Posted July 1996
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.
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.
|Land type||1,000 ha||Percentage|
|Pastures and rangelands||800||3|
|Waterways and lakes||2,180||9|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.