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Farmers spawning common carp in rice paddies (Xieng Khouang





(Part II) 1

Provincial Aquaculture
Development Project


Simon Funge-Smith
FAO Aquaculture
Development Advisor

    1 See Part I in FAN No. 22, August 1999



One of the attractions of fish culture, that has been expressed on several occasions, is that fish are not susceptible to the epizootics that occasionally strike livestock in villages. Haemorrhagic septicaemia, swine fever, Newcastle disease and fowl cholera occur frequently in Lao PDR and vaccination is still relatively uncommon due to cost and accessibility to quality vaccines.

During interviews with farmers regarding fish mortality, ulceration and mortality of wild fish (particularly snakeheads and catfish) is commonly mentioned. This is consistent with EUS symptoms. This appears to occur annually during changes between the cool and hot seasons. The responses from farmers surveyed regarding fish mortalities shows approximately 28 percent had directly observed fish mortalities in their ponds (Table 7).

During 1998, mortalities of cultured Indian carps and silver barb in farmers ponds have been reported from Sayaboury and Oudomxay provinces by project staff. The impact of fish disease on aquaculture and fisheries on rural populations is presently unquantified. However, the importance of fish and aquatic products in rural Lao subsistence livelihoods warrants further investigation.


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Rice-fish culture

Rice cultivation is widespread in the form of rainfed, irrigated (wet rice) and hill rice (dry rice). In many parts of the country the terrain is mountainous requiring terracing of rice fields. Rice is mostly cultivated on a one-crop per year basis, but in areas where irrigation has been developed two crops per year are possible. Rice paddy fisheries and the collection of aquatic animals during the rainy season are important activities in the country and form an important part of the national diet. Rice-fish culture is practised in several provinces and a variety of systems are used, according to the agro-climatic characteristics of the area.

Upland rice-fish

Upland rainfed and irrigated rice fields require terracing which limit the size of individual paddy fields. Farmers are reluctant to cut channels or construct refuges in these fields due to the subsequent loss of production area. In some areas, water is supplied to the paddies from small diversion irrigation systems. Where this is present the requirement for deep water and refuges is reduced d ue to the continual replacement of water in the paddy. The upland areas are also cooler than lowlands and so high temperatures in the paddy water are less of a problem.

Where irrigation is present (usually from stream diversion), rice fish culture is more successful, principally due to the increased availability of fish fry. Typically, Cyprinus carpio and Carassius auratus are produced and these spawn naturally in the rice fields and adjoining ponds. Since the farmers can produce their own fish seed, this activity is popular since cash is not required. Few modifications are performed on the ponds other than the raising of walls.

Fish produced in this system can be harvested and transferred to adjoining ponds for on growing. This increases the marketability of the fish and income can be generated from the activity provided the farm is close to the provincial or district market.

Where rice fish culture is practised in rainfed fields, the only modification made is the raising of the walls to increase water depth. In some cases, a small channel will be constructed to facilitate fish capture. Typical growing periods are 90-100 days. Since the size of the fish harvested increases with the size stocked, farmers prefer to stock larger (5 - 10g) fish. Smaller fish are stocked in some cases due to the cheaper price. Stocking densities (Cyprinus carpio, Carassius auratus and Tilapia sp.) are typically low, reflecting the high price of fish fingerlings and the limited amount of money available to the farmers. Since most farmers do not generate cash, the purchase of fish fingerlings is frequently not possible. The fish produced from this system is mostly consumed in the home; this is another limitation to the system since no income is generated. Farmers that are able to sell their produce are more able to reinvest in subsequent crops.

There is little reliable data available concerning production levels from rice-fish culture in Lao PDR, but productions of 31 - 640 kg.ha-1.crop-1 have been reported for upland rice-fish production systems. Median production is estimated at 153 kg.ha-1.crop-1 with average individual farmer production of 43 kg.crop-1.

Information collected from 84 farmer trials in Xieng Khouang (Table 8) during 1991 – 1994 (data recalculated from LAO/89/003) returned overall average yields of 199 kg.ha-1.crop-1 (s.d. = 129 kg.ha-1.crop-1). The variation appears to be due largely to the size of fingerling stocked at the beginning of production and not on stocking density. Low yield paddies were stocked with fish of 2 - 5 cm fingerlings, while the highest producing paddies were stocked with 5 - 10 cm fish. The median area cultivated per farmer was 0.15 ha. This gave an average yield of 43 kg per family (s.d.= 49 kg). Median stocking densities were 0.42 fish.m-2 and median survival overall was 71 percent.

Recent survey data from Xieng Khouang have verified these production figures with an average productivity of 148 + 173 kg.ha-1.crop-1 at average stocking density of 0.5 fingerlings.m2 (LAO/97/007 survey data). Fingerling stocking size was not recorded but lack of availability of large fingerlings suggests that fish of approximately 3 cm were stocked.

Initial farmer trials (4 farmers), as part of LAO/97/007 activities in Oudomxay (1998), returned yields of 100-429 kg.ha-1 with a growing period of 60 – 160 days.

Lowland rice-fish

Lowland areas of Lao PDR are mostly confined to the Mekong River plain. Rice fields are larger here but there are constraints with availability of water for rice-fish culture. Where soils are relatively impermeable, rice-fish culture can be practised in rainfed rice fields.


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There is a limited amount of irrigated rice production in Lao PDR and these areas are ideal for the development of rice-fish systems provided there is no excessive use of chemicals.

The production system does not involve on growing in ponds, due to the lack of water following the rice production season. Since there is little water available during the dry season, the maintenance of broodstock fish is difficult during the dry season, this prevents farmers from producing their own fingerlings. The lowland areas are warmer and growth rates are higher than in the cooler uplands.


Rice fish culture is popular with farmers due to the integrated nature of the system, however there are some constraints. Theft of fish from fields is common since the fields are not close to the house; this is less of a problem in the case of household ponds. Theft has reportedly decreased with the large-scale take-up of rice-fish culture in some villages.

Flooding is a serious problem in some areas. Due to the mountainous nature of Laos, the runoff following rainfall is high and can cause problems in some areas. Fish loss following flooding has deterred some farmers from pursuing rice-fish culture. In other cases, fish are washed out of upper paddies into lower areas resulting in bonus crops for farmers at the lower part of a terraced rice system.

Due to the lack of large livestock culture and limited amounts of feed for livestock, the production of manure is limited. This has limited pond production of fish but may not constrain rice fish culture. Cattle and buffalo in the fields consume rice straw and natural manuring ensues. This removes the labour aspect of manure collection and transport that is required by pond culture.

Pesticides are not widely employed in upland areas and rainfed rice cultivation due to their high cost. However, they are increasingly being used in the lowland irrigated areas and this is a potential risk in the future.

The lack of cash economy and the high cost and limited availability of fish fingerlings (20 - 100 Kip each) during the stocking season currently limits the number of farmers able to perform rice-fish culture. LAO/97/007 is promoting fingerling production by farmers for stocking into rice-fish systems in upland areas.


A two-month gender and socio-economic study in Lao PDR was performed during 1998 as part of LAO/97/007 activities. During the course of the study, both upland and lowland project areas were visited. Groups interviewed as part of the study included: fish farmers groups, women’s groups, extension staff and Agriculture Promotion Bank staff. Ethnicity of rural Lao farmers is an additional issue since the ethnic diversity of the country is so broad.


General awareness of aquaculture is raised by the presence of extension activities within a village; however, farmers often adopt a precautionary approach to starting activities on their own. Many expressed the need to observe successful, reliable aquaculture in their village before risking investment of labour or money.

The majority of men and women fish farmers interviewed conducted aquaculture primarily for household food security, with income generation as an added bonus only where surplus fish were produced. Fish production for food security is considered to require low labour intensity once established.

Income generation from fish production may also incur higher labour demand and appears to be possible only in families with a high degree of food security. Since LAO/97/007 requires farmers to have a fishpond or suitable paddy land to take part in project activities, there is a tendency to select farmers with adequate land. Marginalized groups, such as the landless or those without land suitable for pond construction, are unable, or unlikely, to be included in project activities. It should be noted, however, that landless rural poor in Lao PDR are not as common as in other countries.

Market demand for fish is high throughout Lao PDR, with the highest prices obtained in provincial markets. Where fish are sold, women control the cash income from the selling of fish at the pond site and in the market, although consultation with their husbands on household expenditure is common. Income


distribution within the household is relatively equitable, so income generated from aquaculture is likely to benefit entire households. There are some differences between ethnic groups regarding management of household incomes.

The Agriculture Promotion Bank (APB) is the only source of formal credit for rural farmers, and overall, the group-lending scheme of the APB offers an opportunity for women as collateral requirements have been removed. The APB itself does not yet accept that aquaculture is a sufficiently low risk activity to allow extension of credit to farmers groups. This is partly due to the tendency for farmers to consume their production rather than take it to market. This attitude may change due to high fish prices and increasing rural access to local markets.

Fingerling production shows a good potential as an income generating activity. Few farmers are likely to be able to enter this activity immediately after training. Fingerling production is suitable for farmers that already have ponds and some previous experience of fish culture. Fingerling production in net cages is now established as a successful technology and LAO/97/007 will pursue this with more experienced farmers. Only experienced (e.g. > 3 years) and relatively better-off men and women farmers are likely to be able to engage in mini-hatchery enterprizes.

The important role of fish in rural food security is diminished by concentration on solely economic criteria when assessing feasibility.


Both women and men are involved in aquaculture, although they may have different roles at different stages of the fish production cycle. There are few cultural constraints to women’s participation in most aquaculture activities. The distance of the aquaculture operation from the house was a constraint to many women in engaging in aquaculture activities. Other domestic chores often conflict with the requirement for feeding and management of fishponds.

While men often make the major decisions concerning the production system, the production from ponds also depends on the time and effort allocated by women and children for pond management and for feeding of the fish. Men are usually responsible for routine feeding and harvesting the overall yield; women are often responsible for harvesting fish for household consumption. Children often assist with feeding. Due to the demands from domestic chores and child rearing, younger women (under 40) are less able to become involved in aquaculture activities.

While in theory women have access to aquaculture training and extension, in practice access can often be limited because of gender biases in extension

services. Existing village fish farmer groups are largely composed of men and there is scope for inclusion of more women fish farmers in such groups. In many cases, women could not be involved in training due to household commitments or lack of awareness of the possibility of attending training courses. The establishment of women fish farmer groups and gender sensitive aquaculture promotion should be pursued either through existing extension structures or through organizations such as Lao Women’s Union. Whilst often not involved directly in fish culture, the decision to start the activity was often prompted or supported by women in the household.


LAO/97/007 is working with 12 ethnic groups (distinguished by name). In many cases the response to survey questions did not include details regarding ethnicity, rather the broader categories of Lao Loum, Lao Theung and Lao Soung (lowland, slope and highland dwelling ethnic groups). The ethnicity of the farmers in LAO/97/007 is presented in the Table 9. In many cases the ethnicity of respondents is not returned specifically but using the more general three categories into which all ethnic groups are broadly classified. The northern ethnic groups of Thai and Leu are considered by the Lao government to be Lao Loum (Lowland Lao - although many live in the valleys of mountainous regions) due to the similarity in lifestyles, although ethnically they are quite distinct.

Since aquaculture suits lowland and other areas where there is access to wet rice production, there is a natural tendency for Lao Loum, Leu and the Thai ethnic groups to farm fish. The Thai tribes in particular have long tradition of fish culture. Extension of aquaculture to the Lao Soung and Lao Theung tribes is often constrained by topography and their indigenous farming systems (upland dry rice cultivation). Where these groups have migrated into lowland areas there is great potential for the development of aquaculture and these groups seem to be receptive, providing rice cultivation area is not compromised. In some upland provinces (e.g. Luang Namtha & Phongxali) upland Lao have started fish culture and it is becoming increasingly popular. The priority in these areas is to improve fry supply and extend basic fry production techniques (the principle species cultivated is the common carp).

Ethnicity is an issue with respect to access to extension training in some areas. Geographically remote areas become even more marginalized when there is a language or cultural barrier between farmers and government staff. This is particularly the case with women in these areas who often do not speak the national language (Lao).



The sustainability issues that concern small-scale aquaculture in rural Lao PDR can be broadly divided into the following categories:

1. Input constraints

  • Shortage of fish fingerlings
  • Competition for manure
  • Competition for bran and agricultural by-products from other livestock activities
  • Lime unavailability/high cost in many areas
  • Farmer tendency to minimize economic risk by limiting purchased inputs
  • Integrated fish culture with livestock uncommon due to lack of penned livestock.

2. Infrastructure and institutions

  • Poor roads and lack of access to markets
  • Reliance on hand constructed ponds
  • Lack of machinery for pond construction
  • Livestock and Fisheries extension service poorly developed and under-funded
  • Is government able to continue extension activity once project has finished?
  • Provincial tendency to focus on peri-urban aquaculture (due to accessibility, private entrepreneur involvement, higher input status, access to markets)
  • Low productivity of Government hatcheries
  • Private hatcheries not yet established
  • Agricultural Promotion Bank credit system undeveloped and difficult to access

3. Economic development

  • Market economy is poorly developed outside of towns.
  • Rural economy largely subsistence.
  • Access to long term credit is imited.
  • Fish culture can generate income or food for household. In some instances, farmers use both roles.
  • Production of fish during dry season exploits high price.

4. Environmental factors

   Most fishponds are seasonal due to 6-month dry season.
   Seasonal stocking causes peak demand during a short period – existing hatcheries are unable to supply this demand.

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Ponds are shallow and dry quickly; high temperatures may be a problem. Productivity is constrained.
Availability of flat land for pond construction is limited.
Monsoon season can cause rapid flooding and loss of fish.
Barrage ponds (dammed streams) in mountain areas may be damaged by spate water run-off.
Highland areas are difficult to access.
Population is more dispersed than in other Asian countries.

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Terraced rice paddies that have been converted to fishponds (Xieng Khouang province)