Catch the climate-change moment

 A spontaneous answer to a farmer’s question has led to farmer-managed revegetation of a denuded hill and more opportunities for diversifying against climate shocks. It was all about seizing the moment


In the autumn of 2012, a World Agroforestry Centre Viet Nam team arrived in My Loi village in central Viet Nam. Together with a group of farmers and the leader of the Farmers’ Union, we went for a transect walk across the paddy fields and stopped by the reservoir. In front of us was a brown, dull hill that recently had been cleared. Deep scars of rill and gully erosion indicated that a great share of the topsoil had gone directly into the shallow reservoir

agroforestry, My Loi, Viet Nam

The denuded hill in My Loi in June 2013. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Elisabeth Simelton

‘What can we do with this hill?’ asked the leader of the Farmers’ Association.

The original purpose of our visit was to assess the farmers’ vulnerability to extreme events and climate change, as part of an adaptation project. Now the team caught the moment and, in response to the leader’s question, we took the group of farmers to the top of the hill.

There, the World Agroforestry Centre’s forestry expert, Mr Bac Viet Dam, explained how trees and crops can be intercropped to reduce soil erosion. He used the famous conical hat that almost all Vietnamese women wear to illustrate contour lines. We discussed the importance of always maintaining some degree of permanent vegetative cover rather than clearing all; especially to avoid damming up of rivers and reservoirs.

We didn’t give much more thought about the ad hoc mini-lecture and subsequent chat until one and a half years later when some members of the team returned and found the hill totally transformed. Not a sign of brown soil could be seen under the green acacia canopies on the hillside facing the reservoir. On the other side, acacia was intercropped with cassava and some other annual crops.

agroforestry, My Loi, Viet Nam

The same hill in My Loi in February 2015. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Elisabeth Simelton

Contrary to many reforestation initiatives in Vietnam, these plantations were funded by a group of farmers themselves without any government sponsoring of seedlings or other inputs. They all chose acacia as they could negotiate the price of seedlings and there was a local buyer, a woodchip factory. Planting acacia and cassava require no tillage or weeding, which helps conserve the soil and reduces labour time. It also enhances the soil carbon content which in turn helps keeping soils moister.

As team leader of the adaptation project, I could see that our mission now was to ensure that when it was time to harvest the acacia, the farmers would practise selective felling and then add some other perennial species. It would be so exciting to see a multi-purpose slope developing. The hill could motivate others to diversify the landscape. And opportunities were presenting themselves.

First of all, My Loi is a ‘climate-smart village’ for the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security, with three of the program’s ‘Flagship’ projects starting there in 2015. In addition, several households in the commune had recently received some 800 hectares of reallocated forest land and the Farmers’ Union leader was interested in what trees other than acacia could be planted on this land.

I was delighted that the farmers wanted to diversify and privileged that they were consulting us. Once again, I felt we must catch this perfect opportunity.

One activity under the upcoming climate-smart activities would therefore be to create an inventory of the Farmers’ Union and extension service’s demonstration sites and what they offered by way of biophysical suitability range and investment requirements for mixed upland farming systems. From this we could help farmers select something that worked for them on their land and so we all could continue to make the most of catching the climate-change moment.


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