Traditional Use of Aquatic Biodiversity
in Rice-based Ecosystems

Matthias Halwart
Fishery Resources Division
FAO Fisheries Department, Rome


Aquatic resources derived from rice fields and associated environments often contribute a large share of the animal protein intake of poor households, particularly in Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, although this dietary contribution is self-evident for those working in the field, the role of aquatic resources in the food security of rural households is poorly documented because of the complexity of seasonally and spatially variable resources, environments and stakeholder activities.

Rice-based ecosystems often represent a dynamic and closely linked complex of rice fields, ponds, irrigation canals, and rivers (Viet Nam)

This information is, however, needed by policy makers when formulating more pro-poor policies or making resource allocation decisions. Thus, awareness of the role of aquatic resources in food security and poverty alleviation of the rural poor will be required. Organizations in the field of sustainable development need to work further to integrate and mainstream agricultural biodiversity in their policies, programmes and activities in order to develop action plans for the conservation and sustainable utilization of agricultural biodiversity, especially at agro-ecosystem levels.

Given this scenario, and the timely financial support to regular programme resources received by the Government of the Netherlands through the FAO Inter-Departmental Working Group on Biodiversity, the Inland Water Resources and Aquaculture Service of the FAO Fisheries Department initiated a regional activity on the availability and use of aquatic organisms in rice-based farming in Cambodia, China, Laos and Viet Nam.
This article highlights the initial results from activities in Cambodia and China.

Making biodiversity visible

The objectives of two studies in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan Province, China, and Kampong Thom Province, Cambodia, were to collect and document information on the living aquatic resources availability and use pattern of rice farmers. Specific attention was paid to applying participatory methods and techniques to learn about the traditional knowledge of farmers in a particular area.

Rice based ecosystems are often modified to enhance the production from a rich and diverse biodiversity (Viet Nam)

In both studies, aquatic species were collected by the farmers themselves using their own tools and techniques. Farmers identified the species in local language and the names were recorded. Smaller species were preserved and larger species were photographed for reference purposes. Information on all species was listed in databases, including their local and scientific names, information on sampling, special observations for collection and/or use, and, as far as possible, information on consumption.

A first analysis of the findings shows that, despite the geographically localized nature of the study areas, the rice field ecosystems have a rich aquatic biodiversity that is extensively used by the local people. The most important group, in terms of species diversity and importance for the local people, are the fishes. A total of 70 and 60 different fish species were found in the Cambodia and the China study, respectively (Table 1). Most species are consumed fresh or are fermented into fish paste. A few species are fermented, either as fillet or in smaller pieces, or dried, salted, smoked, or used for preparing fish sauce.

Table 1. Aquatic species (number) collected and used by rural households from rice-based ecosystems during September to December 2001 at study sites in Kampong Thom, Cambodia, and Yunnan, China.






















Aquatic Plants




Fresh or processed fish are usually part of every meal and are the primary source of protein and essential fatty acids that are of key importance in brain development, particularly for sight. As far as home consumption and marketing of fish are concerned, it is estimated in the Cambodian case study that an average family of five persons consumes about one kilogram of fresh fish every day during the fishing season. The same family needs about 20 kg of fermented fish paste for the dry season. Everything caught above this amount can be sold in the market. Depending on the fishing tool employed, a farmer can catch 15 to 20 kg of fish on a good day, although the average catch during the fishing season is below 10 kg per day. The Chinese study also stressed the importance of fish and other aquatic organisms obtained from rice-based systems as part of the daily diet, in particular for the rice farming Dai minority in Xishuangbanna. Although the amount of aquatic organisms consumed has probably remained constant, it was estimated that nowadays one-fifth to one-third of this consumption is derived from capture in rice-based farming, while only a decade ago rice-based capture supplied half of the fish needed in the diet.
Various techniques and tools are employed to capture fish and other aquatic organisms in rice-based ecosystems (China) Fish and other aquatic organisms from rice-based ecosystems often form part of the daily main meal (China)

In addition to fish, many species of crustaceans, molluscs, amphibians, insects, reptiles, and aquatic plants were recorded in these studies. All of these are either used directly or processed for human consumption, or used as animal feeds, bait, or for medicinal purposes.


The availability of aquatic resources is declining. Farmers in Xishuangbanna claimed that fish are becoming less and less abundant, and that the amount of aquatic organisms collected in one day nowadays is equivalent to what was collected a decade ago in one hour. Similarly, the Cambodian study points out that fish catches have greatly reduced over the past two decades. The villagers estimate that already in three years there will be not enough fish to make a living for them.

Human population increase and the consequent increased fishing pressure on aquatic resources is certainly an important factor for the decline of living aquatic resources, but a number of management reasons are claimed to be chiefly responsible: pesticide use, destruction of fish breeding grounds, and illegal fishing tools such as electro-fishing or chemical poisoning do not allow fish populations to maintain themselves. Development efforts urgently need to address these threats.

It is particularly the rural poor who are often highly dependent on the aquatic biodiversity in rice fields. They may not have access to money but in many areas they still have access to the biodiversity that supports them. A particular threat to them is the restriction of access to these fishery resources, for example when fishing grounds are sold or auctioned as fishing lots. These poor people will be hit hardest since they have no land to cultivate and completely depend on the capture of wild resources.

Impacts of study findings

At local level, the study results allow an increased understanding and appreciation by all those who are directly or indirectly involved in the studies for the rich diversity and value of aquatic resources, the local practices related to their culture and capture, and the need to work closely with farmers to develop appropriate interventions for aquaculture production. Capacity building among participating national collaborators in various informal, participatory methods of data collection is an outcome of these studies whose value should not be underestimated.

To work against the trend of declining fishery resources, the results of the Cambodian study are being used at the village and commune level as a tool for fish inventories that will later become part of developing community-managed fisheries plans. At the national level, the results have been distributed on a CD to raise awareness among those making decisions.

Traditionnaly most of the fish for household consumption is caught and collected from rice fields (Cambodia)

Looking forward

The studies now require further analysis and follow-up, since they only cover limited areas and time spans. They should be expanded to other countries in the region. Furthermore, the findings are expected to serve as important background information for similar activities in other regions, such as West Africa and Latin America.

The initial goals of these studies, i.e., to document the availability and use of aquatic organisms in rice-based farming and to raise awareness of all stakeholders about the aquatic biodiversity in rice, have partially been achieved through the participatory process that was followed. However, further activities are planned in the form of documentation, presentation and workshops to make a larger audience aware of the results.

Studies in this integrated area of rice farming and fisheries require cooperation and exchange between the different disciplines. Close collaboration within FAO is expected to continue in the future, particularly with the Agricultural Divisions dealing with plant production and protection and with land and water use as well as the Food and Nutrition Division of the Economic and Social Department. The International Year of Rice 2004 will certainly stimulate further thoughts and discussion.

The findings of these studies will be important for forthcoming meetings such as the FAO-WARDA Workshop on Integrated Irrigation and Aquaculture to be held in Bamako, Mali, in October 2003, and for collaborative programmes with external partners, in particular for the joint project among FAO, the Department for International Development of the United Kingdom (DFID), Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO), and the Network of Aquaculture Centres in Asia-Pacific (NACA) entitled "Support to Regional Aquatic Resource Management" (STREAM).


The financial support of the FAO-Netherlands Partnership Programme "Awareness of Agricultural Biodiversity" as well as the valuable contributions and assistance of FIRI colleagues Devin Bartley, the co-editor of the publication series, and Consultant Isabel Fleischer, who focuses on aquatic biodiversity aspects particularly in relation to the International Year of Rice, are gratefully acknowledged. Peter and Tonette Balzer have done impressive and innovative work in Cambodia which has inspired and guided many others. Special thanks to Eric Meusch, Aidong Luo and Xaypladeth Choulamany who moderated sections of the regional workshop and continue to raise awareness on aquatic biodiversity in their daily work, and to Hans Guttmann, Josef Margraf, and Simon Funge-Smith who kindly agreed to serve as guest editors for the Cambodian, Chinese and Laotian studies, respectively.

Further reading and literature cited

Balzer, P. 2002. Important things to consider for the photography of aquatic organisms. Slide show presented at the Workshop on the Traditional Use and Availability of Aquatic Biodiversity in Rice-based Ecosystems held in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan, P.R. China, 21-23 October 2002. Accessible at:$PassCheckStart?ID=S122

Balzer, T., Balzer, P. & Pon, S. 2002. Traditional use and availability of aquatic biodiversity in rice-based ecosystems. I. Kampong Thom Province, Kingdom of Cambodia. Edited by M. Halwart & D. Bartley (FAO) and H. Guttman (Guest editor, MRC). CD ROM. FAO, Rome, Italy. ISBN 92-5-104820-7. Accessible at:

CBD 2003. Report of the Expert Meeting on methods and guidelines for the rapid assessment of biological diversity of inland water ecosystems. Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, Montreal, Canada. Accessible at:

FAO 2002. Report of the 20th Session of the International Rice Commission held in Bangkok, Thailand from 23-26 July 2002. FAO, Rome.

FAO Inter-Departmental Working Group on Biological Diversity for Food and Agriculture 2003. Biodiversity and the ecosystem approach in agriculture, forestry, and fisheries. Proceedings of the Satellite Event on the occasion of the Ninth Regular Session of the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. FAO, Rome. ISBN 92-5-104917-3. Accessible as of August 2003 at:

FAO/NACA 2003. Traditional use and availability of aquatic biodiversity in rice-based ecosystems. Report of a Workshop held in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan, P.R. China, 21-23 October 2002. FAO, Rome. Accessible at:

Halwart, M. 2002. Traditional use and availability of aquatic biodiversity in rice-based ecosystems in Ecoport Slide show presented at the Workshop on the Traditional Use and Availability of Aquatic Biodiversity in Rice-based Ecosystems held in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan, P.R. China, 21-23 October 2002. Accessible at:$PassCheckStart?ID=S121

Halwart, M. 2003. Recent initiatives on the availability and use of aquatic organisms in rice-based farming. In Proceedings of the 20th Session of the International Rice Commission. Bangkok, Thailand, 23-26 July 2002, p. 195-206. FAO, Rome.

Halwart, M., Luo, A., Meusch, E., Margraf, J., Huy Dien, N., Bartley, D. & Fleischer, I. 2003. Utilization of aquatic biodiversity in mountainous rice-based ecosystems of China and Viet Nam. Poster presented at the 8th Session of the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice of the Convention on Biological Diversity. FAO, Rome.

Luo, A. (in prep.) Traditional use and availability of aquatic biodiversity in rice-based ecosystems. II. Xishuangbanna, Yunnan, P.R. China. Edited by M. Halwart & D. Bartley (FAO) and J. Margraf (Guest editor, EC). CD ROM. FAO, Rome.

Meusch, E. (in prep.) Traditional use and availability of aquatic biodiversity in rice-based ecosystems. III. Northwestern Viet Nam. Edited by M. Halwart & D. Bartley (FAO). CD ROM. FAO, Rome.


Regional Workshop on traditional use of aquatic biodiversity held in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan, China

A regional workshop bringing together the collaborators and selected policy makers from Cambodia, China, Laos and Viet Nam was held in China in October 2002. The objectives of the workshop were

  • to facilitate information exchange on methodology, findings, and interpretation of results among the researchers of the participating countries; and

  • to identify and define next steps with a view to further increase awareness among all stakeholders in participating countries as well as at regional and international levels

The case studies from the four countries were presented follwed by a detailed discussion on the various approaches used, the problems encountered, and the solutions that had been found. Additional presentations were given to enhance participants' understanding of the needs for professional photo documentation and the overall strategy for publication of the research findings particularly with reference to internet-based media (see section on further reading).

For the next steps, participants were asked to list their priorities and define related activities in the short, medium and long term. Among the main conclusions reached by the participants were the need for

  • enhanced communication and sharing of knowledge and information among the study collaborators;

  • additional activities to raise and increase awareness about aquatic biodiversity in rice-based ecosystems in the countries;

  • an expansion of current efforts; and

  • a broadening of the scope of the investigations.

For the first conclusion it was recommended that the FAO Inland Water Resources and Aquaculture Service facilitate enhanced communication by establishing an electronic Aquatic Biodiversity News Group which would provide a forum for exchange and learning from each other on a regular basis. Increased awareness was thought to be best achieved by national workshops assembling the various stakeholders. Another means of increasing awareness is the development of communication and extension materials at various levels including booklets, material for school kids, posters, videos and TV spots. At the workshops, a prioritization of activities should take place and institutional arrangements for further studies and development efforts should be discussed and agreed upon. With regard to the expanded efforts, the group considered a longer duration of the studies necessary in order to overcome various constraints particularly the seasonality of species. An increase in the number of study sites would be important to cover a wider range of ecological conditions. This as well as the need to initiate new studies covering the nutritional contribution of aquatic biodiversity for rice farming households should be subject of discussion at the national workshops.


Aquatic biodiversity and the International Year of Rice 2004

On 16 December 2002, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) declared the year 2004 the International Year of Rice (IYR).The UNGA invited the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations to act as the lead agency for the implementation of the IYR, in collaboration with partners from national, regional, and international agencies, non-governmental organizations, and the private sector.

The FAO Fisheries Department contributes to the IYR through the following awareness-raising activities related to the importance of aquatic biodiversity in rice- based ecosystems:

  • Background information on the use and availability of aquatic resources is provided in the Concept Paper, the guiding document of the IYR
  • Information material on aquatic biodiversity and rice – based ecosystems will be presented on the official IYR website ( and linked to related issues
  • A fact sheet on aquatic biodiversity in rice fields will be made available on the internet, as well as a hard copy in the publication folder on the IYR
  • Several events will contribute to the IYR framework such as national workshops on aquatic biodiversity in rice-based ecosystems
  • Case studies will be conducted to generate knowledge on special aspects of the rice-based production systems such as a study on the role of aquatic biodiversity for the nutrition of rural livelihoods


20th Session of the International Rice Commission, 23-26 July 2002

The FAO’s International Rice Commission is a forum where senior policy makers and rice specialists from rice producing countries (current membership is 61 countries) review their national rice research and development programmes. Its objective is the promotion of national and international action in matters relating to the production, conservation, distribution and consumption of rice.

The paper "Recent initiatives on the availability and use of aquatic organisms in rice-based farming" was presented covering findings from two case studies in Cambodia and China initiated by FIRI and supported by regular programme and extra budgetary funds (FAO-Netherlands Partnership Programme). The corresponding CD with results from Cambodia was presented and distributed to all participants.

The Commission made the following notes and recommendations (excerpted from the Draft Report agreed upon and approved by the delegates on 26 July 2002):

7.6 Recent initiatives on the availability and use of aquatic organisms in rice based farming

The Commission (Document IRC: 02/21E) noted that:

Rice fields are much more than rice. Studies to collect and document information on the living aquatic resources, their availability and use patterns by rice farmers have been initiated by the FAO Inland Water Resources and Aquaculture Service in Cambodia, China, Laos and Viet Nam. The aquatic biodiversity in rice was found to be rich and diverse and performs not only important ecosystem functions but also serves as the major source of protein and essential fatty acids and hence is essential for a balanced diet of rural people.

Aquatic organisms are collected from rice-based ecosystems on a daily basis in the rainy season. More than 100 aquatic species (fish, reptiles, amphibians, crustaceans, molluscs, insects and plants) were identified in farmers' own catch. However, this biodiversity is under threat from pesticide use, destruction of flooded forest habitat and illegal fishing tools. Managing resources with a more holistic view will be important. The findings of the studies have relevance for other rice growing regions of the world.

The Commission recommended that:

1. Member countries should promote the sustainable development of aquatic biodiversity in rice-based ecosystems, and policy decisions and management measures should enhance the living aquatic resource base. In areas where wild fish are depleted, rice-fish farming should be considered as a means of enhancing food security and securing sustainable rural development.

2. Attention should be given to the nutritional contribution of aquatic organisms in the diet of rural people who produce or depend on rice.