Research and technology Knowledge

Posted July 1996

Technology assessment and transfer
for sustainable agriculture and rural development
in the Asia-Pacific Region

Lao People's Democratic Republic

by B. Chounthavong
Director
Agricultural Extension Agency
Vientiane, Lao PDR

1. Technology assessment for varying agro-ecological zones, production systems and resource endowments

Government policies

The Fifth Party Congress of March 1991 stated that the Government of the Lao PDR would further stress the role of the market economy and re-emphasized the importance of agriculture and forestry in the economy, referring to the sector as the "number one battlefield". It reiterated that the farm household is the main unit of agricultural production, and that it needs proper incentives and support (e.g., tax reform, credit, land tenure, land use rights, etc.). It also stressed the necessary role of technology and that the research system should "uphold the orientation of combining the use of traditional and semi-modern instruments and means, and the acquisition of modern techniques and technologies: for the improvement of the performance of the agriculture and forestry sector.

The government has put in place a clear policy to reduce shifting cultivation and replace it with more sustainable agricultural systems. All technical departments within the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) have a clear mandate to work on such sustainable technologies.

Since 1986, with the New Economic Mechanism, the opening of domestic and international agricultural markets, agriculture is seen as the basis of growth for the economy. Food self-sufficiency is now viewed in national terms, encouraging inter-provincial trade of food commodities, such as rice. As price distortions are eliminated, farmers will have more incentives to produce a more diversified set of commodities for commercial purposes.

Agro-ecological zones and production systems

At present, there exists no classification of agro-ecological zones and agricultural systems in the Lao PDR. A preliminary classification can be based on the major production systems and topography as influenced by the Mekong Watershed.

The lowland areas of alluvial plans are located along the Mekong River and its tributaries. The production systems are rainfed lowland rice-based, providing the staple food requirements. Fish and livestock are raised for protein supply. It is in these areas that the few dry season irrigation facilities are located. For cash income, fruit trees, vegetables, cotton, sugarcane and tobacco are grown. Many farmers in this area consider large animals as a form of wealth which can be liquidated in case of emergency. Much of the nation's food is supplied from the lowland areas.

On the foothills, i.e., the rolling hills and lower mountain slopes, much of the nation's "rotational" shifting cultivation is practised. Upland rice and maize are grown as the main crops, and also livestock plays an important role. The mostly subsistence-oriented people rely heavily upon forests for food plants, animal feed, medicinal plants, and wood for fuel and shelter. While banded paddy land is scarce, it contributes significantly to the overall performance of the agro-ecosystems. Where water resources are available, some farmers have traditional irrigation systems and supplement their protein intake with wild fish.

There are a number of high plateaus in the country (Xiang Khuang, Na Kay, Bolovens) with natural pastures of good quality and farmers traditionally raise animals, especially cattle, for sale. Some of these areas, e.g., Bolovens Plateau, produce also cash crops such as coffee, fruit trees, vegetable, and potatoes. With cash income from the sale of these products, farmers purchase rice and other necessities.

The highlands on or near mountain tops favour production systems which include crops of upland rice, maize, grain legumes, and tubers; small and large animals; and in some cases opium. Sometimes fruit trees are grown, and home gardens are very important. Many of these people practice a "pioneering" type of shifting cultivation.

Resource endowments

During the last decade, the LAO PDR has undergone a prolonged period of expansion i the use of its land resources in order to increase production and attain rice self-sufficiency at the national level. About 700,000-800,000 ha (3-3.5 percent) of the nation's lands are presently under cultivation out of about 1.9 million ha (8 percent) of potentially arable land. In addition, there are 800,000 ha (3 percent) of pastures and rangelands, which are presently being utilized. The scrub land, which comprises 5 million ha (21 percent) of marginal land, has an undetermined potential for improving watersheds and perhaps for other uses. Once there is an understanding of indigenous wild fish production in the nation's 2,180,000 ha of rivers and lakes, and means of improvement decided upon, fisheries in the Lao PDR can gain its previous status as a key component in farmers livelihood systems (Table 1).

Table 1: Land use in the Lao PDR (1988)
Land type1,000 haPercentage
Forest land11,00046
Scrub bush5,00021
Cultivated cropland
-Lowland rice
-Upland rice
-Other crops
800
379
215
94
3
1.6
0.9
0.4
Pastures and rangelands8003
Waterways and lakes2,1809
Other2,40010
Total23,684100

Source: MAF, 1989 Vientiane, "Forest resources"

Forests cover about 47 percent of the country's area with an estimated 11,273,000 ha of which 30 percent is evergreen forest, 50 percent mixed deciduous forest, 15 percent deciduous forest and 5 percent other categories, i.e., bamboo, pine, etc.

The total wood volume of all types is about 1,200 million m3 and the total annually logged volume is estimated at 450,000 m3. Forests play an important role in the country: it provides various wood and non-wood products such as food, rattan, bamboo, medicine to the rural people, and it has an important ecological role for the rational exploitation of the country's renewable natural resources. The wood industry is the second major export earner accounting for about 40 percent of total export. Fuelwood is extracted from the forest by about 85 percent of the population of the country to meet their energy needs. Annual fuelwood consumption is about 3 million m3.

Forest resources represent a significant economic value also in terms of non-wood forest products such as wildlife, food cardamon, benzoin, medicines, fruits, resins, rattan, bamboo and minor building materials.

Shifting cultivation

Shifting cultivation is one of the key development issues in the Lao PDR, due to the controversy over its impact on the environment and since farmers, who practice it, are among the nation's poorest. The reduction of shifting cultivation was recognized as a major objective in the Second Five-Year Plan. According to the latest estimates, there are approximately 337,000 families involved in shifting cultivation, at least part-time. It is estimated that 360,000 ha of secondary forest are used each year. Given the national average fallow period of five years, approximately 1.8 million ha are under shifting cultivation. Most of the nation's upland rice, corn, roots and tubers, grain legumes, and oil crops are grown under swidden systems.

Crop production

Rice is the main staple food crop in the country with about 700,000 ha annually cultivated. About 400,000 ha are annually planted to rainfed lowland rice with an average yield of 2.3 t/ha of paddy rice and an annual production of 950,000 tons of paddy. Rainfed lowland rice covers about 60 percent of the total rice area and accounts for about 70 percent of the national rice production. Dry season irrigated rice covers about 11,400 ha which represents about 3 percent of the total rice areas of the country with an annual production of about 33,000 tons of paddy and average yield of 2.9 t/ha of paddy. It is estimated that about 160,000 ha of rainfed lowland rice receive some supplementary irrigation water during the wet season in small-scale gravity irrigation schemes. About 250,000 ha are annually planted to upland rice with an annual production of about 300,000 tons of paddy. Yield averages 1.2 t/ha of paddy. It is mostly grown under shifting cultivation and therefore closely related to forest and soil resource degradation where cropping intensity is high. The average consumption of rice is estimated to be equivalent to 350 kg of paddy rice (213 kg/per year of milled rice with a milling rate of 60 percent).

Maize is the nation's second most important crop after rice with about 30,000 ha most concentrated in the norther provinces. Annual production is estimated at about 40,000 tons and yields are about 1-1.5 t/ha. Grain legumes are grown in small quantities in many parts of the country. About 15,000 ha are annually planted to grain legumes with average yields of 0.6-0.9 t/ha for soybean, 0.3-0.6 t/ha for mungbean and 0.7-0.8 t/ha for groundnut. Roots and tubers are grown in small plots in mot of the villages of the country. In 1989, about 27,000 ha were planted in roots and tubers with a total production of about 162,000 tons. About 4,000 ha are annually planted to sugarcane with an estimated production of 111,900 tons of cane and average yield of 28 t/ha. Sugarcane is grown in small plots throughout the country and is mainly used for chewing. Cotton is traditionally grown on small parcels of land with a total planted area of 30,000 ha throughout the country. Annual production is estimated to be 14,000 tons of seed-cotton with yields averaging about 400 kg/ha under traditional cultivation practices.

Coffee is cultivated on about 12,000 ha essentially concentrated on the Bolovens Plateau between 400 and 1,250 metres elevation. Coffee is the number one export crop of the country with an annual production averaging 4,800 tons of green coffee and an average yield of 400 kg/ha. Yield variations are very high from one farmer to another ranging from 200-1,000 kg/ha.

A wide range of fruit tree species is commonly grown near houses in every city and every village of the country. Fruit trees are cultivated on about 5,000 ha with a total production of about 60,000 tons of fruits per year. There are many different vegetables grown in the Lao PDR. Different non-cultivated plants are also exploited as vegetables throughout the country. An estimated 60,000 tons of cultivated vegetables are produced in the country on about 7,000 ha.

Livestock production

Livestock is an integral component of the prevalent low-input farming systems in the Lao PDR with one or two buffaloes for draught and a small number of cattle, which are usually a form of wealth for farmers and can be liquidated to generate cash revenue for the farm family in cases of emergency. These animals are also a source of farmyard manure for gardens and orchards.

The country has about 1 million buffaloes and 700,000 head of cattle owned by some 500,000 small farmers. On average, there are two buffaloes and 1.4 cattle per household. In some regions there are farmers who possess a large number of animals. Chickens, ducks, pigs, and goats all play an important part for subsistence and cash income for farm families.

Fisheries

Fish is an important source of protein in the Lao PDR with an estimated consumption of 7-10 kg per year per person which represents about 30-50 percent of the protein intake of the people. An estimated 20,000 tons of fish is annually produced in the country. Indigenous fish account for more than 95 percent of the total fish production. Indigenous fish species are found in natural waters: Mekong River and its tributaries, reservoirs, swamps and rice fields. An estimated 100 tons of exotic fish are annually produced by the fish farms developed during the last decade by the Government with international cooperation support. From 1980 to 1990 an estimated decline of indigenous fish production has been observed from 27,000 tons to 20,000 tons.

Farm-household objectives and constraints

About 85 percent of the total population of the Lao PDR is involved in agricultural production, which accounts for about 60 percent of the GDP. More than 90 percent of farmers are subsistence-oriented and farmer literacy is generally low. The agricultural production sector has been characterized by an opening to a more market-oriented economy during the last two years with a progressive decollectivization of the production units. There are severe constraints to the free flow of information, inputs, and outputs since communications are inadequate in isolated marginal areas.

Needs assessment (Diagnosis)

Research of any kind, let alone problem-solving adaptive research, cannot be launched without an understanding of farmers' existing farming system, including its decision-making behaviour, and precise problem identification. Such complex conditions can rarely be diagnosed without research and extension jointly going to the field and analyzing problems, causes, effects, and possible solutions within classified agro-ecological zones and production system domains. Thus, proper diagnosis is needed in research design for both bio-physical and socio-economic research. This can be accomplished within single disciplines or by an interdisciplinary approach: rapid rural appraisals (RRAs), surveys, and special studies. For adaptive research, information is required about the farmers' existing problems, which considers their objectives and strategies; resources; opportunities, constraints, and problems; desired changes in their livelihood systems.

Critical areas and determinants for sustainability

The Lao PDR is a predominantly mountainous country with 30 percent of its total area at elevations between 1,000-3,000 metres and more than 60 percent of the slopes steeper than 30 percent, in particular in the northern and eastern ares of the country. In the upland areas under shifting cultivation in the absence of a permanent vegetation cover, rainwater provokes strong erosion of the soils on the slopes and leaching of nutrients. However, it is recognized that when the population pressure is low, the shifting cultivation system is one of the most appropriate land use systems, especially when soils are acidic. There is also considerable erosion associated with clear-cut logging practices. Obviously, sedimentation is becoming increasingly acute.

An emerging key issue concerning the sustainability of Lao Agriculture is the rapidly increasing population. The low average density of about 17 persons per km2 does not really reflect the relatively high pressure on arable land.

Land tenure status is uncertain in most areas and is an emerging source of contention in forests, in shifting cultivation areas, and in and around more urban areas. Land tenure issues are crucial to the reduction of shifting cultivation.

In general, the tropical monsoon climate of Lao PDR is conducive to supporting a variety of pests. Pest incidence may become more acute with the introduction and extensive cultivation of new and high yielding crop varieties. For example, downy mildew disease of maize became maize varieties. Severe insect pest problems such as the brown plant hopper have followed the spread of new high-yielding rice varieties. Weeds and rats are the most severe problems to shifting cultivators.

Objectives and technological requirements for sustainable agriculture

The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry has sustainable agriculture and forestry policy objectives in the areas of food security, diversification of production for export markets, thus spreading risks, and the reduction of shifting cultivation and conservation of the environment.

Important to the process of development of sustainable technologies is the periodic evaluation of their performance. The results at each stage of the technology development process need to be analyzed and evaluated before planning of future trials or for the preparation of recommendations of mature technologies for extension. Screening requires clearly defined performance evaluation criteria and systematic step-by-step procedures, which combine different disciplinary viewpoints and involve both research and extension. The productivity, stability, sustainability, and equatability characteristics of agro-ecosystems performance are blended into the screening criteria of technical viability, economic feasibility, and social acceptability. At different stages these criteria have different weights and trade-offs.

The technology development process in the Lao PDR is in transition to be more responsive to farmer needs. Interdisciplinary teams composed of biological, physical, and social scientists and extension workers will initiate systematic and rigorous precesses to: determine research themes; select target agro-ecological zones and production system domains; diagnose farmers' circumstances trials; execute on-farm research, e.g., trials and special studies; data collection, processing and research monitoring; analyze findings; present results; evaluate and screen technologies; and continue diagnosis and redesign.

The flow of a technology is envisioned as being logically circular in nature, beginning with farmers and ending with a better menu of choices for farmers in similar production environments. Emphasis is placed on the two-way flow of information between research and farmers through extension. Key activities of the systematic technology development process in the Lao PDR which sere as mechanisms for research and extension collaboration are:

2. Technology transfer

Technology transfer refers to the delivering of technical knowledge from international research institutes (e.g., CGIAR) or from national research programmes to technical personnel either in research or extension of the Lao PDR. The nation depends very much on international relationships. More appropriate methods of technology development and technologies for adaptation are needed in the Lao PDR in: production, post-harvest (e.g., processing, handling, packaging), marketing, etc.

The purpose of an extension system is to provide farmers with technical information (scientific-based or indigenous knowledge-based) by means of a non-formal education process. This information will allow farmers under varying agro-ecological conditions a greater range of choices to improve their income and well-being on a sustainable basis. The MAF is taking initial steps in developing such a system.

Such an extension service aims to be: farmer-client oriented; maintaining a two-way flow of information with farmers and being responsive to their problems and opportunities; flexible; easily accessible to farmers for information in their endeavours to improve their livelihoods; and promoting location-specific tested technologies.

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