Climate-Smart Villages in Southeast Asia: The pivotal role of seed systems in rice-based landscapes

 Reiner Wassmann, Julian Gonsalves, Peter Sprang, Bui Tan Yen, Jerome Villanueva, Phalida Nelakhom, and Bernard Okumu6   |  

Given the aggravating nature of climate change impacts, rice farming will increasingly rely on improved resilience to climate variability and extremes. To this end, the climate-smart village (CSV) approach was developed to address specific challenges of smallholder farmers. Within Southeast Asia, the CSV approach has so far been applied in Myanmar, Lao PDR, Cambodia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. This article focuses on the improvement of rice seed systems as the core of introducing climate-smart agriculture in these villages. 

Throughout Southeast Asia, climate variability due to climate change poses major threats to the sustained performance of local cropping systems. Severe flooding problems are triggered by intensifying climate hazards, such as the 2008 Cyclone Nargis that struck the Ayeyarwady Delta in Myanmar, killing about 140,000 people and severely affecting 2.4 million people.

Widespread droughts are associated with El Niño years and have worsened throughout the region. Moreover, rainfall patterns have become less and less predictable in all agroecological zones. The start of the monsoon season is especially important for the rainfed cropping systems; a delay in the initial rainfalls causes pronounced yield losses in rice, which is the region’s staple crop.  As the effects of climate change vary from location to location, coping strategies must be based on biophysical circumstances and site-specific community needs.

Climate-smart agriculture (CSA) has emerged as a response to the impacts of climate variability and change on agriculture. Although specific definitions may vary, CSA has typically three pillars: adaptation, mitigation, and productivity.

The concept of climate-smart villages (CSVs) evolved from the recognition that adaptive technologies and practices (T&Ps) cannot be defined as blanket strategies; they will have to be anchored in location-specific contexts. CSA is considered a pragmatic approach in that its T&Ps are often derived from existing applications in other locations (e.g., under the paradigm of climate analogues corresponding to the projected climatic conditions at the target region).

It may also incorporate “no regrets” approaches that provide advantages to various aspects beyond climate change and that will be beneficial in the future, regardless of whether the worst projections materialize or not. CSA recognizes that climatic risks to agriculture-based livelihood are occurring at a much greater pace and intensity than before.

Context-specific local solutions to address these risks open up new opportunities for local adaptation, resilient livelihoods, agrobiodiversity conservation, and better nutrition.

By definition, a CSV comprises an explicit geographical domain—either an administrative or agroecological entity—as the starting point for scaling up across different hierarchical levels. The bundling of manifold activities within a relatively small area has obvious advantages in achieving tangible impacts. In turn, the village-based approach can be seen as a “litmus test” for the selected T&Ps applied. If there is no adoption at the village scale, it is doubtful that adoption could be possible at a larger scale with a bigger set and more distant stakeholders.

The CSVs in Southeast Asia were established as part of the CGIAR program on Climate Change Agriculture and Food Security as well as through other projects of the International Institute of Rural Reconstruction.

The concept of CSA and its scaling up through CSVs are broad approaches that encompass a range of T&Ps and social interactions. The supply of rice seeds is a very efficient and cost-effective entry point for CSA in the rice-dominated landscapes of Southeast Asia because it can be aligned well with interactions at the community level.

In the context of this study, the following are the specific pros and cons of community-based seed (CBS) systems:

CBS systems have a proven track record as a viable component of CSA in rice-based landscapes. This corroborates findings from earlier studies that highlight their importance not only in rice-based landscapes but in other types of landscapes and agroecosystems.

Due to a large variation in seed quality in Southeast Asia, the impact of CBS systems will be especially pronounced in countries with a weak formal seed system.

Poor seed quality is typically found in rice-growing environments that lack irrigation and other resource inputs. In turn, there is a very limited scope to optimize resource use efficiencies, which are key for CSA in high-input rice systems. As such, seed systems remain, almost by default, the best bet for CSA interventions.

The establishment of CBS systems does not require high investments or fundamental changes in farmers’ cropping practices. For CSA development projects, the interventions offer a good cost-benefit ratio and a high probability of success. The necessary technical knowledge can be provided by a wide range of easily accessible training materials.

The development of CBS systems is well aligned with the priorities of the national research and extension services as these complement the formal seed systems and improve the predominant informal systems. At the local level, extension services can provide valuable support in building the capacity of the farming communities.

Once a new seed bank for rice has been established in the community, it could easily store seeds of other crops, in support of goals to diversify the local cropping systems and thus have a wider range of CSA options.

The critical point for a newly established seed bank is the continuity of its operation by the community beyond the life cycle of the development project. As for the other community-based interventions, having local champions is critical in ensuring the interventions’ long-term functionality. It must be noted that the full potential of CBS systems can only be exploited in conjunction with supporting measures such as improved crop management and climate risk mapping.

While current literature talks of CBS systems as a standalone approach, this paper presents it as the pivot of a package of measures to achieve more resilient rice production systems. We have addressed several options that accomplish incremental improvements as stand-alone CSA approaches, but the experience of our project shows that advancement in rice farming resilience relies on the synergy of these approaches with CBS systems.

The main lesson from the awareness-raising component is that photovoice is a promising and versatile visual tool to capture community-level narratives on climate change impacts. To have tangible outputs, the use of photovoice should integrate small-grant funding for farmers to enable immediate actions. It must also involve government actors to ensure wider awareness of the existing problems and perceived solutions.

Read the study:
Wassmann R, Gonsalves j, Sprang P, et al. (2022) Climate-Smart Villages in Southeast Asia: The Pivotal Role of Seed Systems in Rice-Based Landscapes. Asian Journal of Agriculture and Development 19(1): 1-24.

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