Restoring Horizons - Sustaining Highland Agriculture in Vietnam

Article excerpt

The scene in the rural northern Vietnamese province of Bac Kan, on the outskirts of Ba Be National Park, appears to be a classic image of tranquil, eternal Asia. Houses of rough plank and thatch cluster beside roads that skirt the region's narrow, fertile valleys. Wiry farmers and water buffalo muscle plows through the flatland's flooded rice paddies. Beyond the roads, the cultivated bottomland yields to steep hillsides and a patchwork of forest and upland fields. But the peaceful appearance is deceptive.

In recent decades, life in Bac Kan has been buffeted by abrupt social transformations and pressured by the demands of rapid population growth. Unable to grow sufficient food--Bac Kan's lowland rice paddies now provide only two-thirds of residents' basic caloric needs--farmers have increasingly resorted to tilling the surrounding hillsides. Consequently, runaway deforestation, soil erosion, and the loss of biodiversity now threaten to erase any hope that the people of this region will ever succeed in lifting themselves out of endemic poverty.

"A farm family's first priority is their own food security," explains Jean-Christophe Castella, a specialist in agricultural production systems. Castella works with the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), which is engaged in active development projects in the Bac Kan area. "Food security means growing enough rice to feed themselves from one harvest to the next. Farmers try to achieve rice sufficiency from the lowlands--the valley bottom--but if their needs aren't covered, and they have labor available, they'll crop the uplands."

The catch is that upland fields don't last. After a few harvests of maize or upland rice (a dry-field crop like wheat), the soil is typically incapable of supporting anything but the root crop cassava. Farmers must continually clear new fields, meeting short-term needs but causing long-term soil problems.

"Cassava is derided as a soil killer," says Castella. "Nothing can follow it. But cassava grows in infertile soil and is a good risk reducer. You can harvest it to feed your pigs if the maize fails."

Today, many agricultural scientists are focusing their attention on these vulnerable upland ecosystems. Since the 1960s, the Green Revolution has brought unprecedented gains in rice yields. Even as their populations exploded, most Asian countries have attained self- sufficiency in this essential grain. Almost all of the gains achieved so far by IRRI and its partners have come in the irrigated lowlands, however, which produce 75 percent of the world's rice. The concern now is how to alleviate the grinding poverty that persists in the difficult and fragile upland environments, while reversing the tide of environmental destruction that endangers the world's last vestiges of pristine wilderness, such as Ba Be National Park.

Chronic problems

Castella heads the Mountain Agrarian Systems program (or SAM, according to its French acronym). This is a research project in Bac Kan that brings together IRRI, the Vietnam Agricultural Science Institute (VASI), Institut de Recherche pour le Developpement, and Centre de Cooperation Internationale en Recherche Agronomique pour le Developpement (CIRAD). In partnership with other national and international research and development organizations, SAM is assembling a basket of solutions specific to Bac Kan's economic and environmental concerns.

"The shortages occur in May and September, just before the rice harvests," Castella explains. "To fill the gaps, farmers rely on upland rice, maize, and sweet potatoes. Agricultural researchers tend to think that upland rice and lowland rice are completely different systems, but here we see them side by side. What happens in the lowland fields affects what happens in the uplands. When we understand the history of how the farming system developed, we can better see how we can make it sustainable. …