Which agroforest will improve an H’mong farmer’s life?
Agroforestry trials have been established for a range of trees and crops in the difficult terrain of northwestern Viet Nam, which is home to H’mong, Thai, Muong and Dao people, amongst others. Choosing which system is best is quite a challenge, says Robert Finlayson
You might like to think about how you would deal with some of the issues that face the people of northwestern Viet Nam. To begin with, consider this: about 3.4 million people (4% of Viet Nam’s population) live in the five northwestern provinces in culturally diverse communities made up of 30 ethnic groups with their own languages, limited fluency in the national language and generally low levels of
education. There are several different agro-ecological zones where food and fuel crops can be produced but they take up a mere 13% of the total land area of the provinces’ 4.4 million hectares, with elevations that range 600–3000+ metres above sea level. Much of these zones are mountainous and steeply sloping. Forests occupy more than half the area—but the natural forested area is declining while poor quality forests are expanding—and the major agricultural practice is maize monoculture and, to some extent, shifting cultivation with associated problems of soil-nutrient depletion and erosion. About 90% of the annual rain falls between April and September, bringing flood risks, with accompanying droughts in spring. Regular food shortages occur in some districts. In this environment there are three problems that are mutually reinforcing: environmental degradation, deforestation and poverty.
Owing to population increases in the region—nearly 5% per year in some districts—the amount of usable agricultural land available to individual farmers is declining. To try to make sure that their families have enough food, farmers have been reducing the length of fallow periods to 1–2 years, which isn’t long enough for the soil to recover its fertility. Furthermore, the majority of agriculture takes place on steep slopes, which causes soil erosion and declining crop yields. For example, up to 68 tonnes per hectare per year of soil is lost from land under maize in Yen Son district alone. The shifting-cultivation method is one of the main causes of deforestation in the region, which in turn reduces biodiversity, lowers water supply and quality, and makes it harder to find non-timber forest products—such as wild fruits, bark, tubers, leaves and medicinal plants—which are an important part of local households’ livelihoods. Natural forests have also been lost owing to the expansion of commercial agriculture. In Son La province alone, 65 000 hectares of forests were lost to this purpose between 2002 and 2009. The decline in forests is related to improved infrastructure and the demand for more and more animal feed. Further, tree-based food and fuel systems, such as complex agroforests, are not well developed in the region, partly because of the limited number of nurseries, many of which produce poor quality germplasm and/or a very narrow range of tree species. On top of all this, limited access to markets and the low quality of agricultural products affects the poorest the most, leaving them few options but subsistence agriculture.
What to do?
So, what might be ways of solving at least some of these problems? Both the national and provincial governments have been developing a range of policies to tackle them and several years ago they discussed the problems with the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), which is a long-term partner of the Government of Viet Nam.
ACIAR recognized that agroforestry might be the key to solving a lot of the issues and approached the World Agroforestry Centre to help design a research program in collaboration with local expert partners—Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, Forestry Science Institute of Viet Nam, Northern Mountainous Agriculture and Forestry Science Institute of Viet Nam and Tay Bac University—and the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry’s component on Smallholders’ Production Systems and Markets.
Under the guidance of the World Agroforestry Centre’s scientists in Viet Nam, other parts of Southeast Asia and even Africa, the team developed a plan to improve the performance of current farming systems, particularly maize monoculture in sloping areas, through agroforestry and increase the productivity of associated crop and livestock systems. This would lead to more diverse and sustainable production systems and better income from tree products. To achieve this, different agroforestry systems had to be tested in the many different biophysical and social conditions.
In early 2012, the project (called ‘Agroforestry for smallholders’ livelihoods in Northwestern Viet Nam’) started work by establishing a number of trial plots of different combinations of trees and annual crops on hillsides, based on consultations with farmers, government agricultural extension agencies and buyers and sellers of agricultural and forestry products in the region. The systems included Amomum under shade trees at three elevations; late-fruiting longan trees with maize; shan tea trees with fodder grasses; Docynia indica (son tra) trees with maize and fodder grasses; macadamia and coffee trees with soybeans; Canarium, avocado and coffee trees with soybeans and grasses; and more complex systems that incorporated a larger range of trees, annual crops and fodder grasses.
One year later, in March 2013, all the partners met to review their progress and plan the next steps. Even though most of the planned activities were implemented, everyone involved—farmers, research partners, agricultural extension workers and World Agroforestry Centre scientists—had faced many challenges. For example, farmers had had to understand why their participation in the trials was important and research partners had needed to strictly implement the experimental design and monitor the trials regularly in collaboration with extension workers. Through this process, everyone had realized that monitoring was very important. Some of the trial sites needed more care and attention than the farmers had been giving—young trees and maize needed protection from stray animals; steel soil-erosion measurement pins had been stolen—while the layout of some of the experimental plots and the location of trees needed adjustments.
Implementing this kind of participatory, on-farm research is neither easy nor simple: scientific principles and practices must be rigorously applied to achieve credible results but the approach also needs to be flexible and adaptive to farmers’ situations. There needs to be strong collaboration between farmers, extension workers and researchers. Although there had been many other research projects in the region, and the participatory approach was not entirely new, it seemed that everyone needed to learn how to collaborate more effectively.
Further, the complex nature of the project required the project management team, including ACIAR representatives, to be in constant dialogue, use corrective measures and address issues in a timely manner.
Ultimately, however, all the partners agreed that, overall, the plan was doing what it was intended to do and they could look forward to a year of rigorous monitoring and preparing to communicate the results to other farmers throughout the region.
And so soon we might know which agroforest will, indeed, improve an H’mong farmer’s life.
This work is part of the Smallholder Production Systems and Markets component of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforests