Highlands have wiped out an entire season's income for some farmers.
One victim, Nguyen Van Tho in Cu Mgar District of Dak Lak Province, lost his entire 1.4 hectare coffee crop just before he planned to harvest it.
Ngo said his family had expected to collect around two tons of coffee cherries at the beginning of the season and sell them for around VND80 million (US$3,770) a sum that would have carried them through the next season.
But when he visited his field on October 20, he discovered more than 50 bushes had been picked clean. Some had been stripped of their branches.
Tho said he and his wife had planted the field with borrowed money.
“The remaining cherries are not ripe yet," he said. "I don’t know how many we can keep.”
Le Ba, another coffee farmer in Dak Lak, also discovered, on October 23, that hundreds of his coffee plants had been fleeced.
Ba said he could not keep a regular watch over his 3,500 square meter field because it's more than ten kilometers from his home.
Nguyen Huu Vy, a commune police officer in Cu Mgar, said coffee farmers in the area reported dozens of such thefts in October.
Tran Van Dao, chairman of Ea H’Ding Commune in Cu Mgar District, said the commune's farmers get robbed every year.
“Some families were robbed six times in one month. In some cases thieves hack off whole branches and their victims have to wait years before their fields fully recover,” Dao said.
Pham Thi Lan, 47, in Kon Tum Province, said she had a good crop this year and the coffee prices were high, but she lost everything.
“I can bear them picking my cherries, but when they hack off branches as well it weakens the whole plant. How are they going to blossom next year?”
Vu Dinh Duong in Lam Dong Province, which contains the resort town of Dalat, said thieves took every last cherry from his 3,000 square meter field in a single night.
“When I arrived at the field, I wept. A year's worth of of hard work was just stolen from me,” Duong said.
“Thieves are so brazen now… It’s very discouraging to produce that coffee so they can just steal it every harvest season.”
“Thieves are so brazen now… It’s very discouraging to produce that coffee so thieves can steal it every harvest season.” -- Vu Dinh Duong, a farmer in Lam Dong Province
Truong Van Trung, who owns a coffee field in Gia Lai Province, said every field in the area requires several bull dogs, lights and guards.
Securing a single field can cost VND4-5 million.
“It’s very expensive. And yet the thieves also get more professional. They take the dogs first, and then the coffee.”
Other crops have been poached as well.
Ngoc Linh Ginseng JSC in Kon Tum last July lost more than 500 five-years old ginseng plants.
They estimate the roots, prized for their flavor and medicinal properties, were worth around VND500 million ($23,550).
A representative of a Japanese flower cultivation company in Lam Dong, recently lost a water pump despite the fact that their facilities are equipped with fences, cameras and guards.
“A guard went to check out the crime scene around midnight and found the thieves but didn't dare to act since there were four of them.”
The spokesman said security measures have pushed their costs up a further 10-15 percent, but have failed to keep the thieves away.
“We really wish the authorities could step up security in the area to support us, because the special thing about agriculture is we work on a large area that we cannot monitor ourselves.”
Dr Nguyen Quoc Vong, the Vietnamese Australian executive of the Southern Seed Company in Ho Chi Minh City, said he has heard of farmers in central Vietnam being robbed many times during his seven year career.
“One time I visited dragon fruit fields in Ninh Thuan Province (in south-central Vietnam) and saw people using electricity not only to light their fields but also to trap thieves. That is a very typical practice in Vietnam that does not exist in Japan or Australian.”
Vong said farmers’ efforts to protect themselves may suffice for now, but the government needs to step in to tighten security in the long term.
“This theft is not limited to a single locality; it has spread to all kinds of areas and crops. Vietnam is calling for foreign investment in agriculture, but rampant thievery could hamper investor enthusiasm.”