Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page

Attempting integrated watershed development in Phu Wiang, Thailand

P. van Ginneken and U. Thongmee

Pieter van Ginneken and Uthai Thongmee were, respectively. Chief Technical Adviser and National Field Director of FAO project THA/84/002 - Integrated Development of the Phu Wiang Watershed.

The Phu Wiang catchment in the rolling landscape of northeast Thailand looks like the remnants of an ancient volcano. A ring of steep slopes encloses flat valley lands. The only entrance road follows the river where it broke through the rocks.

Until recently the natural protection offered by the geology of the valley kept it virtually isolated from the outside world. In fact, according to legend the valley often provided shelter to people seeking to escape the hardships of the wars that have historically ravaged the area. The present inhabitants consider themselves to be direct descendants from these earlier settlers.

Since Phu Wiang became inhabited its population has grown steadily. When rice fields nearby could no longer provide enough food, new villages were established at some distance and gradually filled the valley. Forests were cleared for agriculture on progressively less suitable sites where the risks of crop failure were higher.

Today the valley is dotted with 32 villages where houses cluster together under the greenery of home gardens. Beyond the paddy-fields that encircle the villages lie forested mountain slopes. The life of most of the 3000 households centres on agriculture based on glutinous rice. Only one harvest of rice is possible, because of the unreliable rainfall and the prolonged dry season. Home gardens provide fruits and vegetables while the forest is a source of wood, herbs, wild vegetables and bush meat. Fish in creeks and ponds are additional sources of animal protein.

During the 1950s, the area opened up to a market economy with the introduction of kenaf (Hibiscus sabdarifa). This was followed in the middle 1960s by the introduction of cassava (Manihot esculenta). Cassava is not a food crop in Thailand and almost all production is exported to the EEC for use as animal feed. The introduction of cassava led farmers to cultivate lands that had hardly any potential for agriculture before when rice was the dominant crop. With the boom in cassava, forest destruction accelerated drastically.

The Phu Wiang watershed

Thirty years ago, about 40 percent of Thailand was under forests, but it is likely that this proportion has now dropped to well below 28 percent. In the northeastern region deforestation has been more rapid than in the country as a whole; less than 15 percent of the total area of the region is now under forest cover. The Phu Wiang watershed is one of the few remaining areas in the region where forests still dominate the landscape: approximately 60 percent of the area, or some 20000 ha, is under forest cover. Nonetheless, during the past decade, deforestation accelerated rapidly.

In 1981 the Royal Forest Department (RFD) requested the assistance of UNDP and FAO in preparing a plan for the integrated development of the Phu Wiang watershed. The project area of 300 km2 was located entirely in one district of Khon Kaen province. A one-year project in 1982 prepared a watershed development plan and initiated several activities such as reforestation of previously encroached-on forest lands. In 1985 a four-year follow-up project started through which UNDP and FAO assisted the Thai Government in the implementation of this plan. The immediate objectives of this project (THA/84/002) were to:

· implement an integrated land-use plan in the Phu Wiang watershed in order to prevent deterioration of the upland catchments;

· diversify the rural economy through creation of new sources of income, based on the sound use of forest, land and water resources;

· strengthen the capacity of RFD to replicate its experience in the planning and management of integrated watershed development.

The introduction of kenaf (Hibiscus sabdarifa) to Phu Wiang In the 1950s created a market economy

Villagers' use of the forest and conflicts with national interests

From the government perspective, the tasks for watershed management in Phu Wiang appeared rather straightforward. Watershed degradation was considered identical with loss of forest cover caused by the encroachment of the local population. In contrast with other places in Thailand, there were no problems of ethnic minorities, of new settlers or of a huge population increase. Neither were there problems of cultivation of forbidden crops such as opium poppy or marijuana. Encroached-on lands were used for cultivating cassava as a cash crop and appeared to be perceived by the government as less important to the local people than land used for food crops. Nobody actually lived on these lands; all villages were located outside the forest land. The issue in Phu Wiang was - and still is - how to change the land-use practices of a stable community in order to safeguard the forests from further destruction.

The Phu Wiang project was clearly started in response to the government's concern to halt further destruction of the forests in Phu Wiang. The priorities of the local population, however, were different and focused on satisfying the basic needs of households for food and income. There was, therefore, strong potential for conflict.

Initially, from the villagers' point of view, the project reflected another step in a process of restricting access to the forest, a process that had begun in 1957 when, on the basis of a national inventory, areas not occupied by agriculture or without formal land ownership were declared "forest reserve". Villagers were no longer legally free to use the land or other resources from the forest.

In 1970 a sawmill obtained a concession for commercial logging in the Phu Wiang forest reserve. The loaded lumber trucks passing through the villages were a constant reminder that the trees no longer belonged to the local community. Faced with a loss of products and benefits, the farmers turned the logging to their advantage, using the access roads to venture further than ever into the forest to clear lands for cultivation. Encroachment increased from 100 ha in 1976 to about 1500 ha in 1984 and 3000 ha in 1987.

In 1988, national concern over deforestation resulted in strict enforcement of forest protection. Forest guards supported by the army expelled farmers from the forest reserve in Phu Wiang. In 1989, a nationwide logging ban revoked all standing concessions, including that in the Phu Wiang forest reserve, and RFD contemplated converting the forest reserve into a national park. In that case, even the collection of mushrooms or herbs would be forbidden.

Watershed management - What role to play?

The objectives of the Phu Wiang project were, on the one hand, ecological improvement and conservation of forest resources and, on the other hand, socioeconomic development of the local population. The first objective (to prevent deterioration of the upland catchments) was translated into detailed outputs, such as hectares of plantations. The second objective (to diversify the rural economy through creation of new sources of income) was mentioned in much more general terms, leaving it to the project to define this in more detail. Therefore, the first task was to define the best strategy to achieve the project's objectives and to balance the activities accordingly.

The establishment of forest plantations on previously encroached-on lands began with the start of the planning phase in 1982. Almost immediately it became clear that farmers did not like RFD because of its law enforcement and plantation work. They felt they were losing income and employment opportunities by being denied access to the forest reserve for cultivation and logging. Although the development plan for the Phu Wiang watershed had left open the option of assigning parts of the forest reserve lands to the farmers for agroforestry and orchards, the most appropriate pieces of land had been the first to be replanted with plantations, of fast-growing tree species like Eucalyptus camaldulensis, Leucaena leucocephala and Acacia auriculiformis.

A crucial element was the management authority over the land. On the forest reserve lands, RFD had the exclusive mandate. Within RFD several different units dealt with different aspects of management. The Watershed Management Division had the task of replanting encroached areas. However, once the trees had been planted, responsibility for management and use of plantations belonged to other units. Use and protection of the natural forest were not part of the tasks of the project or of the watershed management division. This fragmented responsibility made it nearly impossible for the project to negotiate even pilot changes in land use on the forest reserve that would provide more benefits to the local population.

Outside the forest reserve, however, authority over land use belonged either to the farmers, on private lands, or to villages, on community lands. On these lands, alternative forms of land use could be considered, but evidently they would only be accepted if they responded to felt needs of the local farmers.

Given these prevailing conditions, the project strategy boiled down to working along three parallel lines of action: continuation of the standard RFD watershed rehabilitation approach of tree planting on forest reserve lands, including wherever possible non-conflicting activities for income and employment generation to the local households; discussion of problems of sustainable land use with the farmers and the village authorities, negotiation of more appropriate land-use and management schemes, and support of their implementation through extension; and collection and documentation of information on felt needs, constraints, and costs and benefits related to the land-use changes deemed more appropriate. The latter also included attention to the institutional aspects and discussions with government authorities. Behind this strategy was the hope that these three lines of action could eventually be blended into a truly integrated approach to management of the watershed.

People's participation

Participation of the local population in decisions on land use was, for the tame being, limited to those lands where RFD had no direct authority. In order to respond to existing needs and preferences of the population these had to be known first.

Although the project was never directly involved in law enforcement and therefore escaped some of the hostility, its relationship with the local people was far from being one of trust and open communication. To bridge this gap and to get a better understanding of the attitudes of the Phu Wiang villagers toward objectives and activities of the project, the cooperation of the University of Khon Kaen was obtained. The Farming Systems Project of this university, assisted by the Ford Foundation, had substantial experience in formal and informal information gathering. Use of rapid rural appraisal (RRA) techniques was well developed as a tool for the quick collection of relevant information.

A survey was done using both RRA and formal questionnaire techniques. This indicated that farmers did not like the forest plantations. Most of them were involved in cassava cultivation on forest lands and preferred getting land-use rights on the encroached-on parts of the forest reserve. Nevertheless, did see some potential benefits, mainly from job opportunities as forest workers. Eucalyptus was the preferred plantation species because farmers could continue cultivating cassava between the trees for three years before yields dropped below economic levels. Leucaena and Acacia closed canopy earlier and permitted only one cropping season after tree planting. When asked what trees should be planted on the encroached-on lands by RFD, they indicated a preference for many of the local hardwood species. If they were to plant trees for their own benefit they would choose fruit-trees.

The survey results indicated clearly that the natural forest was considered a valuable resource, and that many species of trees, herbs, animals and mushrooms were valued for household use.

The protection of the forest was not questioned; in fact, villagers suggested that they would assist in its protection. However, despite being aware of problems of environmental degradation and erosion, most farmers did not report any action to halt this on the fields they cultivated. Their knowledge of techniques to halt erosion or to manage soil fertility seemed to be insufficient. Therefore, independent sustainable land-use management by a village community could not be expected.

A young boy from the Phu Wiang watershed with a cartload of cassava, grown as a cash crop in forest areas

To improve communication between the project and the villagers Village Contact Volunteers (VCVs) were recruited in the eight villages nearest the forest reserve. Candidates were expected to be able to read and write, to be native to the village and to have a demonstrated interest in the development of their community. Local leaders, teachers and monks were consulted before the final selections were made. Most applicants were unemployed but relatively well-educated young people, indicative of the overall situation in northeast Thailand characterized by good basic education but poor employment opportunities. The project paid VCVs as unskilled labour to keep costs down and thereby make the scheme applicable to other areas without the financial resources of a special project. The VCVs were told that they should not consider themselves employed by the project or the government but by their village. They were free to take any better job.

After an initial orientation the VCVs made an inventory of their village and a village map. Then a two-day meeting involving a group of at most 50 persons was held in each village. The objective of the meetings was to analyse existing problems for the development of their village. Project staff and field-level staff of the government departments of community development, agricultural extension and livestock development presented their programmes and participated in discussions. The head of the district presided over the opening and closing sessions.

To bring the discussions to the issue of sustainable land use, participants in the first two meetings were shown filmstrips and videos about watershed management activities elsewhere in Thailand and abroad. Subsequently, project staff used portable video equipment to film village scenes and interviews with people on their perceptions of village life today compared with that in the past. The discussions focused on problems and solutions of the use of forest, land and water. These videos, produced in the villages themselves before each of the meetings, helped greatly in motivating participants to express their views.

In most of the meetings, participants agreed that the natural resources were no longer so abundant as in former times and that production needed to be improved on the available land in order to satisfy the household's needs. Priorities for desired government assistance were listed; most frequently mentioned were fruit-tree improvement, animal husbandry (particularly of chickens), establishment of fish-ponds and assistance in sericulture.

Together with the relevant government agencies, the project implemented a series of intensive training and extension programmes in response to these felt needs. Training included classroom instruction and a visit to a research station or a demonstration farm. Participants were selected through the village traders and the VCVs, who kept records of the households interested or involved-in the various activities. Through weekly meetings with the VCVs and field visits, project staff checked upon farmers' adoption of new practices and technologies. In the villages, the VCVs erected signboards showing on one side the village map and houses marked with coloured pins according to the programmes involved, and on the other weekly statistics about sales, number of beneficiaries, etc., as well as information from the project to the villagers.

Shortly after the village meetings, the head monks of all Buddhist temples in the watershed (about 25) were invited to discuss the activities of the project. Initially, the monks criticized the project, out of their feeling that the rural families suffered because of the ban on use of forest reserve lands. However, when the project explained that farmers' encroachment would lead to the destruction of the forest and therefore to poorer environment for the next generation, and that project activities were aimed at sustainable intensification of land-use in the valley, the monks' cooperation was mobilized and the temple grounds were made available as demonstration sites for extension.

The project also organized a one-week study tour in the northeast on the subject of Buddhist principles of development for all village chiefs and subdistrict leaders. Self-reliance, respect for nature, discipline and mutual aid were explained in visits to villages where dynamic leaders and monks had given new impetus to local development. For example, the participating village leaders were able to observe how groups of villagers avoided reliance on capital inputs and instead invested their labour to manage a pond and the land around it in an intensive manner, combining aquaculture and duck and chicken raising with irrigated vegetables and fruit-trees on the banks which used chicken and duck manure as fertilizer. Improved use of village community lands for mulberry cultivation and sericulture were also demonstrated. All these activities were aimed at offering participants ways to move away from cassava cultivation as the main supplier of cash income and ways to spread income more evenly over the year.

The project provided lob opportunities for local people; here a young woman waters tree seedlings

In subsequent follow-up, some of the village leaders proudly indicated that they had begun integrated farming on their own land and were now ready to act as models for their constituents.

The development of sericulture, fruit-trees and fish-ponds was particularly successful. Training evolved from the classroom type to group instructions on site by specialists and one-day visits to more advanced farmers or temples. An increasing number of farmers men and women - participated with minimal expenditure from the project budget. For some activities the need for capital investment became clear, and a small revolving fund was created for sericulture. In most cases production inputs (e.g. mulberry seedlings, scions) were provided on the condition of repayment in kind after one season, and farmers showed a high degree of compliance.

The area given to mulberry more than doubled and income from the activity increased significantly. Expectations that the project might supply free inputs such as concrete silkworm houses were soon corrected, and through the project a significant portion of the households made low-input improvements for more hygienic handling of the silkworms and established mulberry plantations of better varieties. Near the end of the project several families were ready to make the step to industrial sericulture.

For fruit-trees gradual improvement was emphasized. VCVs and farmers learned techniques of grafting and budding and the project provided necessary inputs such as scions and tools. Near the end of the project, improved varieties of mango, pomelo and guava were being harvested and sold, and this boosted adoption by less daring farmers.

Assistance in fish farming was deliberately kept at low input levels. Machinery for use in the construction of fish-ponds was only provided for schools and public ponds. For private ponds the project initially provided fingerlings, but at a later stage it only stimulated group initiatives collectively to seek inputs and arrange for transportation.

Other topics were also included in the training and extension programme with varying degrees of success. Improvement of livestock management (cattle and buffaloes) focused on fodder production. Traditionally, animals are grazed on community lands, in the forest or on the paddy-fields after harvest. In the wet season, when fields were under crops and family labour was most needed for cultivation, about half of all households kept animals at home and fed them with natural fodder collected from fields and roadsides. The project had established some pasture lands in the forest reserve and later also planted fodder grass in the plantations of fast-growing trees. The latter in particular were instrumental in showing the benefits of fodder production and stall-feeding when groups of farmers were allowed to cut the grasses, sharing the responsibility for maintenance and control. For the first time in the history of Phu Wiang farmers started to plant those fodder grasses also on their private lands.

Chicken vaccination programmes answered existing needs to combat diseases but were not yet self-sustainable at the end of the project. Mushroom cultivation and beekeeping were taken up seriously only by a few families. Sticklac production stayed as it was before, with only a few trees inoculated by several families. Conservation farming, crop diversification and agroforestry on private lands met with interest from the farmers, but they were probably as much or more motivated by the project's free inputs of seed, fertilizer and sometimes even labour, as by their own urge to change in that direction.

Training activities were initially confined to the eight priority villages near the forest reserve, but later included interested persons from all villages in the watershed; in all, more than 1000 people participated.

Extension activities also focused on youth. Awareness campaigns involved school contests for slogans and essays. The best slogan was printed as a sticker and on T-shirts. Schools and individual students competed in integrated farming and agroforestry. Young people were motivated to act as village youth leaders for community development.

Throughout the training activities, the project worked at the district level with a local advisory committee (LAC) chaired by the district chief. The Thai project chief acted as secretary and members included the subdistrict leaders and representatives of the relevant government agencies, of the regional agricultural centre and of Khon Kaen University. The LAC was always consulted on important decisions and gradually became an open forum to discuss new steps for the area's development. After initial reservations and a few minor changes, the VCV scheme was endorsed by the LAC and recommended for expansion to all villages. In the eight pilot villages, the performance of the VCVs was evaluated and some were replaced. Those who performed best were given additional responsibility for neighbouring villages and their compensation was increased.

Trying to go back to the forest

The extension activities on the private and village lands, responding to the felt needs of farmers, were only one of the three lines of action of the project. It was never forgotten that the forest reserve boundary separated two worlds of thought and action. In spite of all activities outside the forest reserve, it was felt that farmers would return to their previous practices inside the forest reserve if controls and sanctions were to disappear, unless they really felt they were betraying their own interests. Their interests lay more with crops than with wood, and more with short-term financial benefits than with long-term environmental quality.

In the beginning the project had allowed farmers to continue cropping cassava between the young trees, provided they did not damage the trees. Farmers appeared to accept this condition and plantations grew with good survival. Later on, the revived national concern for forest protection made RFD no longer tolerate cassava in plantations. Nevertheless, the practice was good experience both for farmers and for the project, and costs and benefits could be documented and compared with the cases of pure cassava cultivation and pure plantation forestry, and more specifically of Eucalyptus.

Direct benefits of Eucalyptus-cassava combination were in between those of a pure plantation on the lower side and of pure cassava cultivation on the higher side. Tangible benefits of forest plantations would come only if harvesting were to be allowed, something not planned for originally. The high returns from cassava cultivation were due to the fact that the initial harvests from recently cleared forest lands are much above those from older, private fields. Farmers told the project how the yields from cassava monoculture decline after the first initial years and indicated that periodically they had to leave lands in fallow for a couple of years to restore soil fertility. On the bases of the available information it appeared that in the long run benefits from rotations of Eucalyptus intercropped with cassava during the first three years of each rotation would come close to those of cassava monocropping in terms of return to labour and added value.

A Phu Wiang woman sorts silkworm cocoons, an important source of income

Later on, the experience of planting fodder grasses under three-year old plantations after cassava cultivation and the use farmers made of the fodder did seem to make the agroforestry option, with trees as the component demanded by RFD, even more feasible.

The assumption in the project was that farmers' full interest would come only when they would also get financial benefits from the tree component. Farmers are already aware that trees can be sold, but the market is imperfect and they get paid a fraction of the real value when they sell trees from their land to middlemen. The process of alienation of the forest lands from the local people must be reversed and the project wanted to play a role in this respect.

During the lifetime of the project, experiments with farmers' involvement to test such an agroforestry system as described above were not possible. Instead, a training course on the subject of utilizing the wood of fast-growing species was organized for local carpenters and rural women, to enable the farmer to experiment with and experience the use of this wood for basic furniture making and learn simple preservation techniques for roundwood, and the latter to come to more efficient use of fuelwood and charcoal and test the quality of species, including Eucalyptus, for this purpose. Interestingly, one of the parts of the course more appreciated by the participants was an explanation of the villagers' rights to use wood and make charcoal, as opposed to the usual prohibitions.

Although the project did not come to the point of involving local farmers in the use and management of (agro)forestry schemes inside the forest reserve, tints is envisaged as the crucial element in a follow-up project proposal, under review at the time of writing. A national park, if finally created, would leave out parts of the forest reserve for community forestry.

Final remarks

Sometimes RFD staff when visiting Phu Wiang expressed confusion about the role of watershed management. The common approach of the Watershed Management Division of RFD, whose name literally translated from Thai means "upland rehabilitation division", is watershed rehabilitation through plantation establishment. Many foresters did not consider activities in the sphere of agricultural extension equally essential for watershed management. For some, therefore, the project was a complete success: farmers evicted and resigned to their fate, trees planted, and good survival of plantations. For others, including the project staff, the project just succeeded in making a start; the real work is yet to come.

Phu Wiang is an example of the "state of the art" in watershed management. It also shows the complementarily of extension work with forest protection. Although small-scale, the importance of a project like Phu Wiang should not be underestimated. It is more realistic to expect success from gradually adapted government responses to an existing local reality than to expect that changes can be brought about by a general policy shift that disregards such realities. Not everything is possible at the same time. The local population's immediate aspirations are as important - as a potential benefit and as a potential constraint - as those of the government. It is for both sides an open-ended learning process.


FAO. 1986. Planning of land use and watershed development. FO: DP/THA/84/002, Field Document No. 1. Rome.

FAO. 1987. Watershed monitoring and research: a programme for Phu Wiang. FO: DP/THA/84/002, Field Document No. 2. Bangkok.

FAO. 1987. Farmers' attitudes toward forest, plantation and conservation farming in selected villages of the Phu Wiang valley, Khon Kaen. FO: DP/THA/84/002, Field Document No. 3. Bangkok.

FAO. 1988. Financial analysis of traditional and improved sericulture (options for Phu Wiang sericulturists). FO: DP/THA/84/002, Field Document No. 5. Bangkok.

FAO. 1989. Why natural forests are linked with nutrition, health and self reliance of villagers in northeast Thailand; a collection of papers. FO: DP/THA/84/002, Field Document No. 6. Bangkok.

FAO. 1989. Benefit-cost analysis for forest plantations in the Phu Wiang watershed, northeastern Thailand. FO: DP/THA/84/002, Field Document No. 4. Bangkok.

FAO. 1989. Initiatives in extension for watershed development. FO: DP/THA/84/002, Field Document No. 7. Bangkok.

FAO. 1989. Consultant report on small-scale irrigation facilities, fish ponds and feeder roads. FO: DP/THA/84/002, Working Paper No. 7. Bangkok.

FAO. 1989. Revolving loan funds for small farmers and village groups in the Phu Wiang watershed. FO: DP/THA/84/002, Working Paper No. 10. Bangkok.

FAO. 1989. Final report on diversified forest land use for the Phu Wiang forest reserve. FO: DP/THA/84/002, Working Paper No. 12. Bangkok.

Previous Page Top of Page Next Page