Viet Nam celebrates agroforestry but there is more to do

Agriculture in Viet Nam has experienced strong growth and now accounts for 22% of GDP. But the sector also faces challenges, such as climate change, a high input model of farming, and land degradation. Agroforestry is part of the solution.

Farmer Nguyen Thi Hoa in Son La province, Northwest Vietnam

Farmer Nguyen Thi Hoa in Son La province, Northwest Vietnam

In Hanoi on 23 May, Dr Elizabeth Simelton launched Viet Nam’s first ever agroforestry information event by likening agroforestry to a pair of chopsticks.

“What is this thing called agroforestry?” asked the climate-change scientist from the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF).

Then, in English and Vietnamese, she explained: “Well, it is not exactly agriculture and it is not exactly forestry. But you need both of them together to eat!”

The information evening was graced by a vice-minister, representatives from development agencies and senior Vietnamese civil servants and scientists.

Organized by ICRAF and the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD), the evening’s program explored how agroforestry can help to create a “sustainable Viet Nam”. Agriculture in the country has experienced strong growth since land reform 25 years ago. The sector generated $27.5 billion worth of exports in 2013, accounting for 22% of Gross Domestic Product and occupying 60% of the workforce.

But the agricultural sector also faces challenges, particularly from climate change, a high input model of farming and land degradation.

In the mountainous Northwest of the country in the province of Son La, widespread, intensive maize production on the steep slopes has led to dramatic erosion, loss of fertile soil, and the siltation of vital national resources such as the Son La reservoir and hydroelectric dam.

MARD Vice-Minister Dr Le Quoc Doanh called for agroforestry to be part of the solution to these and other problems. “Agroforestry is an especially appropriate way to conserve our water systems and biodiversity and to improve livelihoods and the quality and quantity of our produce”.

The vice-minister reminded the audience that agroforestry is a traditional upland practice and recalled VAC, a farming movement that, like agroforestry, integrates multiple components and uses family land intensively. VAC in Vietnamese stands for “vuon, ao and chuong” (garden/pond/livestock pen). The VAC system is widely credited with having improved the nutrition of rural households in the 1980s.

Dr Dao The Anh, from Viet Nam’s Centre for Agrarian Systems Research and Development, described how the country had grown to exporting 7 million tonnes of rice a year. However, farmers occupied a “weak position in the value chain” and realised a “low profit from paddy production”.

Rice cultivation also contributes 57.5% of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, production has peaked and higher production from existing land under rice is unlikely; as it is, some areas already harvest three times a year.

Other challenges to agriculture include pressure from foreign investors to develop monocultural systems for rubber, maize and cassava; the need to increase the area under maize and other animal feed crops to supply export markets; the high variability of fruit tree production and prices; and labour constraints.

A week earlier, on 17 May, MARD launched the country’s vision for restructuring the agricultural sector. The aim is to reduce poverty and greenhouse gas emissions, generate higher quality and quantities of agricultural produce and increase value addition and sustainability.

Referring to the new vision, Dr Anh said, “What is best for the agricultural sector in Viet Nam are agro-ecological practices, such as agroforestry, conservation agriculture, integrated pest management and VAC home gardens”.

"Intensive maize cultivation on the steep slopes on Son La has been an effective poverty alleviation strategy but led to dramatic erosion. Forest is reduced to a ribbon along mountain tops.

Intensive maize cultivation on the steep slopes on Son La has been an effective poverty alleviation strategy but led to dramatic erosion. Forest is reduced to a ribbon along mountain tops.

ICRAF’s Viet Nam country coordinator, Delia Catacutan, praised the nation for achieving a 1% annual increase in forest cover over the past 20 years and for being a leader in poverty alleviation and food supply. Viet Nam’s Mekong Delta is home to 20 million people but feeds 300 million, she said. She also described farmers in the Northwest as courageous for “having taken the step into the unknown to convert maize into agroforestry systems that included crops such as teak, plums, coffee and guinea grass”. However, Dr Catacutan observed that in all areas in Viet Nam where ICRAF works, “farmers want to use less pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers so that their products are cheaper and healthier”.

Funded by donors such as the International Fund for Agricultural Development, Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation and Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, ICRAF has operated, mostly through national partners, in Viet Nam since 2007.

Representatives from ICRAF’s partner organizations appeared in video segments screened at the event, including Dr Vu Tan Phuong of the the Academy of Forest Sciences and Dr Nguyen Ngoc Thuy, director of the International Education Centre at Nong Lam University, who is partnering with ICRAF to build an agroforestry classification database for the Mekong region. Dr Bao Huy, head of the Agriculture and Forestry faculty at Tay Nguyen University in Dak Lak, called for more natural forest and landscape agroforestry.

These and other partners are working with ICRAF on a range of measures employing locally specific “smart tree” approaches to deal with salt-water intrusion, watershed management, sedimentation and other problems.

Closing the event, Dr Ujjwal Pradhan, Regional coordinator of ICRAF’s Southeast Asia Program, emphasized the need for a collaborative effort.

“We are able to bring in specialists from the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia, as well as from our headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, and our other offices throughout the world.

“We are also a member of the CGIAR, which is a global partnership of agricultural research organizations for a food secure future. Many of our colleagues from the CG often collaborate with us in Viet Nam. This expands our already very deep and broad knowledge-pool and provides targeted international assistance to Viet Nam.

“At ICRAF Southeast Asia we really seek to maximize our research efficiencies in these ways so that benefits can go to the people who need them: smallholding farmers throughout the region”.


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Cathy Watson

Cathy Watson is chief of programme development at the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi. Before joining ICRAF in November 2012, she founded and ran two NGOs in Uganda -- Straight Talk Foundation and Mvule Trust. She was made a senior Ashoka fellow for social entrepreneurship in 2006. She has also been a foreign correspondent, working for The Guardian and the BBC, among others. A graduate in biology and Latin American Studies from Princeton, she has over 30 years of work experience in Africa with a focus on trees, youth, HIV, families, and communication for social change. She holds a graduate certificate in agroforestry from the University of Missouri.

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