Black pepper: a climate-smart solution for homegardens?

Ripening black pepper. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Le Van Hai

Ripening black pepper. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Elisabeth Simelton

Farmers in Central Viet Nam are learning how black pepper can help their agroforests and homegardens be more resilient to climate change.

Quite rarely do we enter a restaurant that doesn’t have a black-pepper grinder on the table. A pinch of black pepper is added to almost every type of recipe imaginable.

Black pepper (Piper nigrum), native to South and Southeast Asia, is one of the world’s most traded spices. It is presently largely cultivated in India, Brazil, Indonesia, Malaysia, Viet Nam and China. Of the 473,000 tonnes produced in 2013, one-third came from Vietnam, a top exporter for over a decade, growing approximately 97,600 hectares of the plant in 2015.

Preferring hot and humid, tropical climates, black pepper is a climbing perennial plant in the family Piperaceae. The plants start bearing fruit from the third or fourth year, with full production 7–8 years after planting. It is most productive at 8–20 years but can continue bearing fruit for 30 years. Any tree or palm with rough bark, for example, ‘mấc’ (Holarrhena antidysenterica), can be used to support black pepper.

Despite extreme weather, Central Viet Nam has a relatively favourable climate for pepper. Dry conditions are necessary for this climber to flower. In Central Viet Nam, pepper plants usually flower at the start of the rainy season in August and ripen during the dry period in February–March. Yields in the region are among the highest in the world—over 2 tonnes per hectare—according to national agricultural statistics. Furthermore, the price of Vietnamese black pepper increased sevenfold over the last decade, reaching over USD 7000 per tonne in 2014.

Turning black pepper climate-smart

‘Black pepper is common in this region but the production varies a lot from year to year’, said Ngoc Anh Nguyen, chair of Ky Son Commune People’s Committee.

Productivity partly depends on the weather but both consistency and total yield could be improved by selecting better planting material and managing the crop better.

The productivity [of black pepper] here is quite low but the quality is high’, said Tham Van Duong, leader of the climate-smart village, My Loi.

Farmers in My Loi sell at about VND 170,000–180,000 (± USD 9) per kilogram, which is higher than many other regions. By comparison, as of 3 November 2016, the price of pepper in the domestic market reached only VND 129,000 (≈ USD 6), compared with coffee at VND 44,800 (≈ USD 4) and rubber latex, which has plummeted to VND 19,000 (≈ USD 1) per kilogram.

Through a climate-smart agricultural project of the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security, a farmers’ group was established in My Loi for developing homegardens as their priority ‘climate-smart agriculture’ intervention.

As many of My Loi’s farmers had never been trained, especially in disease management, ICRAF The World Agroforestry Centre in Viet Nam organized a training session for 17 farmers in July 2016. The increase in average test scores from 9 before the training to 16 immediately after suggested that knowledge gaps were being filled.

Training in how to establish black pepper on a mấc tree. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Hai Van Le

Training in how to establish black pepper on a mấc tree. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Hai Van Le

‘Last year the leaves fell off the pepper bushes and this reduced the yields’, said Tuong Manh Le, village leader of neighbouring Son Trung 1. ‘Initially, we thought the leaves wilted due to acid rain. But through the training we now know that it was caused a temperature shock during a cold spell in the winter and that the damage could be avoided by irrigating when a cold spell is forecast’.

In October, the farmers were taken to visit others’ homegardens to see for themselves practical examples of pest management, as well as a nursery for growing cuttings.

The government’s National Target Program on New Rural Development (NTP-NRD) has a set of 19 national criteria for new-style rural areas that has been a major driver to modernise Viet Nam’s agriculture since 2009. In Central Viet Nam, the Ha Tinh provincial government has added one more criterion: a ‘sample homegarden’ that generates five times the income from rice on the same area of land and earns a minimum of VND 60 million (≈ USD 3000) annually.

All over the world, homegardens are becoming important places for ensuring households’ food, nutrition and incomes. Black pepper is helping farmers in My Loi reach the government’s targets and their own. Being a climber, black pepper requires little extra space and does not compete with other trees, while also contributing to livelihoods by providing another, lucrative, income source. Black pepper grows well under shade and thrives in soils rich in humus, making it an excellent agroforestry plant.

By Hai Le Van and Elisabeth Simelton

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ICRAF The World Agroforestry Centre is one of the 15 members of the CGIAR. We would like to thank all donors who support research in development through their contributions to the CGIAR Fund.

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