Creating complex agroforestry systems in Northwest Viet Nam

Inevitably, agroforestry is complex but some agroforests can be more complex than others, say Agustin Mercado and Lua Hoang Thi


Both the landscapes and human cultures of Northwest Viet Nam are complex. The landscape is mountainous, with varied rainfall, vegetation cover and environmental problems. The people represent around 30 different ethnic groups with their own languages and ways of doing things. This kind of situation does not lend itself to a ‘one size fits all’ approach when considering how best to use trees to improve farmers’ livelihoods and ecosystem services, which is the aim of the Agroforestry for Smallholders’ Livelihoods in Northwest Viet Nam project funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research and CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry and implemented by the World Agroforestry Centre.

Complex agroforestry system, diagram, Viet Nam, Philippines, Agustin Mercado

Schematic diagram of a complex agroforestry system

Farmers in the region already planted trees on their farms for a range of reasons: as farm boundaries, for construction materials, income generation, controlling erosion and to prevent declines in soil fertility. However, systems that involved a range of trees for different purposes integrated with annual crops and other systems were not common.

We wanted to encourage farmers to adopt complex agroforestry, something that the Government of Viet Nam had recognized was important and wanted to support. We brought to the project examples from the research work of the World Agroforestry Centre in the Philippines and other parts of Southeast Asia, so there were general principles and specific techniques that could be applied.

For example, the five principles behind developing a complex agroforestry system are 1) there should be minimal soil disturbance or zero tillage at all times; 2) continuous ground cover or mulch needs to be applied; 3) a diverse range of species should be included; 4) nutrient cycling should be integrated in the system along with pest management; and 5) there needs to be a judicious integration of trees.

To apply these principles in the unique conditions of Northwest Viet Nam, the important first step was lots of discussion with the farmers themselves, which we did along with our partners at the Forestry Science Institute of Viet Nam, Northern Mountainous Agriculture and Forestry Science Institute of Viet Nam, North-West Forestry Sciences and Production Centre and Tay Bac University.

Topics included more than just the biological suitability of a particular crop but also the associated economic, socio-cultural (for example, opportunities for employment and tourism development and any health problems or benefits) and environmental factors (such as the effect on water quality and quantity , carbon sequestration ability and support for biodiversity and climate-change adaptation) likely impact throughout the watershed and the probability of success (which depended, for example, on how easy the system was to manage and the availability of planting materials).

The result of the discussions was recommended systems for different parts of the Northwest. For example, in Thuan Chau in Son La province, with elevations of

Canarium persimmon coffee system on sloping land, agroforest, Viet Nam

Illustration of a canarium, persimmon and coffee system on sloping land

600–800 m, the recommendation was for a system that consisted of Canarium nigrum timber trees; persimmon and coffee trees; beans; and fodder grasses (Setaria or Mulato).

Once we’d agreed on the systems that everyone thought would be best, we had to test them to make sure that not only would the plants all grow well under the specific conditions in farmers’ fields (most of which were steeply sloping) but also so the farmers could learn how to manage all the elements of the system. That is underway now and we will be able to report on progress next year.

Edited by Robert Finlayson


Read more about agroforestry

Mercado AR, Arcinal G, Duque CE, Palada MC, Reyes M. 2009. Vegetable agroforestry (VAF) System: Understanding vegetable-tree interaction is a key to successful vegetable farming in the uplands of Southeast Asia. Blacksburg, VA, USA: Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resource Management; Los Baños, Philippines: World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) Philippines.

Nguyen Q, Hoang MH, Oborn I, van Noordwijk M. 2012. Multipurpose agroforestry as a climate change resiliency option for farmers: an example of local adaptation in Vietnam. Climatic Change. 

Nguyen TH, Catacutan D. 2012. History of agroforestry research and development in Viet Nam: analysis of research opportunities and gaps. Working paper 153. Hanoi, Viet Nam: World Agroforestry Centre Viet Nam.

Susila AD, Purwoko BS, Roshetko JM, Palada MC, Kartika JG, Dahlia L, Wijaya K, Rahmanulloh A, Mahmud R, Koesoemaningtyas T, Puspitawati H, Prasetyo T, Budidarsono S, Kurniawan I, Reyes M, Suthumchai W, Kunta K, Sombatpanit S, eds. 2012. Vegetable-agroforestry systems in Indonesia.  Bangkok: World Association of Soil and Water Conservation; Nairobi: World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF).

World Agroforestry Centre Viet Nam. 2012. Agroforestry for livelihoods of smallholder farmers in Northwest Viet Nam. Hanoi, Viet Nam: World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) Viet Nam.

Xu JC , Mercado AR, He J, Dawson I, eds. 2013. Agroforestry guides for field practitioners in sloping land management, DPR Korea. Kunming, China: World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) East Asia Node.


Watch a video about rubber agroforestry

World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) Southeast Asia Regional Program. 2008. RAS 1: Improved Rubber Agroforestry System. DVD. Bogor, Indonesia: World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) Southeast Asia Regional Program. (7 minutes) 






This work is part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry’s component on Smallholders’ Production Systems and Markets.


Rob Finlayson

Robert Finlayson is the Southeast Asia program's regional communications specialist. As well as writing stories for the Centre's website, he devises and supervises strategies for projects and the countries in the Southeast Asia region, including scripting and producing videos, supervising editors and translators and also assisting with resource mobilization.

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