Agroforests expanding across landscapes in Northwest Viet Nam
After five years, the proven benefits of agroforestry have inspired farmers to expand from plots to entire landscapes.
By Nguyen Anh Thu and Tran Ha My
A project in the harsh environment of Northwest Viet Nam, led by the World Agroforestry Centre, set out in 2011 to find solutions to land degradation and poverty among smallholders. The project started on a small scale with experimental agroforestry systems on individual farmers’ land. But as the benefits of the project began to be realized with tangible impact on income and land degradation, the methods of the project and its agroforests are now being expanded to entire landscapes.
The Northwest region of Viet Nam is plagued with hardship. Deforestation and forest degradation has left the steeply sloping hills vulnerable to serious soil erosion and has wiped out much of the area’s biodiversity. The populations living in these uplands, largely ethnic minority groups, suffer from the highest rates of poverty in the country. While many remain subsistence farmers, dependent on land for their livelihoods, years of monocultural cultivation of maize have exacerbated degradation of their land, leading to further soil and water loss and nutrient depletion. Yields have declined, lowering farmers’ already meagre incomes. Harsh weather worsens these conditions, in some cases causing crop loss in the monocultural systems that have little protection from the elements, leaving farmers with few alternatives.
Recognizing that agroforestry could alleviate these issues and add many benefits to both farmers and the environment, the World Agroforestry Centre (aka ICRAF) began the Agroforestry for Livelihoods of Smallholder Farmers in Northwest Viet Nam (AFLI) project in 2011 in partnership with local governments in the region’s provinces, with support from the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research and the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry. The initial phase of the project established agroforestry experimental plots on land volunteered by smallholders.
Ten different systems were tested, all of which intercropped maize with several species of fruit trees and fodder grasses. Over the course of the last five years, a total of 71 of these ‘volunteer farmers’ have been intensively trained in agroforestry techniques, ranging from establishing nurseries and preparing seedlings through grafting and marcotting techniques to design of agroforestry systems. Even though the trees are still in early stages of development after five years, the experiments are already producing environmental benefits and economic gain for the smallholders.
Following this initial success in Son La Province, the project is now expanding. ICRAF took smallholders from Son La who were not involved in the experiments to visit the AFLI sites. After witnessing the benefits of agroforestry for themselves, over 30 households voluntarily came forward to participate in AFLI’s next phase.
Together with these households and the government’s agricultural advisory centres, ICRAF has established a 50 hectare model landscape in Mai Son, Son La. Approximately 50,000 metres of forage grass have been planted along contour lines on sloping land using a buffalo-led technique taught by experts from ICRAF Philippines. Across the landscape, 22,000 trees of different fruit varieties—including longan, mango, plum, pomelo and lime—are being planted. AFLI is also replicating this landscape model on 50 hectares in Tram Tau, Yen Bai Province.
These successes are based on the initial experimental plots on farmers’ land, which tested systems such as one that mixed late-fruiting longan trees with maize and forage grass. This system proved able to maintain maize yields compared to monocultural practices while also providing additional production of forage grass for use on farm or for sale as livestock feed. One smallholder in the experiment found that with the additional forage grass he was able to increase his livestock from just one buffalo to three in a few years. The longan trees are expected to begin fruiting in their fourth year and bring in considerable income. Very importantly, the experimental system has already reduced soil erosion by 40–45% compared to monocultural maize cultivation.
In addition to such on-farm experiments, group nurseries were established to provide seedlings for the experimental plots and ICRAF researchers trained farmers in techniques such as grafting and marcotting, a plant-propagation technique. The nurseries are now being successfully managed by the farmers themselves. Additional agricultural advisory material was published in several formats, providing information on other management techniques, such as top-working and pruning.
While the positive effects of the AFLI project were clear to farmers neither did they go unnoticed by local authorities. In witnessing the real impact agroforestry has had on both smallholders’ livelihoods and the environment, the People’s Council of Yen Bai incorporated the scientific innovations into development-support policies for sustainable cultivation practices on sloping land in poor areas. Incentives include a subsidy of VND 1 million per hectare for farmers to grow grass strips to prevent soil erosion, which will also increase maize yields and provide feed for livestock, and a subsidy of VND 6 million for every hectare of ‘son tra’ (Docynia indica) trees planted in Tram Tau and Mu Cang Chai districts.
The heavily degraded land and poverty of the region may soon be things of the past thanks to the willingness of smallholders to take the risk of testing new agroforestry systems, the support of the local governments and the foresight of the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research in understanding the benefits of trees on farms that have been proven by the World Agroforestry Centre.
This work is supported by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research and the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry